Unpicking the UCAS end of cycle report

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Dr Michael Englard, our Director of Research and Policy, has been picking through the latest chapter of the UCAS end of cycle report, published today.

The latest instalment of UCAS's end of cycle report shows - at a very broad level - the most recent entry rates for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some quick caveats before we take a look at the numbers. The data looks at entry rates for 18 year old students, so doesn’t tell us about students who might enter Higher Education when older.

The main measure used is our old friend - the Participation of Local Areas classification. This time round, however, POLAR is dressed in a new guise. We are now, in fact, into the fourth iteration of the POLAR - helpfully known as POLAR4.

There have been longstanding debates over the limits of POLAR. The measure shows progression to Higher Education by breaking the UK into small areas - middle layer super output areas or MSOAs for the geeks - and classifying these areas into quintiles. Quintile 1 is the most disadvantaged and Quintile 5 is the most advantaged. The metric is particularly problematic in London where only 13 MSOAs are classified as Quintile 1; Ellen Austin provides an excellent overview of the dangers of using this as a single and definitive measure here.

While POLAR4 might have its problems, it should not be dismissed too casually. It's an officially recognised measure which has been used for over two decades and thus provides some material for important comparisons.

Looking at the latest POLAR data, we can see that the entry for the most disadvantaged quintile has risen very slightly by 0.4% which means that a record 19.7% of Q1 students have been accepted by UCAS to start a course in September 2018.

This small uplift shouldn't mask some large and persistent inequalities. Young people from the most advantaged areas are 2.3 times more likely to start an undergraduate course compared to their less privileged counterparts. At higher tariff institutions the gap widens considerably with young people from quintile 5 now 5.74 times more likely to study at more selective institutions than those from quintile 1.

While this report is helpful in indicating some broad patterns, it is not until January when UCAS will publish this data split by free school meals status and ethnic groups that we will be able to make more nuanced judgements.

Given this first tranche of data, however, it is clear that urgent work remains to be done if we are going to start making real inroads into the problem of fair access.

Three cheers for FE

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Announced without fanfare, the Department for Education has just published a fascinating report on what disadvantaged students studied and earned a decade or more after leaving school. The research tracks a cohort of 600,000 state-educated students who took their GCSEs in 2005 and had to cope with the distractions of David Cameron winning the Tory Party leadership, Charles tying the knot with Camilla and Kelly Clarkson topping the charts.

What we learned

Within the cohort of 600,000, roughly a fifth of students were classed as disadvantaged (for the purposes of this study, this was defined as being in receipt of Free School Meals at any point between the ages of 11-15). Unsurprisingly, disadvantaged students fared worse than their more privileged peers: only 14% earned over £25,000 a decade later compared to 32% of students in the non-disadvantaged group.

If there are glimmers of hope, they are to be found in the work of Further Education Colleges. The most common qualification route for disadvantaged students was achievement at level 2 (GCSE grades 9-4) or level 3 (A-Level or equivalent). By the age of 25, 46% of disadvantaged students achieved level 2 or 3 at FE compared to 8% in school. The largest volume of disadvantaged male students who progressed to high earnings did so after achieving an FE qualification route.

What we think

Today - November 20 - the Association of Colleges meet for their annual conference in Birmingham. The report shows, once again, that they have much to be proud of: often unacknowledged, FECs are true engines of social mobility. Even more impressively, their work with students from disadvantaged backgrounds has been achieved against a backdrop of shrinking budgets. A recent IFS report showed that funding for FE and sixth form colleges has been cut "much more sharply" than any other area of education.

For many students, the royal road to social mobility runs through their local college. To support FECs, we need not only to ensure fair resourcing but also to make sure that partners across the education sector understand their value. An interim evaluation of the government's flagship Widening Participation programme - the National Collaborative Outreach Programme - found that universities often struggled to engage FECs.

If we want to improve the chances of disadvantaged students, we need to put our FECs centre-stage.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”

We work with schools and colleges all around the country, in all sorts of circumstances. Here we catch up with one of our Access Champions schools in the West Midlands, which we’ve been working with over the past few months as part of our work with the Sutton Trust.

St Edmund Campion Catholic School is an average-sized comprehensive in Erdington, Birmingham, and we’ve been working with Sandra Griffiths, who is the Post-16 Learning Leader at the school.

The sixth form has 130 students on roll. 28% of students are in receipt of free school meals, and a high percentage of sixth form students would be the first generation of their family to go to HE.

This is one of the key things we look out for when working with schools, as there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that family background is a key factor in improving social mobility.

Early on in the programme we ask Access Champions to look at how they currently support students when choosing to apply to university, and help them identify quick changes to make to those systems that could make an immediate impact on students.

One such change that Sandra made was to move progression activities, such as personal statement and reference writing, to earlier in the school year. A small change, but one that has had a powerful impact: students now get more support with admissions interviews.

This means they have more confidence, and improving mock interviews for competitive courses, such as Medicine and Dentistry, had led to two students getting offers to study Medicine this year, as well as others getting offers to study Nursing and Teaching.

On top of those simple changes, we also help Access Champions to look more long-term. Sandra’s plan for progression is to support students with informed decision-making and to organise access to HE days for Year 12 students in collaboration with local HE institutions.

We’re really looking forward to seeing how those plans come to fruition over the coming weeks and months, as this year’s university application cycle begins in earnest.

Our response to the Association of Colleges' 2030 and beyond report

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The Association of Colleges has today called for a radical shake-up of post-18 education in England to create a world-class system that supports more people to learn, train and retrain throughout their lives.

In its 2030 and beyond: an upgraded post-18 education system report it also proposes a major re-design of the country’s higher technical education offer to provide a credible alternative route to a BA/BSc degree, including:

  • New national qualifications developed locally to meet employer and labour market needs and built on those already working well.
  • Government reform to grant, fee and loan rules to incentivise and support new one and two-year courses at Levels 4 and 5.
  • The same fee cap and loan/maintenance arrangements to be made available for students of all ages who take up the new national qualifications part-time or full-time.
  • Access to financial support for living costs, travel and childcare.

We heartily agree: colleges are engines of social mobility, and this important and timely call to action by the Association of Colleges is one which we thoroughly endorse in its ambition to make the post-18 education system accessible to everyone, reintroduce means-tested maintenance grants, and ensure we have a workforce appropriately skilled for the future labour market.

We urge everyone to read the report, and for government to heed its messages.

“One of the best applications I have ever read”

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At the end of the school year, we take a moment to catch up with one of our Access Champions to reflect on the programme and the impact it’s been making on students on the ground in Nottinghamshire.

Quarrydale Academy is a school that serves former mining communities in Nottinghamshire, where there are high levels of unemployment: 92% of students live in POLAR Quintile 1 areas, meaning they are among the least likely to go to university. There are 130 students on roll in years 12 and 13.

Leanne Straw is Quarrydale’s UCAS co-ordinator, and the school’s Access Champion. We’ve been working with her over the past year to understand the school’s situation, and identify ways to improve the academy’s support for students when working out what they want to do at the age of 18.

One of the first things we ask Access Champions to do is identify areas for improvement within the school. During her first year with us, Leanne prioritised changing Quarrydale’s approach to personal statements and references, and using OSCAR, our online platform, to personalise Information, Advice and Guidance for students during tutorial periods.

One of our Progression Specialists also spent time in Quarrydale providing one-to-one mentoring to students,  an important channel of support for prospective students in Years 10-11.

Leanne told us that being on the Access Champions programme has “helped a lot with planning”, providing structure for, and evidence to support, changes she’s made in the sixth form.

Using our OSCAR system has “completely changed our approach to personal statements and references.” Personal statements are now much more focused on specific courses and all “now include a topic of academic interest”, which helps present students in the best possible light to admissions tutors and offsets the disadvantage that many students face from a lack of opportunity to take part in work experience or placements while in sixth form. This led to one applicant, applying for Nursing at Nottingham University, being told by the admissions tutor that their personal statements was “one of the best applications I have ever read”.

Students have provided Leanne with “incredibly positive” feedback about mentoring, which has provided support that parents may not always be able to provide.

After analysing data, Leanne and her team will be targeting an increase in young male applicants applying for more competitive courses such as Medicine and Teaching in the next UCAS cycle.

We’re delighted to see how well things are going at Quarrydale, and look forward to working with Leanne over the next school year to make even more of a difference.