“Our work with Causeway will transform young people’s lives”

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We’ve been working with Mildenhall College Academy (MCA) since 2017, so we took a moment to catch up with Katie Sanders-Pope, Access Champion and Director of Sixth Form at the academy, to reflect on the programme’s impact on her students, staff and her role as a senior leader.

MCA is an academy in a semi-rural area of Suffolk, close to military air bases. Around 50 per cent of students live in areas with low progression to Higher Education (HE).

MCA is part of our Access Champions programme, where we train a lead teacher to make sustainable changes to their systems for progression to HE. In addition to our CPD, one of our Progression Specialists has also mentored students at MCA’s Sixth Form. Progression Specialists are expert mentors who work one-to-one with students from low progression areas to guide them through the HE application process.

Impact highlights

Progression Specialist mentoring

Progression Specialists support students to be their best selves.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

For Katie, having a Progression Specialist working with the Sixth Form was an invaluable asset to the academy – mentors have the time to provide the in-depth, sustained support to students who need it most.

She valued the knowledge and skills in progression that an expert mentor can contribute to the Sixth Form, and felt that her students really benefitted from the influence of someone external to the academy - “Mentors wouldn’t accept ‘I don’t want to go university’ as a first response – they have the time, knowledge and skills to build a relationship and unpick this statement with young people. Students need this time with experts.”

Katie felt that MCA’s Progression Specialist supported her students to be their “best selves”, as the mentoring sessions not only helped students to develop the confidence to apply, but also equipped them with the key skills and knowledge to secure places at their chosen institutions.

Our evaluation found that Progression Specialist mentoring increases offers to HE, in particular offers to higher-tariff institutions, so we were delighted to hear that MCA’s mentees have received offers across diverse subjects, from Medicine and Chemistry to Music Production and Accounting.

Academy systems

Early in the Access Champions programme, Katie decided to focus on implementing OSCAR, our online system for improving university applications and references, as the main process for references and personal statements in the academy.

With OSCAR, our subject references are a million times better - the programme has significantly upskilled our staff.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

Katie reports that the programme has “significantly upskilled” her staff, as using OSCAR subject guidance has cut down the number of corrections she has needed to make in comparison to previous years, saving time and ensuring higher quality references.

With OSCAR resources, references are more positive and include strong examples of students’ subject-specific skills and qualities. Katie has found this particularly useful for potential medicine and midwifery students, where relevant examples are vital for high-quality applications.

Katie has found that, since introducing OSCAR, the quality of students’ personal statements has “massively” improved, reducing the number of drafts students have needed to submit for feedback.

CPD for Senior Leaders

Our Access Champions programme supports senior leaders in post-16 provision to put together a development plan – a list of actions and targets for improving systems for progression.

For Katie, this has helped her to develop a strategic approach to progression, identifying problem areas and the key actions needed to improve her academy’s systems.

Katie feels that MCA’s work with us will “transform young people’s lives”, as, since making the improvements to her academy’s systems, every single student that has applied to HE has received an offer.

Following this outstanding success, Katie is motivated to continue improving Mildenhall’s systems for progression. Her next steps are to work on MCA’s approach to additional admissions testing and to build a process for tracking students’ interactions with HE.

We’re so pleased to hear about MCA’s successes and look forward to checking in again in the future to find out how they’re getting on.

How to make Information, Advice and Guidance more effective for students

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Yesterday marked the end of the Office for Students’ consultation on the next steps for improving student Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG). Our Director of Research and Policy, Dr Michael Englard, explains why we think ‘supporting the supporters’ is so important.

The draft strategy shows that improving support for students is an urgent need. For those with an interest in what happens to students they leave school or college, the awkward IAG phrase is never far away. But, as the OfS makes clear, there needs to be a radical re-think of this catch-all term. At present, students are besieged by information but given little guidance in how to use it effectively.

The Office for Students' proposals make a strong case for taking a more personalised approach, which we at Causeway fully endorse. To make long-term systemic change, however, we need new ways of thinking about the underlying problem and innovative programmes to begin to address it.

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The dominant discourse around Information, Advice and Guidance tends to position students as singular decision makers, diligently finding information on websites and then occasionally turning to their parents or teachers for advice. For anyone who works with students, the reality is quite different. Student choices are social as well as individual; partly emotional and partly rational. The process by which young people make life-altering decisions is rarely linear and often highly unstable. Crucially, students' decisions are powerfully shaped by the ongoing conversations they have with their key influencers - namely, their parents, friends and teachers. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds rely particularly on these "hot" networks of support rather than the "cold" information provided by websites and search engines.

In other words, if a new approach to Information, Advice and Guidance is to be effective then we need to start by ‘supporting the supporters’ and not to think about them as being peripheral or secondary to student decision-making.

One of the most crucial groups of influencers are, of course, teachers and careers advisers. Given the immense and shifting complexities of the ‘choice landscape’ and the everyday demands of school and college life, teachers need help and training in providing outstanding support to students. One example of this training is our Access Champions programme, which helps senior teachers to improve their school's systems for supporting students getting ready for life after schools or college.

Like the Office for Students, we would like to see long-term sustainable changes which will contribute to their ambitious target of closing the gap in access between the most and least advantaged students within a generation. If we are going to achieve this, we need to ensure that teachers are given the ongoing support and training they need to make a vital difference.

Our “new approach to regulating access and participation in Higher Education”

Following consultations in the autumn, the Office for Students has released its new approach to access and participation in Higher Education. We can’t fault the OfS for the scale of its ambition, seeking to drive progress towards four long-range objectives:

  1. To eliminate the gap in entry rates at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups by 2038-39.

  2. To eliminate the unexplained gap in non-continuation between most and least represented groups by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.

  3. To eliminate the unexplained gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between white students and black students by 2024-25, and to eliminate the absolute gap (the gap caused by both structural and unexplained factors) by 2030-31.

  4. To eliminate the gap in degree outcomes (1sts or 2:1s) between disabled students and non-disabled students by 2024-25.

Access in detail

At first sight, aiming to eliminate the access gap between advantaged and disadvantaged 18- and 19-year-old students appears a lofty ambition. On further inspection, the intermediate steps are not unattainable.

If we start by looking at reducing the gap in participation between the most and least represented, for 18- and 19-year-olds the OfS' target is to reduce the gap from its current ratio of 5:1 to a ratio of 3:1 by 2024-25.

When expressed in a slightly different way, this means decreasing the gap between quintile 5 and quintile 1 from 10.2% (as it was in 2016-17) to 8.9% by 2024-25 – a shift of 1.3%.

On the face of it, this seems feasible; the question is whether the sector as a whole – universities, third-sector organisations and other supporters – can build momentum and sustain progress.

New ambitions need new approaches

But, when viewed over time, a number of key access gaps have remained stubbornly entrenched. As the chart opposite, from the DfE’s most recent report into widening participation, shows, the gap between the proportion of students that received Free School Meals going to university and those that did not has shown few signs of progress since data became available in 2008-9.

So to meet that bold target from the OfS, it’s clear therefore that we need bold new approaches. Piecemeal activities for small groups of students are unlikely to deliver the step-change required. Instead, we need innovative models that work with large cohorts and effect long-term structural changes in schools and colleges, such as our Access Champions programme.

As the OfS requires, Access Champions is focused on outcomes rather than outputs. The programme drives progression rates up for whole cohorts by helping build better systems for HE progression within schools and colleges. We train and empower a senior teacher in the school or college to improve practice in six key areas, including the use of data and the training of other staff members. The sustained programme allows universities to build strategic relationships with schools and colleges and to ensure that existing outreach activities are targeted effectively.

Currently running in regions across England and starting shortly in Glasgow, Access Champions has garnered significant support from teachers, with early indications showing an uplift in application, offer and acceptance rates at participating schools and colleges.

“Access Champions has encouraged students to take progression seriously”, according to Sandra Griffiths, the Post-16 Learning Leader at St Edmund Campion Catholic School in Erdington, Birmingham, who we’ve been working with over the past twelve months.

At Quarrydale Academy in Nottinghamshire, the Access Champions approach has “completely changed our approach to personal statements and references,” according to Leanne Straw, the academy’s UCAS co-ordinator. Personal statements are now much more focused on specific courses, and 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”.

Teresa Lamb, who took part in the programme from Brimsham Green school near Bristol, told us that, having identified areas for improvement while on the programme and writing a development plan that outlines the changes to make to address them, tutors now feel “empowered” and are able to focus on emphasising a student’s academic suitability and skills when writing references.

Working at the school level is a different approach to the more common student-level interventions seen in much widening participation, but we believe it’s one that has the chance to make lasting change for large numbers of students, and help meet that ambitious OfS target.

To find out more about Access Champions, please contact info@causeway.education.

“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.

“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.