The thought behind: Access Champions


Dr Michael Englard, our Director of Research and policy, and one of the co-founders of Causeway Education, explains the thought behind our Access Champions programme.


If you had a million pounds to improve the chances of bright students going to top universities, how would you start? As a keen empiricist, your first step might be to review the evidence. As a firm believer in making a difference, your next step might be to design a programme for disadvantaged students. Who could argue with your approach: analyse the evidence to find what works, then design a programme targeted at the students who need it most? 

But as many who work in Widening Participation might agree: what appears obvious rarely is. This is a curious story where dead-set certainties seem to melt away. 

This story began because, as teachers and academics, we knew that the transition from school to university was fraught with snares, misunderstandings, and unrealised aspirations. Some of the problems seen in Widening Participation are clearly structural and, to some degree, intractable without deep-seated changes in how we engage students, and their parents, from a young age and ensure they have an excellent education. 

But not all Widening Participation issues are impossible to solve.

In 2013, Professor Vikki Boliver at Durham University looked at ten years’ worth of UCAS data and showed that, even when state and privately educated students got exactly the same grades, state school applicants were up to a third less likely to get an offer from a leading university. Since then, strong evidence has pointed towards student attainment – which we might consider a structural problem – being the biggest key to increasing participation. But even with excellent grades state school students were not always getting the offers they deserved. 

Aside from grades, we felt that the most obvious place to start was improving the quality of applications made by disadvantaged students. There was some fine research in the area, not least from Dr Steven Jones and the Sutton Trust. Dr Jones had shown that there were big disparities in the quality of personal statements written by students in the private and state sectors. 

What, you might think, would be the point of working on personal statements? There are reams of information in the public domain and virtually every university offers sessions on writing. Looking more deeply, though, it seems that most information takes the form of guidelines that are easy to misinterpret and one-off events that don’t always have a bearing on the final product.


UCAS’ main guideline to students is “try to stand out” But how does an eighteen year old interpret this? In the final line of their personal statement, one finance applicant in Dr Jones’ study concluded with the memorable line “I want to study business and I mean business” – perfect for standing out in The Apprentice boardroom but utterly inappropriate for a personal statement. 

Working with the Sutton Trust, we developed our first programme, the Academic Apprenticeship, which focused on getting disadvantaged students to boost their personal statements by going into detail about an academic topic of interest that really appealed to them. 

Rather than saying how much they wanted to study Law, for instance, we encouraged students to research a particular case. We reasoned that getting disadvantaged applicants to show rather than state their enthusiasm for a subject could compensate for the inequalities in the quality of work experience and extra-curricular placements Dr Jones had identified. We paired students with online mentors and got them to follow subject-specific pathways.

We wanted the evaluation to be as rigorous as possible and set up participation and comparison groups. Students in both groups had attended a Sutton Trust Summer School, which meant they shared a similar academic profile and motivation. To ensure the scheme benefited applicants who needed it most, students in the participation group went to lower progression schools than those in the comparison group. In the end, UCAS data showed that 100% of students in the participation group got at least one offer from a Russell Group university compared to 73% in the comparison group.

Getting every student a Russell Group offer sounded like a huge success, but we had inadvertently discovered a different problem: when the students went back to school in September, they reported that many of their teachers had strongly advised them to remove the academic topic of interest which had been the key part of the programme. 

To see how widespread this was, we worked with Dr Jones and asked academics and teachers to ‘mark’ the same set of personal statements. The results were striking: teachers and academics agreed in only 23% of cases. Teachers found the valuable topic of interest “too long”, “essay-like” and “impersonal”. 

From this point on, our major focus has been to train senior teachers to lead change in their schools and colleges. 


Hence our new programme: Access Champions. It’s an intensive two-year programme that concentrates on improving the systems schools and colleges use to support their students. Reviewing the evidence and using an approach based on the excellent Gatsby Benchmarks, Access Champions charts progress in six key areas, from using destinations data to co-ordinating encounters with Higher Education. 

Currently in progress across England, the programme is showing good signs of success. 

So, if you won the lottery and decided to spend some of the money on improving access to higher education, would you necessarily start by working with students?

Travel diary: Derby


Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, writes about our Access Champions training day in Derby last week and how we help schools understand the changes they need to make to improve access to university..

At 5:45am my alarm goes off. This is a theme in delivery season: early starts and early trains at various London terminals. I have to force myself focus on which where I’m going and which station today’s train leaves from. Nearly all of the team has been caught out at some point by going to the wrong station.  It’s Derby today, where we’re training teachers from schools and colleges in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire that are part of our Access Champions programme. 

Two things motivate me to get out of bed this particular morning: I’ll get breakfast on the train, and the University of Derby had great catering last time, worthy of an early start.

I jump in the shower and run through the day’s training in my head. I think of a couple of last minute, but important, changes to talk over with my colleague Sam, and make a note of these before I leave the house.


I meet Sam at St Pancras. I spy a shiny new Nepresso machine and make a joke to the guy working there about it. He says it’s been very popular. I’ll say, it beats the urn coffee.

We arrive in Derby, grab a yellow taxi to the university and get shown the room at the university to set up. A notice tells us that the previous day this room was used for muscular skeletal shoulder ultrasound training. It still amazes me how many different topics are taught in university. 

We’ve been working in this region since May, trying to help state schools make changes to their systems that will improve university progression. We do this by training up a key member of staff, normally a head of sixth form, as an ‘Access Champion’ who champions university access in their school or college. Research, training, and a set of benchmarks that can help school improve their provision, are some of the tools in our kit. But great delivery, enthusiasm and good relationships are just as important, so we work to get the know the teachers and their schools really well. 

There are two new schools attending today so I think about how I can enthuse them about the programme. I really needn’t have worried, as soon as our returning Access Champions arrive they start sharing their successes and do that job for me:

  • “We have had a phenomenal year of applications that we can only attribute to being part of this programme”
  • “Overall the quality of our applications has been much higher”
  • “Nottingham University got in touch to say that one of our nursing applicants had the best personal statements they had ever seen”
  • “We have had our first Oxbridge offer in over 20 years”
  • “Students are much more aware for the need to attend outreach opportunities and we have been sending them on so many different courses.”
  • “Our references were much better.”

There are challenges, of course. Many sixth forms are struggling: declining numbers, unconditional offers from universities that make it hard to motivate students to stay on target, and finding ways to inspire underachieving boys seem to be an issue across all income brackets.  Plus, there are programme issues that I need to hear and act on. 

Our Access Champions have two main objectives for today’s training: analysing university destinations data, and benchmarking their school’s overall provision for HE guidance.

Analysing destinations data is really interesting for the Access Champions. We want them to analyse and understand the progression of their students, by POLAR, FSM, gender, ethnicity and any other groups where outcomes might differ. We also encourage them to think about comparing this with intentions data and UCAS offer data: which courses are popular, which courses are students having successes in? Are there any courses or institutions where they struggle to get offers? Schools often look at this data on an individual basis, but not in detail over a whole cohort or over successive years.  In doing this basic analysis, one school found that students never got in for midwifery at their local university. This prompted a call to the university to explore possible reasons why, revealing that the course is heavily oversubscribed, students often have to apply several years in a row to get in, and they take many mature students. Sixth form applicants, it seems, are statistically better off applying elsewhere. These nuggets of insight are completely invaluable, and a simple change can make a massive difference to students.

We introduced the Access Champions to our new Causeway Benchmarks, which can be used to assess their school’s provision of HE guidance. For each Benchmark, the Access Champions grade their current provision as Bronze, Silver or Gold, then write a development plan for working towards the next level. Our plan is then to support the schools and colleges in the second phase of the programme.

As I clamber on the train home after a long but rewarding day it’s clear that our Access Champions have already made a lot of progress, but there are still things to do to embed this in to their school systems. We’ll be back again soon to see how they’re getting on. Our ultimate goal is that when our support ends there’s a legacy within the schools and colleges that will help look out for groups of students who may being left behind for years to come.