How do we join up support for young people making choices at post-16?

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The landscape for post-16 education and training is more complex than ever, and many students lack the information to make good decisions about their next steps – whether that be further education, an apprenticeship, or university.

Last Friday we hosted a roundtable discussion between more than 20 of our friends and co-members of the Fair Education Alliance that looked at the issues in provision of careers and progression advice to students at all stages of the education system, and started to think about ways of joining up support for post-16 routes.

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The afternoon’s discussion centred on the gaps in provision of advice and support at different levels – from post-16 right through to careers and employment – why they exist and what the key barriers to overcome them are. It also looked how partnerships might help to overcome those barriers, and at existing programmes and how effective have they been.

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With a varied set of perspectives around the table, including charities and campaigning organisations, schools, employers and young people, there was much to talk about and an encouraging amount of common ground about how to really make a difference.

The discussion covered progression from post-16 right through to careers and employment, and included some incredibly useful perspective from those at the sharp end.

As our work currently focuses on the choices young people have to make about post-18 education, some of the main themes related to that which stood out to us are ones we have been thinking about and working on for some time:

There isn’t a clear way to navigate all the information that currently exists, leading to choice overload.

This is something that we’ve been aware of for some time, and something we blogged about when the House of Commons Education Committee published its Value for money in higher education report late last year.

It’s certainly a complicated issue, especially when you consider, as the Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) pointed out, that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice.

We feel that the answer to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”, though it’s clear that making all the information easier to find and clearer to understand so it’s easier to draw comparisons between different options, can only make things easier for young people when faced with a daunting array of options.

Young people’s main influencers – teachers, parents and carers – are not always equipped to provide reliable information, advice and guidance on post-16 and post-18 pathways.

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When we work in schools and colleges, especially in areas where progression to higher education is less likely, this is something we see an awful lot. We blogged about this earlier this year – and it’s something that the Office for Students is also keeping an eye on, as it consulted on it earlier this year.

Young people are often seen as singular decision makers, doing their research and occasionally turning to parents or teachers for advice. But anyone who works with students will tell you that the reality is quite different: their choices are social as well as individual; partly emotional and partly rational, rarely linear and often highly changeable.

Importantly, these decisions are powerfully shaped by key influencers: parents, friends and teachers. And young people from disadvantaged backgrounds rely particularly on these "hot" networks of support rather than the "cold" information provided by websites and search engines.

So for Information, Advice and Guidance to really be effective we need to start by ‘supporting the supporters’ – helping teachers, parents and carers give informed, reliable advice, rather than thinking about them as being peripheral or secondary to the decision-making process.

It’s important to integrate high-quality, joined-up advice and guidance into existing systems for schools and colleges.

We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now – our Access Champions programme is intended to do just that by providing a sustained programme of training and support to schools and colleges.

Over time, we work with a nominated member of staff within the school or college, helping them to become the ‘Access Champion’, responsible for excellence in advice and guidance within the school. We help them with a clear diagnosis of the quality of support for young people and a development plan to make improvements.

We’re still evaluating the programme and will share the results once they’re ready, but there’s really good evidence that this is making real change to young people’s lives and we hear really great feedback from those we work with – it’s been described as “a revelation” by Brimsham Green school in Bristol, and “has encouraged students to take progression seriously” according to St Edmund Campion school in Birmingham. Mildenhall College Academy in Suffolk told us that Access Champions “will transform young people’s lives”. You can read these case studies, and more, on our case studies page.

There is no mechanism for schools to filter the opportunities being offered to them on the basis of quality or suitability.

This is a really interesting problem – and, as a charity that delivers programmes with really good evidence of effectiveness to schools and colleges, something that’s as important to us as it is to the schools and colleges that must make best use of scarce resources.

So we were pleased when the Office for Students announced the Evidence and Impact Exchange in February. By collating existing research, identifying gaps in current evidence and generating its own research to fill those gaps, the EIX will play a critical role in disseminating accessible information and advice to decision makers across the HE sector.

As we said when the announcement was made, we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. We, and our colleagues in the sector, are really looking forward to contributing our evidence of impact to the EIX and to learn from what others in the sector are doing well.

It’s clear there’s much still to do to get to the point where all young people have fair access to their best possible future, but we left the roundtable with a sense of optimism and positivity – there is such a lot of good work going on, and a real sense that, working in partnership, there’s a good chance to make real progress.

We’re looking forward to making real progress over the coming months and years.

Our response to the Government's review of post-18 education

We recently contributed to the Government's major review of funding for post-18 education in England, which aims to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Our submission focused on three key themes:

1. Making sure that Higher Education is “accessible for all”.

We welcome the prominence the review gives to disadvantaged students.

If the new funding system is indeed to be “accessible for all” then care should be taken to ensure that any changes in the funding regime do not deter students from under-represented groups from participating in Higher Education.

While the overall Higher Education Participation Rate increased to 49% in 2015-16 there remain troubling gaps in the ability of disadvantaged and part-time students to access Higher Education.  Whatever the details of the new funding system, access for disadvantaged students needs to remain the top priority.

2. Putting schools and colleges at the heart of post-18 progression

The drivers of fair access – good attainment and effective guidance – are to be found in the classroom, but schools and colleges are largely overlooked in debates about post-18 progression.

To ensure that students can make informed post-18 choices, we need to shift the centre of gravity towards schools and colleges.

Schools and colleges face significant pressures on their existing resources. In order to enable schools and colleges to improve their post-18 destinations, we advocate setting up a Student Outcomes Fund with ringfenced funds made available to improve systems in schools and colleges. 

3. Strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance in the classroom

Most adults struggle to choose between five energy suppliers, but we expect students to be able to make rational choices between 37,000 UCAS courses.

If we want applicants to make appropriate choices about what and where to study then we need to offer better support. Providing more information is not the solution. Information overload has now reached a stage that experts have argued that students are being encouraged to make irrational decisions based on crude heuristics.

Research shows that students respond more effectively to “hot information” provided by trusted sources, such as teachers, as opposed to “cold information” provided in literature and on websites. Part of a Student Outcomes Fund should therefore be directed towards supporting teachers and other key influencers to make provide effective and personalised guidance for students.

The independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar and supported by experts from across the sector, are currently reviewing evidence. We look forward to seeing how the review progresses.