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.

Expert mentoring increases offers to higher-tariff universities for POLAR quintile 1 students

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Our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Coordinator Fionna McLauchlan has been looking at where students on our pilot mentoring programme ended up after their A-levels, and has some interesting insight on how expert mentors can improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In 2017 we started a pilot mentoring programme where expert mentors, our Progression Specialists, provided 1-to-1 support to students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes (areas with the lowest progression to Higher Education) across 12 schools in East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Mentees met with their mentors for up to five sessions to discuss and put into action their plans for what they want to do after school or college.

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Using data provided by UCAS STROBE, an evaluation of our first cohort of more than 150 mentees found that, when compared to a matched comparison group, 88% of our mentees who applied to higher-tariff universities got offers, compared to 74% from the comparison group, a finding which is statistically significant.

We’re delighted by these results, as we know the challenge to close the gap in entry rates to higher tariff institutions for students from low progression areas remains persistent.

To understand how we achieved these outcomes, we triangulated our STROBE results with qualitative data from feedback surveys and mentoring logs (the reports our Progression Specialists make after each mentoring session). This led us to four key insights into how expert mentoring can lead to increased offers to higher-tariff institutions for students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes:

1. Expert mentors support students from low-progression areas to produce high-quality applications

We know from research carried out for our Academic Apprenticeship programme that students’ personal statements can lack the subject-focused content necessary for competitive courses and institutions.

Expert mentors provide the knowledge that students might be missing, helping them fully demonstrate their potential through high-quality, subject-focused applications.

He feels that he is struggling with his personal statement, and shared about half a page of text, which was rather unfocused and vague.  He was surprised that the personal statement needed to be so closely aligned to his chosen degree.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

2. Expert mentoring raises student expectations

The data also told us that our mentees were accepting fewer offers from lower-tariff universities than the comparison group: 40% compared with 54%, which is another statistically significant result.

Combined with evidence from our mentoring logs, we think this demonstrates that expert mentoring encourages students from low-progression areas to be ambitious with their university choices – to take the risk of applying for a selective institution alongside a realistic insurance choice.

She did very well in the end of Y12 exams, gaining AAA. In the light of these results and subsequent discussions with myself and her teaching staff, she has decided to apply for a university course based on animal science rather than veterinary nursing.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

3. Expert mentors can guide students to make pragmatic and realistic plans for the future

We spoke about him evaluating his academic and personal strengths and weaknesses, in order to focus on subject areas that might appeal to his strengths, and eliminate those that he would not consider or be comfortable studying.
— Mentor based in Derbyshire

As well as raising expectations, expert mentors help students pick courses that they are well-suited to, with admissions criteria that are ambitious but achievable.

We think that supporting students with their course choices is an important step in improving both university access and retention, particularly to higher-tariff institutions.

Students need to find courses and institutions where they’ll thrive, and our evaluation results suggest that expert mentoring is a successful intervention to support this.

4. Students value the mentee-mentor relationship

Our feedback overwhelmingly highlighted that students from low-progression areas value having a trusted and knowledgeable person to turn to for advice and guidance about their future. We think that this mentoring relationship is key to supporting students to be confident and ambitious with their plans for university.

My mentor was very friendly and easy to talk to, as well as being very relatable and knowledgeable, which led to her persuading me about university.
— Student based in Suffolk.  

Recent research by the OfS has shown that students are most likely to consult people that they’re close to, like parents or teachers, about progression. So, an expert mentor can play a key role here in building a rapport with a student to share knowledge and expertise about university access.  

Could expert mentoring be a key intervention for supporting disadvantaged students to access selective institutions?

Our evidence says yes!

We think that it’s a combination of these four aspects that has led to these promising results. Expert mentoring undoubtedly helps students produce excellent applications by imparting reliable information, advice and guidance through a friendly, trusted relationship.

It’s the relationship that’s key. By getting to know a student, a mentor can encourage them to be realistic but bold in their plans: facilitating discussions that they may previously not have had or providing the consistent encouragement that can start to chip away at ingrained beliefs about who university is for, and/or who gets to access it.

We’re encouraged by the evaluation of our pilot mentees and we look forward to seeing the results of our next cohort, whose outcomes we can evaluate in the autumn.


This information has been derived from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service STROBE analytical data service, and is used under license.

 

2018 in review

A year ago today we officially became Causeway Education – introducing our new name to mark becoming a charity and to acknowledge that we do more than just get young people to university.

To mark our birthday, here we take a moment to reflect on everything that's happened this past year.

The year in review

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In April we hosted our very first conference, Partnerships for Change, in London, welcoming over 150 friends and colleagues for a busy day's discussion of how organisations can work together to improve outcomes for young people.

Highlights included MoneySavingExpert Martin Lewis' passionate keynote on the state of student finance and the chance to hear perspectives from schools and colleges, voices often missed from the debate about widening participation.

You can read a full wrap-up of the conference, and watch recordings of all the sessions, on our blog.

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All year we've been busy in schools and colleges around the country, working with teachers and students to help make sure that all young people have fair access to their best possible future.

We've mentored more than 1,000 students this year, and in June we caught up with Sarah Baylis, one of our Progression Specialists, to see what a day out and about in school is like, when she wrote about her visit to the Isle of Wight on our blog.

Along with our charity colleagues, we've been campaigning to make sure that university access is as fair as it can be for all young people, as the Augar review nears its completion.

In November we issued a call on the Government to protect funding for widening participation to make sure that the great work and progress that's been made to close the Access Gap doesn't get wasted, and met with the then-Universities Minister Sam Gyimah MP to talk about the importance of protecting widening participation.

The year in feedback

We often get feedback from people we work with. It's always useful to hear from those who matter what they think of what we do - and especially so when it's positive! Here are some of our highlights from the work we've done this year, starting with some reflections from our Progression Specialists when we asked them to share a personal highlight from their year's mentoring.

We really do feel that you have made a significant difference to the students’ progress and confidence. [Student] was with us just now and you have clearly had a real impact on his future plans. The students you have worked with are very lucky indeed.
— Jill Eatherden, Access Champion, Bay House School, Hampshire
I would just like to thank you. You’ve done everything you could to help with my personal statement. My teachers love it…God bless you…You are a role model as you selflessly aid people to get into their future careers.
— Mentee on our Academic Apprenticeship programme
It made me think of options that I haven’t thought of before, making me calmer in terms of my university options.
— Student who attended one of our Smart Start student workshops, run in partnership with Allen & Overy

The year in stats

As well as the wonderful feedback, we're a research-led organisation so whenever we've been out and about we've been busy collecting evidence to help us understand the impact and value of our work, and how it helps to change young people's lives.

There's some real evidence of promise, and as we work through the data we'll share what we find over the coming weeks. But the basic stats about what we achieved last year are pretty impressive on their own:

  • We delivered more than 60 workshops and training days with teachers from more than 100 schools.

  • 99% of people who attended our Access Champions training days in 2018 reported that they had left with clear ideas about strategies they could implement to improve systems in their school/college.

  • Our Progression Specialists held over 4600 mentoring sessions with more than 1100 students.

  • More than a third of students we mentored said they were more likely to go to university after completing their mentoring sessions.

  • More than 3,400 students worked on their personal statement using OSCAR.

So while there's still much work to do to make sure all young people have fair access to education, we're already making a real, measurable difference to young people's lives.

We'd like to say a huge thank you to everybody who helped make 2018 such a success - we really enjoyed working with you. We have great plans to do even more and even better this year, and we're looking forward to greater success in 2019.

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.

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.