So what is widening participation anyhow?
Widening participation is a much used yet rarely defined term, with no mutually agreed definition – a quick look through university websites demonstrates the significant differences in interpretation and approach. The proliferation of synonymous and overlapping terms makes it a difficult phrase to understand as an outsider; does ‘raising aspirations’ mean the same as ‘increasing access’, who is identified as an ‘underrepresented group’ by each institution and where does ‘success and progression’ come into this discussion? When I first started at Dyke House, it was a confusing world that I had little idea of, but one I was determined to understand.
I received very mixed responses when first making contact with universities and widening participation professionals. Some were hugely helpful, willing to explain the jargon and point me in the right direction… others hid behind the ambiguity of the term, keen to avoid any real interaction or offer meaningful support. As the member of staff responsible for (what shall we call it?!) ‘progression’ in my school, I was surprised by this diverse reaction; Dyke House is located in one of the most deprived boroughs in Hartlepool, it is consistently identified as a ‘low progression’ area, within the North East, which in itself has the second lowest progression rates to HE in the UK. My pupils are 38% less likely to go onto university than their London peers (UCAS, 2016: 22). Surely everyone wanted to work with my pupils as a gold mine for ‘widening participation’? Whatever that meant, my pupils must surely have met the criteria.
Fast forward three years and Dyke House now works with a huge range of universities, companies and external organisations in order to ‘widen participation’. I have finally defined my own understanding of widening participation and we work towards a clear vision for our pupils. To me widening participation is:
A coherent, longitudinal and holistic programme of information, advice and guidance to support and nurture aspiration and attainment for all our pupils to maximise their potential.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing and we aren’t the finished article. Last year we were hugely proud to send just under a third of our Year 13 cohort to highly selective universities, but the real proof of our success will not be seen until the pupils who’ve been through the programme since Year 7 (and earlier) make decisions about their progression.
Below are some ‘top tips’ and things I wish I had known three years ago. They are not exhaustive but perhaps provide a vehicle for discussion over the coming weeks and several more blog posts as I examine what we do and why we do it…
- Start Early – The Aspirations Programme at Dyke House was a result of the realization that Post 16 was too late to begin these conversations. So many universities are desperate to speak to your widening participation, high attaining pupils… in Year 12. Without intervention much earlier, those pupils simply don’t exist. They’ve joined the Sutton Trust’s Missing Talent statistics and have failed to achieve their potential at GCSE, leaving them unable to progress onto facilitating subjects at A Level (Sutton Trust, 2015). We start in Year 4, working with our partner primary schools. We embed during our lower school, when pupils have greater flexibility within the timetable and build on this throughout GCSE and Post 16.
- Make Partnerships – The @DHC_Aspirations twitter is full of the opportunities our pupils are embarking on. There are over 1300 pupils in the school – working alone it would be impossible to deliver everything they need. Partnerships bring extra capacity and expertise, they enable multiple year groups to be taking part in varying experiences simultaneously. University Widening Participation teams are able to organise on site and in school visits, run data, sent prospectuses and support with logistics. They have sessions on a wide range of subjects and Student Ambassadors who provide a real insight for pupils. Don’t be afraid to ask if you need something.
- Use Research and Data – From the beginning we felt it was important to take a research led approach to our work… and there is a wealth of it! The time taken to understand the research enabled us to provide meaningful interventions for our demographic and shaped our programmes. Early intervention, university visits, parental engagement and communication are all areas which have been informed by research on effective widening participation. Staying abreast of this can sometimes be daunting but reacting to new research enables stronger outcomes.
- Sustainability – This year I am not at Dyke House running the Aspirations Programme. I am furthering my knowledge of the research on widening participation at UCL, studying Education Policy. Having set the programme up, I was – egotistically – worried about what would happen when I left. Yet the structures we had put in place were stronger than any member of staff, much as it bruises my ego to admit. My fantastic colleagues and successor have continued to progress the programme, continuing our shared vision. Make sustainable processes… start small and grow what you do well. No individual should be pivotal to what you do.
- Monitor and Evaluate – when were first started, I was too busy ‘doing’ to properly monitor what I did. Then I realised that without monitoring and evaluating, there was no way of knowing if what we did worked. I began to baseline and evaluate programmes, use quantitative and qualitative data to underpin our systems and to alter programmes based on this feedback loop. I worked with external organisations such as The Brilliant Club to improve our evaluations and looked at the EEF’s models. Creating our first impact reports was a daunting experience and I learned many lessons along the way but it has supported our partnerships and our growth; our evidence base demonstrates the effectiveness of what we do.
Creating a school level widening participation programme is an unusual step. We have taken it because we believe that this coherent, longitudinal and holistic approach is what will enable our pupils to maximise their potential and challenge the statistics of progression for our pupils.
In the coming blog posts, I will further unpick some of the ideas outlined here, discuss the things that worked… the things that really didn’t and some of the incredible partners and individuals that have helped us to make the Aspirations Programme happen.