Widening Participation: The Data Deal

Is this the least glamorous blog post I’ve written? Possibly. Is it the most important? Quite probably. At Dyke House we use data to inform what we do has changed how we identify pupils for the different programmes we offer, and how we track, monitor and evaluate our intervention (more on this very soon!). I’ve increasingly grown to value this as the foundation underpinning and enabling all we do.

Why use data?

When I first set up the Aspirations Programme, I faced two major problems:

  1. We knew many of our pupils were disadvantaged and few progressed to university… but targeting 1300 pupils at once was an impossible task. Yet Premium and Free School Meal data only showed a black and white, yes / no answer to a problem which I knew was full of grey.
  2. The universities I spoke to had their own systems, criteria and access agreements with OFFA (Office For Fair Access). PP and FSM meant nothing to them. Instead they talked of Acorn and POLAR, of ‘First Gen’ and WP Indexes. I was lost. We couldn’t talk in each other’s language and this meant discussions were often confused.

What do we use?

At Dyke House we use three main data sets, outlined below. We have chosen them precisely because it is the data HE providers use to define their widening participation work:


Acorn is a geodemographic segmentation index of the UK’s population based on six categories, eighteen groups and sixty-two types. It analyses significant social factors and population behaviour in order to provide detailed differentiation between types of people. Widening participation schemes usually identify those who fall within category 5 (and sometimes 4) of Acorn.


POLAR classification looks at how likely young people are to participate in HE across the UK and shows how this varies by area. POLAR classifies local areas or ‘wards’ into five groups, based on the proportion of 18 year olds who enter HE aged 18 or 19 years old. These groups range from quintile 1 areas, with the lowest young participation, up to quintile 5 areas with the highest rates. Widening participation schemes look at those in quintile one and two.

Newcastle Widening Participation Index:

Universities across the UK vary in their specific use of data sets in order to identify students as widening participation candidates but are broadly similar in their aim and focus. Newcastle University has long been a leader within the sector both in terms of their identification and work with widening participation students. The index takes into account many different variables including POLAR, school context and postcode to produce a value 1-100. A value of 40 or above deems the student as WP.

Other Measures:

We also input Pupil Premium (PP), Free School Meals (FSM), English as an Additional Language (EAL), Looked After Children (LAC) and young carers, service children and parental HE experience wherever we have data.

This means a very disadvantaged pupil would fall into the POLAR3 1: Acorn 5 categories. This would also mean the had a score of above 40 on the Newcastle WP Index. The additional layers of context provided by additional information ensure that you can understand why a child has scored highly, or a vulnerability that may have been missed from this data e.g. being a Young Carer.

What do we do with it?

DHC POLAR 147% of pupils at Dyke House meet POLAR3 1: Acorn 5 criteria and 82% of pupils meet Newcastle University’s widening participation criteria; simply put, the majority of our pupils are extremely unlikely to progress to university without additional intervention.

Data allows us to:

  • Understand the complex picture behind progression and the nuances of low progression within our cohort.
  • Work with university partners to target specific groups of pupils for intervention.
  • Forge true partnerships with universities and contribute effectively to their work by identifying and sending the most appropriate pupils for each programme.
  • Ensure nobody slips through the gaps!
  • Track all WP intervention (university visits, internal and external programmes etc) to ensure pupils are engaged throughout Year 7-13.
  • Create meaningful monitoring and evaluation which then informs how we expand and modify.

Looking at Impact:

Using data has allowed us as a school to talk in the language of university widening participation. We’ve forged better and more sustainable partnerships and we’ve vastly improved the way we identify pupils for the right programmes from them; increasing retention and positive feedback from pupils and partners.

And the best news?

It’s easy to implement – Acorn data is accessible for a relatively low cost (doing this with other schools in the area / your academy chain will reduce that further). For POLAR3 data and a university widening participation index score, get in touch with your closest highly selective university – that fantastic Newcastle WP Team provided this to us and update our new Year 7 pupils each year. Track using Excel or integrate into SIMS.

See here:

Screen Shot 2017-04-19 at 18.51.04

Using data for widening participation enables a comprehensive, informed approach to intervention and is a crucial step to ensuring we don’t rely on a piecemeal to widening participation.

Check out my Top Tips for Widening Participation in Schools.

Next blog will be on sustainability … check back soon!

Want to see what we do day to day? Follow the programme on @DHC_Aspirations and Sally on @SallyAnnHolt . Tweet us questions or things you want to hear more about!


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