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!


Widening Participation – Research Led?

The Aspirations Programme, from the outset has endeavored to use the available research as the foundation to all we do. The reason is embodied in Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk on inspiring action; people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. From research, we have so much of the why. Research also underpins the next stage; the how. How do we take this indisputable disparity in progression and work to close it?

By harnessing research, we can better understand the challenges facing our disadvantaged pupils and the most effective ways of overcoming these. The answers for each school may vary according to geography, ethnic diversity, parental engagement, the regional labour market, and the multitude of other factors which contribute to progression, but we do not need to guess – much more often we need to synthesise the knowledge that is already available to us. It is this knowledge which provides firm evidence for the provision we have and authority when anyone raises doubts. It allows us have confidence in what we do.

This is not always easy; academic literature often seems inaccessible and new research is not always well publicised. But by understanding the research underpinning the challenges to progression, we successfully create grassroots solutions.

I am often asked what I mean when we talk about the programme being research led and for me this means two things:

  1. Before we implement anything new, we examine what the research can show us. Does our opinion based on a small scale sample match the large scale, robust research? What does the evidence say about the problem we are trying to tackle?
  2. What does the newly published research or research we continue to find tell us about what we already do? Do we need to change anything as a result of this?

This can be a frustrating process and has involved the adjustment of programmes and reframing of messages. Most recently, King’s College London published research on white working class boys which ran contrary to much of what we had implemented for our Learning Guide Programme and the staff training I had given. However, we knew the research had merit and continuing poor practice would reduce the long term impact of what we were trying to do. We changed the programme, discussed this with staff and implemented the new ideas… I’ll let you know the impact later this year!

Below are some of the key pieces of research we have used to inform practice at Dyke House. These are neither prescriptive, nor the whole picture – a comprehensive list would be impossible and it continues to evolve.

Widening Participation & Social Mobility – The Big Picture:

Early Intervention:

Geographical Challenges:

Highly Selective Progression:

Gender and Ethnicity:

Supra Curricular & Non Cognitive Skills:

Curriculum & Subject Choice:

Aspirations and Careers:


Parental Engagement:

Check out my Top Tips for Widening Participation in Schools.

Next blog will be on using data in widening participation – what, why and how we use it for maximum impact.

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!

Widening Participation – Building Partnerships

The @DHC_Aspirations twitter feed is full of incredible and exciting opportunities that our pupils are taking part in every day. There are photographs that show our exploits across the UK; from Edinburgh to Southampton, via London and Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, all capturing moments of opportunity and adventure for our pupils. Those pictures are in no way false, but what the world of social media so often misses is the fact that every tweet belies a myriad of partnerships, logistics and less glamourous paper pushing in order to make it happen. And yet, it is these relationships which make the Aspirations Programme happen; without our partnerships there would be no universities to visit, no student ambassadors to greet us and no sessions to fascinate our pupils with new information about a topic hitherto unknown.

External partners enable us to deliver on a much greater scale, often with multiple groups of pupils involved in differing programmes simultaneously. Many support us to organise logistics, design visits, programmes and sessions tailored to our needs and even provide transport on occasions. Simply, they make the impossible, possible.

In addition, external partnerships bring a level of knowledge and expertise which is invaluable, especially during the early stages of creating a school level programme. Whilst you may only be organising one visit or event of this kind, they have probably had much greater experience and can be on hand to advise and suggest wherever needed. Our external partners have enriched the Aspirations Programme far beyond anything I could have imagined when we first started out and the continue to bring fresh ideas, resource and support to what we do.

Managing such relationships is not always easy and below are some of my suggestions for managing your widening participation programme partners and maximising the opporutnities for pupils. Some are transferable to all stakeholder relationships in any sector, some are learned through bitter experience and all are advice we try to live by in order to ensure that the Aspirations Programme continues to consolidate and expand…

  1. Speak to Everyone – When I first began on this journey I had no idea of what different organisations could offer us. Some of our best partnerships have come from the least likely conversations. The Durham 4Schools Team do some of the most valuable work with our pupils, yet I only knew they existed through a chance encounter at a conference.
  2. Just Ask! – If you need something… ask for it! Many WP Teams are hugely flexible and committed to meeting the needs of schools if you speak to them. I wanted data in order to identify our WP pupils appropriately but I didn’t know how to access it. Newcastle’s WP team processed this for me. Not only did they do so, but they offered me a wealth of further data that I didn’t know existed… it revolutionised my approach.
  3. Use Social Media – Many WP Teams fly under the radar at their respective institutions, many are under funded or struggle to evidence the impact of their work. Using social media to upload photos, using the right Twitter handles and creating consistent hash tags enables external partners to evidence what they are doing both internally and externally. In addition, once you follow WP Teams you can hear what they have planned and how you can get involved!
  4. Give Real Feedback – One university we worked had great intentions but the programme they ran wasn’t working for our pupils. They asked for feedback and we gave it… they are now one of our closest partners and their programme’s have gone from strength to strength. Universities are not always the expert in dealing with younger pupils (after all, their target demographic is usually Post 18!) but all the teams we have worked with have been responsive to feedback. That way funding can opportunity can be maximised to address pupil needs.
  5. Create True Partnerships – It can feel as though schools are the poor relation in any WP partnership but this does not have to be so; schools have much to offer as well. We have worked with university partners to deliver training on dealing with younger pupils, spoken at outreach conferences, discussed exam reform and provided a school perspective on many aspects of their work. Make partnerships which both sides value and the overall result is far stronger.
  6. Communicate! – Schools have weird and wonderful ways of functioning and are unique workplaces. External partners may phone in the middle of the school day; they do not have children in lessons or lunch duties to contend with! Understand the differing requirements in communication, don’t assume other organisations will be aware of school holidays and use an out of office if you’re busy for the day! Clear and consistent communication underpins all successful relationships.
  7. Show Appreciation – the Aspirations Team know the value of our external partners and the efforts they go to. Sometimes pupils can forget this in the heat of the moment and it is important to remind them. We nominate pupils to thank our hosts and supporters at the end of each visit, send hand written thank you cards once we arrive home and complete feedback forms when asked. I know few other schools do this because one university calls us the ‘thank you card school.’ Tell people you appreciate their efforts – everyone is human and responds well to thanks. You get invited back.
  8. Engage Your Staff – I love the Aspirations Programme and I love working with all our partners but no relationship should be dependent on one individual. Involve other members of staff, have a steering group and keep track of contact details on a central database. Your successor should be able to seamlessly step into your shoes.
  9. Create Coherence – You may need multiple partners to create coherence to your programme. Individual university visits are not necessarily powerful tools for widening participation unless they are embedded within a wider programme. We create university packs for our pupils, situate university visits in the context of wider learning and demonstrate contrasts between subjects and types of institution. You are the lynchpin for your external partnerships – it’s up to you to create a coherent, longitudinal and holistic’ programme from a plethora of different offerings.
  10. Be Honest – There were days when everything came together and 320 pupils went to three different locations, took part in three different programmes and everything ran as clockwork. There were days when I seemingly couldn’t coordinate 12 pupils to arrive in the same classroom on time. Be honest with your partners when things don’t go as intended. We’re all human and they appreciate the honesty (and the occasionally variable nature of school life!).

The Aspirations Programme is only as good as our partnerships and we owe a huge vote of thanks to those people across the country who work with us to make it happen. Some of these ideas seem basic… and yet their day to day execution can be difficult. It’s work in progress and it always will be – new partnerships are always exciting and existing ones need consolidating and building. What is consistent is the vision we have for the pupils we work with.

Check out my Top Tips for Widening Participation in Schools.

Next blog will be our research led approach to widening participation.

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!

Starting Widening Participation Early – iAspire in Primary

In my last blog post, I outlined ‘top tips’ for widening participation programmes in schools. In the following posts, I look at each of these areas in more detail. Fittingly, we’ll begin with the concept of ‘starting early’. In this post, I look at our primary programme iAspire.

At Dyke House, we believe in starting early to build meaningful progression pathways for pupils. Underpinning this is our belief that widening participation must be ‘coherent, longitudinal and holistic’ in order to be successful.

What does the research say?

Research from Action on Access (2009), Goodman and Gregg (2010) and Heckman (2004) all supports this view. Heckman et al. advocate early intervention, far prior to the age of higher education, suggesting that ‘early environments play a large role in shaping later outcomes. Skill begets skill and learning begets more learning. Early advantages cumulate; so do early disadvantages. Later remediation of early deficits is costly, and often prohibitively so…’ (Heckman et al. 2004: 4). Concurring, Goodman et al (2010), agree that early intervention capitalises on the theory of the ‘skill multiplier’; that early intervention allows an individual to build upon the skills they already have in order to improve their outcomes. In 2009, Action on Access evaluated the impact of the now defunct Aimhigher programme on primary pupils, concluding that HE partnership work with primary pupils can be effective in raising both the aspirations and performance of pupils from disadvantaged areas and can help to overcome the ‘negative drift’ that occurs at age 11. Research using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England by Croll and Attwood suggests that early intentions of HE participation are strongly correlated to the progression of an individual (2013). In 2016, Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive at UCAS reinforced the importance of early intervention in the UCAS stating that, ‘the age at which young people engage with the concept of HE is a key determinant in whether or not they will take that challenging step’ and those who indicate having university as a goal from the age of ten are significantly more likely to progress to Higher Education (UCAS, 2016: 4).

Lastly, The Sutton Trust stated in a report to the National Council for Educational Excellence that, ‘evidence from those running university outreach schemes highlights that young people’s attitudes to higher education are often more likely to change around key transition points – from primary into secondary school and from an 11-16 school in to a school sixth form or college’ (2008). Compelling evidence to start young, make transition an opportunity rather than the ‘lost years’ sometimes used to describe KS3 and harness the power of collaborative work.

Using the research – iAspire:iAspire Background Removed Logo

At Dyke House, we work with seven primary partners as part of our iAspire programme. The programme was designed in consultation with primary colleagues. Feedback from primary staff as to what they felt was important included:

  • One off sessions don’t work – just as we did not think one off session worked for our 7-13 pupils, primary staff wanted to see a coherent, embedded programme for younger pupils.
  • Regular communication with the classroom teacher / lead teacher for the year group in order to ensure logistics were smooth and feedback was direct.
  • Resources needed to be provided as part of the package in order to maximise the impact of the sessions as they had been designed and reduce disparity in delivery.
  • The option for DHC staff to deliver the sessions – as some primary colleagues were concerned about how to deliver the messaging about progression.

Taking their feedback onboard we designed iAspire:

  • Taking place in Year 4, 5 and 6.
  • A half term unit of work in primary school, bookended by visits to DHC and a university visit in Year 6.
  • coherent, longitudinal and holistic’ embedded not only throughout KS2 but as part of the overall Aspirations Programme at Dyke House.
  • Looks at the concept of aspiration (Year 4), an introduction to careers (Year 5) and progression in the context of HE (Year 6).
  • Provides an impact report to each primary school at the end of each programme for each year group.
  • Is fully resourced by Dyke House, including staffing for delivery.
  • Engages parents as part of an end of programme ‘graduation’ event, to which parents and careers are invited.

    iAspire Year 4 Overview

    Year 4 iAspire Programme Overview


What is the impact?

iAspire is in its second full year. This means our first pupils who took part in Year 6 have transitioned into secondary school; many of them have started at Dyke House. Our current data suggests the impact of iAspire has been good thus far. Of the 571 pupils who took part last year, 68% of were POLAR3 Quintile 1 and 86% met Newcastle University’s widening participation threshold. Successes include an 11% increase in the number of Year 6 pupils who stated they would ‘like to go to university’ after completing the programme and significant increases in the number of pupils who reported that they were discussing their futures with parents and carers at home. Pupils had a greater understanding of careers and were more likely to be able to access information about their futures. The challenge now is to continue to measure pupil attainment and aspirations in order to monitor this throughout their secondary and Post 16 progression.

However, the real impact of iAspire can be seen in less measurable ways; when Year 6 arrived for their transition, we had already worked extensively with many of them in their primary schools. Pupils had visited on multiple occasions and knew staff members, including their Head of Year and pastoral team as they had been involved in delivery. Primary colleagues had been able to discuss transition informally with DHC staff and communication was much eased. The well documented challenge during transition to keep disadvantaged pupils on track and avoid the ‘negative drift’ was tackled.

Moreover, iAspire pupils arrived at Dyke House with an understanding of their progression pathways and options. They could imagine university, having visited Sunderland or Newcastle University as part of their Year 6 programme. Embedding iAspire into the wider Aspirations Programme meant they had heard of many of our 7-11 programmes and were excited to join them. This knowledge has been invaluable to ensuring a coherent approach to their progression pathway between Year 6 and Year 7 and the maximising of opportunities secondary can offer.

It will take another 7 years before the pupils with whom we worked with in Year 4 are applying to university. It will be 6 years before they gain GCSE results and make decisions around Post 16 progression. Early intervention is a brave step in an era where policy churn makes planning even just months ahead a challenge. However, at Dyke House we believe our pupils can only attain at GCSE, progress to facilitating subjects at A Level and secure places at highly selective universities if we embed this culture early, holistically and with a truly long term plan for the future.

When the research tells us this is the right thing to do, when we work with external partners to provide opportunities for our pupils, create sustainable systems and evaluate our programmes to measure impact, we are confident that our pupils will benefit.

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!

Widening Participation in Schools – Top Tips

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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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!

The Importance of Imagination…

In 2008, JK Rowling gave the Harvard Commencement Address. There, in front of the graduating class of that year, she talked about the power of imagination. She said to those listening, ‘we did not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.’ The more I thought about this statement, the more fascinated I became about its truth. I have returned to this speech frequently over the past few years, as I started work at Dyke House, joined the team setting up the Sixth Form and latterly, working across the school to build progression pathways for our pupils. Was JK Rowling right? Can we all imagine? Can we all imagine better?

JK Rowling made her speech to a group of immensely privileged young people. Whilst I am not ignorant enough to assume that all Harvard graduates have had an untroubled path to success, I think it is safe to say that they are now in an immensely fortunate position. They embody her statement and in that particularly unique setting, I am sure it is a truth. But I do not believe it is universally so. In order to harness the power of which JK Rowling spoke, we must have the capacity and crucially, the stimuli to imagine. I am not convinced is quite as she portrays. Furthermore, defining better poses an additional, separate challenge.

For some there may be a tension between imagination and betterment. We are keen to define disadvantage and poverty as those less likely to progress to university, to professional careers. Statistically, these people also equate to those likely to earn less and be economically humbler in later life. Some are uncomfortable with defining this sector of society as in some way ‘worse’ than those who have pursued a pathway of Higher Education, a high flying role and the pay check which accompanies it. When we are asked to imagine, must we always imagine better to be this latter image? Is there an inherent problem with ‘intergenerational stability’; the perpetuation of low paid work between generations within the same area, in the same industries, as part of the same communities? Or have we decided that is the case and in our neoliberal society, the drive for maximum productivity and economic betterment is our defining paradigm?

Maybe this is so, but for me, betterment is about choice. The choice to work in the same area you grew up in or equally to relocate to a new area; regional, national or international. The choice to progress to university or to an apprenticeship, or to enter paid employment after finishing compulsory schooling. The choice to enter a profession or to work in a job which does not require specific additional qualifications. In order to make these choices, you must be able to understand and imagine them.

For our disadvantaged students at my school; the 53% of our cohort who are eligible for Free School Meals, the 59% of our pupils who fall into the least likely quintile to progress to university and the 70% of pupils in the poorest sector of our society, how and what do they imagine about higher education?* What is their experience, or that of anyone around them? POLAR data suggests that very few of our pupils have immediate contact with a university graduate.** There are exceptionally few pupils with parents in professional careers. Can you truly imagine that which you have never experienced, never encountered or discussed? Can you imagine the utterly foreign, the different and outside of your world?  And if you cannot imagine… how can you make that choice?

I do not think that you can. If you have never left the area in which you grew up, if your parents, friends and family have no experience of education, university and a career, I do not believe you can really imagine what it may be like to do so. In a school where 50% of households are on benefits, 39% of work age adults are unemployed and 35% of pupils come from the 10% most deprived wards in the country, I do not think our children can truly imagine what this choice might look like. And that is what it is; not betterment, but choice. Those who have the information, who have experienced and who therefore can imagine – they can make those decisions. Far too many children make decisions without truly realising the choices they have. That is disadvantage and it leads to a lack of intergenerational mobility for all the wrong reasons; not through information, understanding and choice, but through a blindness and the inability to imagine.

Our challenge therefore, is to imagine for them, to provide the opportunities to visit, learn and understand a world which they have no experience and persuade them to take this momentous step to imagine with us. When this happens, it is then that our pupils can make choices. Real choices. Then they can imagine better… whatever their better truly is.

*Accurate for Dyke House College 2015-16.

** The POLAR index measures progression to Higher Education by postcode.

Unpaid Internships…It’s Still Not What You Know

Alex* is eighteen years old and has just started her degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at a London university. She’s articulate, verbose and imaginative. She aspires to be a journalist. In pursuit of this, she created and edited our school magazine throughout her final three years at Dyke House. She writes extensively and reached the final stages of a national competition aimed at those three years older than her for a recent article. Clearly she is good at what she does. She also, like many talented young people, cannot afford to undertake unpaid internships throughout the duration of her undergraduate degree.

Why not? Because she must work in order to support herself through university; the cost of living in London significantly exceeds the maintenance support she receives through Student Finance England and her parents cannot cover this shortfall. Alex has defied all educational disadvantage statistics to progress to undergraduate study. She is the embodiment of research by the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Commission and research published by Gill Wyness et al, all of which draw the same conclusions… that even when all other factors are controlled for, graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to gain a professional job and will earn less than their affluent peers. Moreover, particular professions – journalism included – are dominated by the affluent, the privately educated and therefore, those who can afford to work for free in the early stages of their career. Over half of leading journalists were privately educated and 54% went to Oxbridge. Nationally, just 7% of children are privately educated and fewer than 1% of gradates are from Oxbridge. Journalism is by no means the only career to be dominated thus; 74% of the top judiciary hail from independent schooling, two thirds of senior doctors and 71% of high ranking military officers.

Disadvantaged children are less likely to study academically rigorous subjects at GCSE. They underachieve by over half a GCSE grade per subject and are less likely to progress onto A Level Post 16 study. They are then less likely to progress to higher education and they are exponentially less likely to progress onto a highly selective university. And even when they have defied every trend, statistic and prediction, they suffer from long term disadvantage in the labour market. It is in this context that Alex’s situation makes depressing sense. There are compelling reasons for greater equality of opportunity in society; the industries supposedly representing and serving the nation are a product of a narrow section of it. How many hugely talented individuals are unable to make sector changing contributions for the sake of unpaid experience in order to get their foot in the door?

Alex has been offered multiple unpaid internships with several well known organisations however, she needs a part time job in order to allow her to study for her degree. Fifteen hours of unpaid labour a week on top of this leaves her unable to actually attend university… the maths isn’t hard. Research from the Sutton Trust found that a six month unpaid London internship for a would cost a minimum of £926 per month and called for the national minimum wage to be paid to all interns. Their research was published in 2014 and we have yet to see any change on this front. Yet without experience, Alex is all too aware that the chances of ‘breaking into’ journalism in 2016 are minimal. Breaking in… an apt phrase for a profession where those who don’t have reams of high quality unpaid experience are made to feel like outsiders. They shouldn’t be there? Or they simply can’t .

The outrage of unpaid internships has been discussed for years. A quick Google search elicits pages of articles from many and varied publications. Nothing says cross spectrum support like the Daily Mail and the Guardian finding common ground. Frustratingly, little progress has been made; affluent young people are still able to undertake work for free, bankrolled by parents who not only understand the importance of, but are able to provide this crucial support. The statistics are clear – investing in this work will reap long term rewards and much improved career progression. One cannot help but wonder how much this is down to eliminating from the field those who cannot afford to even begin the competition.

Underpinning this is a much wider issue. Unpaid internships are successful because they widen social networks and offer the opportunity to build relationships. Whether you’re making tea or dominating bylines, the chance to interact with those in the profession provides an insight into their world; the expectations, the jargon and the process. I cannot think of a career in which an individual with experience of a sector would not have an advantage. Unsurprisingly – and understandably – those who have contacts within an industry are more likely to be able to secure employment in their chosen field.

We tell our disadvantaged children to work harder, aspire higher and overcome challenges. What we omit to mention is this base truth: educational disadvantage is truly a lifelong barrier to success. I do not blame those from affluent backgrounds, whose parents can afford to support them for making the choice to work for free. They are simply reacting to the demands of their chosen profession and in they early echelons of their career, they cannot affect change. What is needed is structural change to recruitment into these professions; the outlawing of unpaid internships and the creation of paid roles for these jobs. Until we make this commitment, we fail to eliminate yet another obstacle in the battle for equality of opportunity. Until we make this commitment, journalism, as well as so many other professions is missing a huge talent pool. As far as I can see, your ability to write, articulate, heal or lead is not inherently linked to your parents’ wealth. It is our society which makes it so.

* Alex isn’t her real name. But if you are a professional looking for a paid intern in the media sector, let me know. Oh wait… is that social network?

[1]The Sutton Trust, Leading People, The Educational Backgrounds of the UK Professional Elite. (2016)

[2] The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, The State of the Nation Report (2014)

[3] Gill Wyness et al. Higher Education, Career Opportunities and Intergenerational Inequality, Journal of Economic Geography (2016)

[4] The Sutton Trust, Internship or Indenture? (2014)

It’s All in the Name… The Brilliant Club

the-brilliant-clubLast week I felt hugely privileged to give the keynote speech at The Brilliant Club’s tutor training weekend. For the uninitiated, The Brilliant Club delivers university style tutorials to small groups of pupils, enhancing academic skills and knowledge, in order to widen access to highly selective universities. The theme of the weekend ‘what does The
Brilliant Club mean to you?’ gave me the opportunity to re-examine my thoughts… and for me, it’s all in the name.

Brilliant. It’s there, defined unashamedly from the outset; the aim of the organisation is to nurture brilliance, to actively seek it and to reward it. Love of learning, pride in knowledge and prestige around academic attainment in the state system is so often overlooked in favour of the nebulous pursuit of ‘cool.’ Schools have responded to perceived student distaste for learning by disguising it with games, endorsing this attitude and shying away from confronting the power of knowledge. The Brilliant Club embraces knowledge, with an army of PhD tutors as their secret weapon, bringing research to life and giving a face to university progression. Ross talks about cloning mammoths and ancient DNA, Izabella about Ebola and geochemistry. They love their subjects. My pupils love being on the ‘cutting edge of research’ and sharing this learning. They love that Ross studied at the University of Oxford, they ask Izabella about her experiences of her PhD at Durham. Brilliant has a name and a face, it has a meaningful progression pathway and it is real. The link between being brilliant and opportunity is demonstrated not only by their tutors, but in their own progress as part of the programme. Pupils work hard and they are rewarded; marks for essays are given in undergraduate style and parents and carers are invited to a graduation ceremony to celebrate their achievements. I tell them it may be their first graduation but it won’t be their last… and they agree. They aspire to be brilliant and they understand why. The connection between their hard work and attainment now, and the opportunities for progression later are clear.

Club. Defined as, ‘an organisation for people with a common purpose or interest.’ The idea of bringing like minded people together is an inherently appealing one. So is the binary concept of being either ‘in’ or ‘out’. For many of disadvantaged pupils, they’re ‘out’ of most of the clubs we know about. Research from The Sutton Trust suggests that they’re probably ‘out’ of the A Level club. Odds on, they’re ‘out’ of the Higher Education club and they’re almost definitely ‘out’ of the highly selective university club, along with all the implications these clubs may have for their future. The Brilliant Club however, offers them an opportunity to be ‘in’; for once to be the right side of the divide. It brings them together under the common purpose of the aforementioned brilliant and it gives them a tangible sense of what it feels like to be there. Progression is partly about attainment; the ‘being brilliant’, but it is fundamentally underpinned by the desire to become part of a very specific and, for many illusive, club. University after all, is the very definition of a club.

Research tells us that fewer than 2% of children on Free School Meals progress to a highly selective university, compared to 48% of their privately educated counterparts. Those same universities are those most targeted by graduate employers and it is therefore hardly surprising that our professions are dominated by private school graduates; three quarters of the top judiciary went to private schools and sixty percent of top doctors. More clubs our disadvantaged pupils cannot join. Whilst I do not think that university is – or ought to be – for everyone, it should be a club that anyone can join. The statistics show that is simply not the case. Attainment is restricted by the desire not to be ‘nerdy’, aspiration limited by a lack of understanding as to what university progression could mean.

The Brilliant Club challenges both these issues. Moreover, it confronts them head on, in schools across the UK. As I stood in front of the mass of tutors, some returning after several years of involvement, others for their first placement, I saw the true power of the movement. Every tutor represented 12, 24, 36 pupils in state schools across the country, every tutor represented an opportunity for more disadvantage children to progress to highly selective universities. I am proud to be a part of this most important of clubs.

Things Lucy Taught Me…

Creating this blog, moving to London and starting at UCL, I’ve been asked much more frequently about my choices; ‘why education?’ ‘why Hartlepool?’ ‘why educational disadvantage?’ I’ve thought about it far more too. This is my paradigm… all future decisions, blog posts come as a result of this ‘why.’ So here’s my first blog…

Life has not always been easy but I have been lucky. I have been educated, supported and informed. I have, for the most part, felt empowered. When I have not, I have been surrounded by friends, family and colleagues who have fought for me. Until I met Lucy, I did not appreciate how lucky that made me.

I met Lucy* within days of arriving at Dyke House. Lucy was in Year 11, with excellent KS2 entry data which suggested that she would be a high attaining GCSE pupil. She was polite, engaging and worked hard with me as she sat sharing my desk, revising for her exams. Lucy also had a three month old baby, born in February of Year 11. She gained 3 A*-C at GCSE. She became another statistic, another child in the Sutton Trust ‘Missing Talent.’[1] Except, in the short time I had known Lucy, I knew that three GCSEs and teenage motherhood did not define her. I also knew she had a challenging home life, was moving into a house alone with her daughter and was surviving entirely off benefits. At 16, she was not empowered, nor was she fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who were so. Lucy was no less deserving than I was at her age, nor the countless other Year 11 girls who have faced many and varied challenges. However, her outcome in life was about to be defined by her economic status and her social network.

In the first year of our brand new Sixth Form, Lucy enrolled to study for her A Levels. She was placed in my Learning Guide (our version of a tutor group) and we discussed her timetable, our expectations of her and the reasons why she wanted to continue to study. Lucy was clear – as she had been from the moment I met her – that she wanted to be a nurse. She was compassionate, empathetic and academically able… she had the potential to make an outstanding professional.

She was late every day for the first term. Some days she didn’t turn up at all. The house she had moved into was on a street known in the town as being somewhere to avoid, the previous tenants owed money to enough people to have the bailiffs arriving on multiple occasions. When she did appear, she was often in tears, unkempt and exhausted. I was incessant, phoning every morning, making house calls and constantly collecting work from staff. Lucy was in no fit state to study; no matter what I did, life outside of school crushed her ability to achieve. We referred her for further support in order to help her to stay in education, to avoid becoming NEET… as a sixteen year old living alone with a young baby, I felt sure she would be prioritised as soon as she was in the system. In fact, I was incredulous she wasn’t already flagged. Just weeks later, she told us that the Key Worker assigned to her had closed her case. Apparently she was doing fine. Fine?

The house was so cold that Lucy’s daughter arrived at nursery one day with purple feet. Lucy had chilblains, a hacking cough and unwashed hair. When I asked her, she sobbed and said she’d phoned her landlord repeatedly to resolve the problem with the (broken) boiler and been told it would be sorted… soon. A sixteen year old girl, in a unheated house alone with a baby in November. Our school Health Worker phoned the council and that day Lucy was given heaters, money to help with the accompanying electricity bill and, a few days later a new boiler was installed. It will forever remain with me as the epitome of disempowerment in our modern day welfare state… Lucy is not unintelligent, nor was she apathetic. But she was sixteen years old, cold, tired and unable to battle bureaucracy articulately enough to keep her and her daughter warm. She did not know what to do. I question who would have done.

Throughout the last two years, Lucy has struggled daily to manage to study and bring up her daughter. She has moved house – three times. She has received letters, threatening her with legal action if she does not pay her council tax, despite the fact she is a registered full time student and I wrote multiple letters to confirm this. She has grappled with paper pushing exercises of monumental proportions, in order to receive benefits that she has always been entitled to. On multiple occasions she has been forced to attend unchangeable ‘back to work’ interviews at the Job Centre, despite the fact she is – and always has been – a full time student. Upon arrival at said appointment (a half hour walk from school), she has been told it is an administrative error and she can leave. An hour and a half of missed classes to tick more boxes.

The irony? Lucy has huge potential and the aspiration to achieve professional qualifications in order to contribute to society. At this stage in her life she is immensely vulnerable and she needs support, but this need not always be so. What is true, is that the support Lucy receives now will define what she becomes. The reality is, it will also define the future of her daughter. Children in workless households are less likely to achieve benchmark academic grades, progress to university or professional careers and are more likely to suffer from poor health.[2] By investing in Lucy as a society, we are investing in her now three year old daughter.

Spending two and a half years with Lucy has demonstrated to me in a way that nothing else could, the holistic problems faced by those that society defines as most vulnerable. Lucy is not yet nineteen… even if worthiness is to be considered purely on a utilitarian basis, investment in her now will not only enable her to contribute to our economy as a graduate nurse, but save hundreds of thousands in benefits, healthcare and the associated costs of low income households. Support in today’s society manifests itself instead in tens of hours on automated phone lines, myriad paperwork I myself did not fully understand and treatment scaling from somewhere between indifferent to rude from those paid to offer help and advice.

As Lucy tries so very hard to play an ever changing game in which the rules are never fully explained; where the consequence of any refusal equate to an inability to feed her daughter, I am constantly in awe of her commitment to her future. My nineteen year old self would not have won those battles. I was not that resilient… I did not have to be. I do not believe that Lucy should either.

The things Lucy taught me; that grit is measured in phone queues to government helplines and revision classes whilst bailiffs bang at your door. That knowledge of literature is only as important as that of the intricacies of a Care to Learn form, and time management is only truly realised when juggling your A Level exams with demands of attendance at Job Centre ‘work focused’ interviews. Educational disadvantage manifests itself in so many ugly ways.

Lucy’s battle is not over but she is not alone. She may not be empowered and she may not have been born into a network of people who can support her, but I will continue to fight for Lucy, until she too can enjoy the privilege of being able to fight for herself and for her daughter. Before I met Lucy, educational disadvantage and social mobility were faceless phrases. She has defined them for me and she continues to inspire me to work towards a different future for the Lucy’s of tomorrow.

And when she graduates, I will be so very proud.

[1] Sutton Trust, ‘Missing Talent’ (2013)
[2] Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Poverty: Causes, Cuts and Solutions’ (2016)
*She’s not called Lucy. That’s the only part that isn’t true.