Meeting the widening participation challenge

My contribution to the Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on 1st July 2014.

Thank you very much for inviting me and I’m going to keep it short.

I think my take home message is probably the same as Les Ebdon’s actually, which is that if we want to increase access to HE by disadvantaged groups, we need more collaboration. More controversially perhaps, my take home message for policy makers would be that if you really want to widen participation in HE in England, we actually need more colleges, rather than more grammar schools, which is what the Daily Telegraph was advocating today.

So, Newham Sixth Form College: we’re a very large sixth form college with a very high progression rate to HE; 91% of applicants get places. And, when you break it down into vocational and academic, 99% of all A level applicants get places. I would add that an increasing number are progressing to Russell Group universities, so we went from 42 successful Russell Group placements in 2012, to 60 in 2013, and that looks to increase again this year. However, that increase in Russell Group numbers has not been reflected in any increase in Oxbridge numbers, which are very spiky and very low.  So, in recent years: two, three, one, zero, and this year we’re hoping for two. Incidentally, of these two Rumana is of Pakistani heritage, and Gerda moved from Lithuania with no experience of the UK education system until she came to sixth form college.

Also, we’ve seen a big increase in numbers overall; 767 students progressing to university, which puts us in the top 20 of sixth form providers in the whole country.  And we are, in fact, the highest provider of former free school meal students to HE, based on the data that’s just been released for 2011. We didn’t know this until we saw the data, because of course colleges won’t have the free school meal system, until next year. So, one of my points really is that if you want to look for success in actually getting high numbers of disadvantaged students into university, colleges are where it’s happening. So, we have to start mentioning colleges and not just ‘schools’. More free school students progressed to university from 54 colleges in England, than from all the schools in the country. So, that’s our record.

We do have a very London-centric spread. Our students are very reluctant to leave London, there’s all sorts of barriers and all sorts of issues there. I think Oxbridge does suffer from the fact of not being in London, so perhaps one recommendation would be to move to London!  I have told them this.

So how do we do it?  I think the first point is that this is not about raising aspirations.  Certainly our students in East London do not lack aspiration, and I’m sure Ed Durbin would confirm that for Brooke House College in Hackney. The work we have to do is about realising those aspirations; giving students the tools to realise those aspirations. They don’t lack ambition, they completely understand, they completely get the value of education, and they and their families are absolutely committed to success and progression. Whether they always have the tools to achieve that is another matter, and that’s where we have to help with well-informed support, information, advice and guidance. We have to stay ahead of all the changes in HE, all the subtleties and nuances of admissions. We have to prepare them well for selection processes, they are more and more complex: it’s not just about getting good A level results, it’s also about preparing for the BMATs, and LNATs, and UKCATs, and interviews, and all the rest.

Our partnership with universities is critical and is based on academic engagement.  It’s not just about, “go to visit universities, go and look at Oxford, go and look at Cambridge” but it’s about academic engagement, and this is where the partnerships are the most productive. So, we have universities curating our liberal arts lecture programme and we have universities leading on projects. Queen Mary University of London, for example, is leading on a project on critical reading, “what is criticality?”  Those are the most fruitful partnerships, and they help students in all sorts of practical academic ways.

We also have a mentoring culture. We use our alumni, we use university undergraduates and postgrads as mentors and our students are also mentoring school students, so that there’s a whole chain of mentoring. Ideally everyone is both a mentee and a mentor. And finally, as a comprehensive college we have embraced the need for a special programme for high achieving students, who should be aiming to make strong applications to the most selective universities if they want to.

I could say a lot more about the honours programme, but I’m going to skip that and get back to the take-home message. I think we have a real gap where Aim Higher used to be. Some of you will remember Aim Higher. Les Ebdon talked about the need for coherence and collaboration, but from our point of view, we don’t see coherence in terms of our relationships with universities. It’s all very bilateral, and in the case of collegiate universities, like Oxbridge, it’s not even a relationship with the university, it’s a relationship with a complex patchwork of colleges which is very variable.

So, I think we need networks, we need hubs. We have music hubs, in fact we host Newham’s music hub at NewVIc. I think we need to reinvent, to create some ‘wiring’, if you like, for the system, so that universities can engage with colleges and schools.  And, I would suggest that colleges, given the size of the cohort we’re talking about and the success in widening participation, are the right place to mediate that. We are in a world now where there are an increasing number of post-16 providers competing with each other. And, sadly we are all using our university links as part of our marketing strategy in a competitive way, and we’re as guilty as anyone else. That will not stop unless we can create some kind of wiring for the system, and I’d suggest some kind of regional hubs. They could develop the academic support and the academic engagement that I’ve mentioned. Whether it’s support for extended projects, for research skills, lectures, mentoring, online materials, there’s all sorts of potential initiatives that we could build on in a more regional way.

I think we also need a culture change. Because of this competitive market approach we have, both in HE and in FE, we’re in a world where it’s all about who you keep out.  It’s about keeping people out and creating barriers to progression, rather than starting from a comprehensive perspective, which is to say “well actually we want you to come in, we want to make it possible for you to come in to experience this wonderful thing called higher education, which will change your life.” I don’t think there’s enough of that.

I also think there needs to be another look at entry requirements. Entry requirements seem to me to be too driven by market judgements, market considerations, rather than saying “Actually what do you need for this course? What should the entry requirements be for this course?  What skills do you need?”  It’s not just about grades, and I’m certainly not suggesting any lowering of standards, quite the opposite. I also regret the damaging impact of the notion of facilitating subjects. As soon as we start to develop this hierarchy of subjects: facilitating, non-facilitating, hard, soft, all these words:  “top, elite, best . . .” It all gets in the way of widening access. I think there’s an enormous culture shift in England that needs to happen if we really want to commit to widening access.

It seems to me that we also need targets. I was at a college in Cambridge last week and we imagined all sorts of really exciting projects, which everyone was up for. The one thing people didn’t want to do is to set targets, and these geographical partnerships that Oxbridge colleges have, have never developed any targets.  Let’s actually aim to get three, five, ten, students from this region, from this area, from this local authority patch into our college, and let’s do everything we can do to achieve that without in any way compromising standards.

So, I leave you with that fact again, because it’s quite important isn’t it? Just 54 colleges in the country are responsible for as many free school meal students progressing to HE as all the state school sixth forms in the country. So, if there’s anyone you need to work with, start with those 54.  So this is the message to universities: if there’s anyone you need to work with it’s colleges, and we’re ready, our door is open.  So, I’m going to skip my motivational quotes because,

I think I’ve probably overrun, so that’s it, thank you very much.

Paul Uppal MP (chair): Thank you very much, Eddie, quite an interesting stat at the end.  I’ll take the message back to David about moving Oxbridge universities to London, I’m not sure how that’s going to go down, I think it will be a tough gig but let’s see what reception we get on that.

Later questions from the floor:

Dr Peter Claus, Pembroke College, Oxford: I was interested in Eddie’s comments.  I just want to lighten down on the regional hubs idea, which I think is an excellent idea.  I’m an access fellow, which is the first of the beasts that’s emerging very quickly in Oxford, across the collegiate university and I’m an historian by trade. When I came to Oxford I very much wanted to lighten down on a hub type of model, and we worked with Eddie for a while in NewVic, and continue to do so through something called a Classics Centre.  My question really is, how do we join together universities in a more productive way to create the kind of network that we need?  But not actually returning to an Aim Higher type model, which I actually sat on in the Thames Gateway and which really wasn’t very evidence based.  And, neither did it do the real problem, as Eddie admitted, of promoting geographical mobility really, it tended to keep the young people within the partnership of the universities who were working in that particular area.   Because, before we do anything else, we’ve got to surely allow for geographical mobility, so students are choosing the subjects they want to do, in the universities they want to go to, regardless of where those universities are.

Paul Uppal MP: Eddie do you want to come back on that?

Eddie Playfair:Yes, I want to pay tribute to Peter’s work, because it was pioneering, and really perhaps he should be on this platform, rather than some of us. He helped to pioneer this academic engagement which I spoke about. I certainly don’t want to go back to Aim Higher and I certainly don’t want a bureaucratic expensive approach, but I do think that there’s a case for universities to share, to offer a coherent package of academic support to schools and colleges in their region, in their area, simply because bilateral relationships, particularly in the world that we’re in now, where there are so many providers, bilateral relationships are intrinsically unfair, because not everyone benefits. And what you need to be able to say to young people in an area like London, or East London or East Anglia, or whatever, is that there’s a menu of options, there’s a range of programmes available to you, wherever you’re studying, and these are the best possible academic programmes available.

On the issue of geographical mobility, I’m not sure I entirely agree, because I think there are very good reasons why students like ours in East London find it difficult to leave home. There are all sorts of barriers to leaving home; financial, in terms of support networks, and so on, and I’m not sure, given that students are already taking a big step, investing in their future by going to university, that we need to put more big steps in their way. However, what that means is there is a problem for Oxbridge.  If Oxbridge are national, or global institutions and we want to encourage more working class youngsters, more East Londoners to get into them, they would have to engage somehow through the college system or through some better, more coherent approach, with these hubs.  So, I’m not that bothered, in a sense, that 91% of our students, want to stay in London. Because, actually London has a wonderful range of universities on offer. There’s not really much need to leave London in a sense as everything’s on your doorstep. But, if we want to get them to Oxbridge there is this extra barrier of geography. And, as one of the admissions tutors at Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, pointed out to me last week, when they get to Oxbridge, the pastoral care and the kind of wrap around cocoon of support is actually really good.  So, in a sense, there are lots of good reasons to choose that in terms of support.  So, I absolutely agree, we need a new architecture, we need some new wiring, but it needs to be light touch, but very, coherent and, like Tessa Stone, I don’t see enough of the willingness for that. It’s partly because of this very marketised system, we’re all competing with each other at FE, we’re all competing with each other at HE, and it’s all about market position.  I pay tribute also to the Linking London Partnership which is an embryonic regional hub which could go much further. This is where FE and HE actually sit down and talk about some of the problems, you know, “Why do students drop out?  How do vocational students do when they progress?” All these really nitty gritty issues, and there’s that sense of trust and sharing that we can build on. So, certainly in London there’s a possible hub. But, we don’t want bureaucracy, we don’t need large central budgets, we just want people to share the work out and get on with it.

Angela Nartey, University and College Union: This question is on a slightly different track to what we’ve heard this morning. I was just interested in each of your thoughts on UCAS data that shows that there’s an impending crisis in male participation in higher education. So, that their data predicts that within ten years the gap between male and female participation in higher education could be greater than the current gap between, low and high socioeconomic groups.  And I just wondered if, and how, each of you in your roles have seen this, and what methods you’ve employed to tackle this.

Eddie Playfair:I certainly don’t have the answer, but we don’t see a big differential actually.  And, it may be about the fact that, as was said, a high proportion of our students are from Black and Minority Ethnic groups. This gender imbalance may not be such an issue there.  What is noticeable is that when we recruit academic mentors from former NewVIc students who have graduated from university and come back and work for a year to mentor our students, the applicants are overwhelmingly female. It’s very hard to recruit young male mentors. And if you have a disproportionate, unbalanced, mentor group that sends a message to our students about who knows about progression, who can help you academically with your skills and so on. So, that is a challenge, finding male mentors, and of course the way to encourage that is to have parity among our students who choose to be mentors in schools, so that they’re sending a message to young men, young boys, that supporting each other through education is cool, is fine. So, I don’t have the answer, these are deep socio-cultural problems.

Dr. Samina Khan, University of Oxford: We’ve talked about the curriculum reforms, and the qualification reforms, my question really is about the change to funding for sixth forms and what sort of impact that may have on widening participation.

Eddie Playfair:Well, there’s not enough money to pay for the kind of full time 16 to 19 curriculum that I think a modern European country should offer its young people.  I mean, if you compare the number of full time contact hours that we can afford for 16 to 18 year olds with France, Germany, the US or any developed country, we simply can’t afford to offer that kind of experience. So that is one issue. However, the Government has taken some steps to equalise funding. So, for example, we’ve moved away from qualification based funding and towards an entitlement to funding per student as long as they follow full programme of study, including English and maths, and that is welcome.

In FE historically we’ve always had a kind of pupil premium, to provide extra funding for disadvantaged students, and that’s welcome too and it’s been maintained.  So there are steps in the right direction and there’s been a lot of work by this Government to equalise funding and equalise support. So, for example, it took this Government, at a difficult time in a recession, to introduce free school meals for college students, where that was a big disparity. We still have to pay VAT in the college sector, whereas schools and academies don’t, and that’s worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to a typical college. So, there are serious issues with funding.  My problem really is that whatever the size of the cake is, the Government has chosen to ring-fence, to protect, funding from 5 to 16. So we fall into this kind of gap, our students fall in this gap between that ring-fence, that protection, and the loan system post-18. So they are rather stuck, on the one hand we don’t have loans but we’re also seeing massive reductions, particularly for 18 year olds and we face the most outrageous cut, I think, the most irrational cut next year, a  17.5% cut to funding for 18 years olds. These are young people who might be in the middle of their course, moving from the first year to the second year of an advanced course, and suddenly the funding drops by 17.5%. These are young people who are sitting alongside their peers in the same classes. We can’t, target that cut at those students.  It’s simply a cut for the college. And the more 18 year olds you have, the bigger the cut, it’s really irrational.  So, there are clearly funding problems. So, I think this country needs to decide whether, with the raising of the participation age, are we are prepared to invest. Do we believe that a decent full time educational experience for 16 to 18 year olds should be supported by the state, and the level of that funding, of course, has got to be a political decision. I think we have to take a decision about how important 16 to 18 education is, and clearly it’s critical for HE and for widening participation in HE as well.

Hannah Uzor, University of West London: I work in a university, but I’m also a school governor, and Chris you have alluded a lot to we should be doing a lot more at that stage.  I just wondered what are the thoughts of the panel on exactly what should be done in primary schools to really increase the widening participation agenda? I think primary schools are focused right now a lot on just the maths and the English achievement, and there’s not really much focus on, you could say, the widening participation, if we had to progress it through.

Eddie Playfair:I think this links with the question about what we should do in schools, links to white working class under achievement and investing in younger students, which I agree with.  I’ve just recently become a grandfather. I hadn’t completely forgotten, but watching afresh a young child, a baby, learning with this kind of passion, this passion for enquiry which they have, even before they can speak, even before they can walk. Somehow we need to nurture that don’t we? We need to nurture that passion, so young people can find their genius, find their passion. Of course develop the skills to access the best of what human civilisation has to offer them.  But I think we need to switch them on to the joy of learning and then never switch them off it.  We’ve got to avoid doing anything that switches them off it, so that by the time they get to the threshold of applying to university, they still have that passion.  It may be a different passion, the passion may be for understanding mitochondrial DNA or something, rather than how to hold a block of wood, but the point is the same, you know, that passion, that thirst to find out more, to enquire and to delve deeper and to question everything.  And, somehow, for some of our young people, we knock it out of them don’t we?  Somehow, the net effect of what we do between us, can be to knock it out of them, and we really can’t afford that.

Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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