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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


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Widening Participation practitioners won’t let COVID-19 closures stop them from delivering HE access activities.

By IOE Editor, on 26 May 2020

By Professor Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter

School closures have led to widely discussed concerns regarding the safety, well-being and attainment and progression of students already considered disadvantaged or at risk. Unfortunately, our newly published paper exploring the impact of lockdown reveals widespread cancellation of widening participation (WP) activities such as face-to-face sessions in schools, residential summer schools and university taster days that are designed to help these pupils progress into Higher Education.

Encouragingly, ingenuity has been many practitioners watchword and new modes of delivery are springing up that could preserve some activity in the face of adversity and even create new ways of reaching potential students: after initial cancellations, universities are offering alternative virtual offer-holder or taster days as well as support materials and webinars for students, teachers and parents

No underestimating the upheaval

As part of this OfS funded study, The Centre for Social Mobility at The University of Exeter worked with think-tank The Centre for Education and Youth to survey WP and Uni Connect practitioners. Uni Connect, formerly known as the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) consists of 29 partnerships between universities, colleges and local partners working with over 180,000 young people and 1,613 schools to support decisions around and progress into higher education. The aim was to highlight issues and concerns while developing policy and practice recommendations to ensure universities doors do not close to traditionally underrepresented groups.

Our findings show that school closures have impacted negatively on all but a handful of respondents work. The most common implication has been postponement or cancellation of planned activities and alarmingly, one Uni Connect partnership said 182 events had been cancelled so far.

Where events have been postponed, practitioners were in no doubt about the knock on effects that were likely to follow. These will not be short-lived. One Uni Connect practitioner said much of the work they have spent the last four months planning is now postponed and finding new dates and re-booking events will detract from the work that would normally start in September.

From adversity springs innovation

Encouragingly, respondents also identified new approaches that they were planning for, or had already pursued. Several were optimistic that developments introduced due to For example, one WP Officer commented that the current situation has opened new channels for communications with schools, and that telephone conversations have taken on a more personal touch.

Increasing the use of online materials and a shifting to online delivery of events were at the forefront of new developments but respondents also described online mentoring, virtual residentials and tailored support via email.

We found that:

  • Seven out of ten respondents in university WP and related roles said that open days would be offered online.
  • Over six out ten said their universities were offering online events similar to teaching, alongside static online resources.
  • Online forums or Q&A with current undergraduates featured for 58% of university respondents overall, and just under half (49%) were offering online events for teachers and advisors.
  • Respondents in Russell Group institutions were more likely than those in other types of institutions to offer static online resources.
  • More respondents in the post-92 and other categories of institutions were offering bespoke higher education transition support compared to those in Russell Group institutions.
  • Around two-fifths in post-92 institutions (39%) and a quarter in other types of institutions (24%) were offering online events for parents, compared to 14% of respondents in Russell Group institutions.
  • Virtual residentials featured more highly for respondents in Russell Group institutions (44%) compared to only 17% of respondents in other institutions.
  • Respondents in the other category of universities were most likely to say they were reviewing or creating contextual admissions policies (41%), well above twice the share of respondents in the Post-92 and Russell Group institutions.

*Caution low base

Backing the bounce-back

None of this is easy and it would be optimistic to think these responses will be enough to overcome the considerable hurdles in the way of efforts to ensure all young people have fair and equitable access to HE. It is clear that it cannot be left to individual universities to patch up the gaps in provision. Respondents therefore called for national-level support and leadership to help them ensure young people bounce back from the pandemic.

I would like to see an offer of a national programme of online activities/events/webinars that students and parents can access during this time which can help to prepare for the next step.

Clear and concise messaging to pass to schools and students about HE progression and the UCAS process this summer.

The cancelling of A levels and the proposed use of constructed grades is causing a lot of concern and also raising questions about how they and other measures can be used for selection while still being fair and encouraging widening participation.

Quantitative data from our survey also showed that there was a particular desire to focus on well-being and to provide support for young people falling behind.

Rising to the challenge

A generation will feel the effects of this school and university closures if WP activity is allowed to stumble in the face of the pandemic. A combination of sector-led ingenuity and national action is therefore needed to mitigate current circumstances. The online world offers many opportunities for overcoming some barriers disadvantaged students are likely to face in accessing outreach activities. These include challenges around transport, timing and the time involved in participating in face-to-face events. If connectivity to the internet and access to physical resources such as laptops and smartphones and quiet places to study were equal, the online provision would go a very long way to equalizing access to information, advice and guidance. The involuntary massive online move may thus act as a positive catalyst for enhancing outreach practices long-term.

We are encouraged by the fact that our research suggests Widening Participation practitioners are taking the first steps, and in doing so, learning lessons and developing new approaches that could inform future practice. It is now time to ensure this practice is replicated across the sector, and that national action backs up on-the-ground innovation.

Prof Anna Mountford-Zimdars*, Joanne Moore*, Dr Sam Baars**, Loic Menzies**
*University of Exeter, **The Centre for Education and Youth 
For a longer report on the survey of admissions and outreach staff, please see
Mountford-Zimdars, A and Moore, J (2020) Safety, food and well-being are a greater concern than attainment: The views from university widening participation staff in the context of Covid-19, Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter, Working Paper.
The research had ethical approval and started five days into the school closure, the survey was available from 25th March to 20th April and received 262 responses.
Some data collection was supported by an OfS commissioned project/contract. For further information on the University of Exeter and Centre for Education and Youth on the impacts of School Closure survey please see: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/socialmobility/projects/
The project team for this work are from the University of Exeter unless otherwise indicated: Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Joanne Moore, Sam Baars (Centre for Education and Youth) Nicola Sinclair, Kevin Denny (University College Dublin), Annabel Watson, Will Shield, Katherin Barg, Nick Long, Luke Graham, Paul Woolnough, Sara Venner, Taro Fujita, Julie Mason, Verity Hunt, ZhiMin Xiao, Dongbo Zhang, Neil French, Judith Kleine Staarman, Alison Black, Emily Warwick, Brahm Norwich. We would like to thank our critical friends for feedback on the surveys: Ciaran Burke (University of the West of England), and Steven Jones (University of Manchester).

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