What next for fair access and participation?

On Thursday 10th February 2022 we were pleased to host John Blake for his first external speaking event in his new role as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students. A Q&A and panel discussion followed, including multiple perspectives (university, school, sector and student) on how we can enhance collaboration to support more young people on the path to success.

Below you can view the event recording and read John's speech in full:

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is John Blake, and I am new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students.

I am hugely grateful to all of you for tuning in for this, and especially to Impetus, for giving me an opportunity to speak on such a vital topic.

I’m particularly grateful to Helena and the team for all the behind the scenes work that goes into making these events happen.

Impetus makes an incredible contribution to the cause of social mobility by supporting a wide variety of charities dedicated to improving the lives of young people who have experienced poverty. It is great to know that so many of those they support have been able to join us today, especially members of the Fair Access Coalition.

Between them members of the Fair Access Coalition partner with almost every major HE provider in the country as well as 2000 schools, working with over 70,000 young people every year.

That is a phenomenal achievement, and one I hope our work in the OfS can support further.

Like many people joining us, I have spent my entire career in education.

I have seen all its different phases and worked alongside staff from a range of institutions – I’ve been a student union officer, a classroom assistant and youth worker, a teacher and a teacher-trainer. I’ve worked with outstanding colleagues on early years development, and primary school curriculum; developing award-winning extra-curricular creative arts provision and doing the hard slog of intense intervention with young people preparing for exams.

I know, that across that whole spectrum, from key workers in nurseries encouraging early speech and language all the way across students’ learning journeys to the university lecturer leading a seminar of philology and semantics, that we are all united by an absolute belief that every part of our education system should create and foster equality of opportunity, and offer and enhance real and enduring social mobility.

Yet, for all that, we know it does not happen as often as we want, is not as sustained as it should be, is not as successful as we need it to be.

Just 27% of students who are Free School Meal eligible go on to university, compared to 46% of their better-off peers. And that gap, once tentatively closing, is now growing again.

It is not hard to offer reasons that this should be so: our society is profoundly unequal, and the predations of the Covid pandemic have only made that worse.

We know that disadvantaged pupils lost on average 2 months learning from the first lockdown, more than their more affluent peers. And that was on top of the gap before the pandemic, when disadvantaged pupils were already over 18 months behind their peers in attainment by age 16.

But true as that is, I am often struck by the speed with which some involved in education will reach for those statistics to say that we in schools, colleges and universities have already done all we can.

It seems some people wish us to accept that demography is destiny, and that if the money we spend on education doesn’t change that, then … well, what did you expect?

But that surely cannot be right. Education is nothing if it is not an intervention – it changes people, creates new ideas, new opportunities, new expectations.

It is precisely because it changes us, that we value it. That is its incredible power. And as it changes individuals, so their collective experience of change can transform families, communities, and society.

So we should not dwell on what can’t be done, but focus on what can. In the school system over the past twenty years, we have seen what dedicated, innovative action can achieve.

What began in London, with a turn-around from the worst education in the entire country to outperforming every other region in outcomes, inspection results, and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, is making its way across the country: with stronger, richer curriculums; more focussed and instructive pedagogy; more accurate, more timely and more responsive assessment.

Crucially, a huge part of those changes was the insistence that our charitable sector could and should do more to support the state’s education responsibilities.

That isn’t a new idea: the English schools system was essentially created by voluntary associations, friendly societies and campaigning groups. The fresh perspectives and different ways of working that exist in the third sector have always been a valuable tool of challenge and change to government’s approach to health, education and welfare.

I am proud to have worked for two charities, Ark and the Harris Federation, running families of schools, providing enduring and powerful networks between practitioners in different phases of education.

In the audience here, we have representatives of other charities who also make that difference. Programmes like IntoUniversity and the Access Project have repeatedly demonstrated how much difference they make to the students who work with them, in terms of academic outcomes and progression into higher education, tackling poor attainment, and the poor life chances it leads to.

What those charities have in common is not just a strong sense of mission and dedicated staff, but a clear sense of how networks engaging with young people across their lives can combine their impact to be far more powerful than any one actor alone.

That is a crucial lesson – if we face long odds in making a difference to children’s life chances, just demanding people work longer and harder isn’t going to fix that.

We are not short on people who will give up days, weeks, years of their time to pour into projects supporting the vulnerable and disadvantaged. We are not short on good suggestions, possible solutions, and rough ideas how things could be better.

No, what we lack, still, is enough commitment for all those dedicated people to work together, leveraging their contributions one to another, to create a massively more powerful impact. And what we lack is enough of the right evidence of about how to best implement our plans in way which works consistently, straightforwardly and effectively in the real world. And we have to change both of those things, if we are going to make all our work worthwhile, and make the difference to equality of opportunity and real social mobility we all want.

That is why I was so keen to speak with all of you here today – because we have so many people here who are already building those networks, already following that evidence. And we have more people here who can, should and want to do more of that. And I believe a big part of my role at the Office for Students is helping create the best environment for that collaboration to begin, grow and continue.

Of course, the OfS already does a huge amount to support this work: Since the OfS was established over 250 access and participation plans have been agreed, committing more than two and a half billion pounds over five years to supporting learners from underrepresented groups, including many examples of partnership work with third sector organisations.

We have helped establish TASO, Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education, a “what works” centre to identify the best available evidence, and promote the most effective interventions.

The next stage of access and participation reform is to embed that networking and evaluation at the heart of our regulation and HE providers’ commitments. To achieve that, I have three key aspirations for my time as Director for Fair Access and Participation.

The first is unapologetically nerdy: evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.

Everyone I have spoken to about this agrees, that for 20 years or more of widening participation work, we have nowhere near 20 years’ worth of evidence about what works. We can’t share what works, and we can’t make it work better, if we don’t actually know what does work!

In schools over the past 10 years, the Education Endowment Foundation has transformed the use of evidence and the work schools do to add to the sum of knowledge about effective educational practice. TASO is making some strong progress but for evidence and evaluation to become the corner-stone of access and participation, we need to do more.

That means accepting that some interventions will fail, but so long as we are learning from those failures, then some good has still arisen – we are keen to explore the “sandbox” of regulation to give providers committed to generating robust evidence the space to do so.

But we expect the projects committed to in APPs to be evaluated, for those evaluations to be independent, and for them to be published, just as the impact reports for many of the charities here today are.

My second aspiration is that our access and participation work will align with, and be seen as a crucial part of, the OfS’s quality and standards work. It is not enough that learners from underrepresented groups can get into college and university – access is about successful higher education, not just any higher education.

Real and enduring social mobility via higher education requires qualifications which are valued by students, employers, and society.

I absolutely reject any suggestion that there is a trade off between access and quality – if providers believe the regulation of quality justifies reducing their openness to those from families and communities with less experience of higher education or who have travelled less common, often more demanding, routes to reach them, they should be ashamed of themselves.

They should also be under no illusion that every power the OfS has, including removing providers’ access to higher fees, will be deployed to ensure providers abide by their responsibility to improve access, participation and quality. Providers who are keen to understand how they can do that should be seeking out both their peers within the sector and those external projects and programmes demonstrating success in this area.

My third aspiration is to see more, and more impactful school-university partnership activity. I really don’t need to tell this audience that the attainment gap opens early in life, so attempts to close it have to start then too.

Some have asked why this is the business of universities? Aren’t nurseries and schools, families and communities, local and national government supposed to sort this out? I could respond by saying that such attainment raising is in the direct interests of HE providers: more young people achieving more strongly means more potential students eligible to attend college and university, and a greater chance of them succeeding.

And no doubt, that is true. But I think to say only that betrays a very impoverished view of the role and importance of higher education.

HE is offered by corner-stone civic institutions – and whilst some providers have more international horizons than others, all of them have a locality, one that more-often-than-not they share their name with. Universities and colleges have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel of improving that wider community they sit within, and as both educational and civic institutions, improving attainment in our schools is an essential part of that work.

But they should not assume this duty falls to them alone – of course it doesn’t. We are asking providers to seek out strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector, all working together to contribute to this work.

In April, the OfS will be hosting an event bringing together universities, schools and the third sector to investigate current best practice, and explore ways forward. No one is expecting universities to “save” schools. The school leaders and teachers here would, I am sure, give very short shrift to the idea that “saving” is needed or wanted.

But precisely because the challenges ahead of us are so substantial, it is essential HE providers also pull their weight on pre-16 attainment, a challenge which affects us all.

If I haven’t been clear enough about this already, providers should not set out to do this work alone. I was a school teacher for long enough to work through three National Curriculums, and three GCSE specification re-writes. It wasn’t wrong for government and regulators to do the work of improving the curriculum and assessment, but far, far too often, schools responded by working in a silo to implement those changes.

I urge--frankly I beg--universities and colleges to not follow that model. Please do not separately all go and try and re-invent the same wheel in splendid isolation.

There are provenly successful programmes and projects already around for you to partner with, to help expand, to challenge with new ideas.

There are strong school trusts and mission groups in the school sector for you to engage with, learn from and support. It is by building on what we already know works which will help us create more and better, and better evidenced, interventions to achieve the real and enduring social mobility we all went.

This is not to say we do not want to see innovation and experimentation – provided there is commitment to independent, published evaluation – but we are far more likely to accept as viable innovative projects where they are founded on strong bonds of collaboration and partnership between HE, schools and charities.

In the coming months, we will be asking HE providers to update their current access and participation plans to better reflect both work they’re already doing, and new efforts in the areas of strategic school engagement, quality, non-traditional pathways to HE, and evaluation.

We will then begin the process of agreeing access and participation plans for the next four year cycle. As they do so, we hope, we expect many providers will reach out to their partners in the charitable sector and to school groups.

The Office for Student’s own UniConnect partnerships will be crucial bridges for all of this, and I strongly encourage everyone here, whether in universities, schools or charities, to take this as an opportunity to strengthen already existing partnerships and programmes, and to build new and exciting networks for action.

We should also ensure student perspectives are a key part of our work. I've been encouraged in my first few weeks in this role to see the work that OfS is doing to engage with students. I attended the student panel last month to hear their challenge and feedback on our access and participation priorities. It will be important going forward to engage with students, including in higher education and schools, as it is for providers in their own access and participation work.

I am enormously excited by the potential for this agenda, and by the huge amounts of positive feedback I have already received from universities and colleges keen to get going on this work.

Together, we can ensure that young people can achieve at school, succeed in higher education, and thrive in their chosen lives and careers.

Thank you

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