A young person’s GCSE results are one of the strongest predictors of whether they will go on to study at university. We also know that their chance of getting good GCSEs is linked to their socio-economic background. Therefore, if we want to achieve fair access to higher education, the education sector must work together to close attainment gaps between the most and least advantaged school students.
On the 24th of November 2021, The Brilliant Club was invited to facilitate a NEON Access Academy Training workshop on ‘How widening access work can support school attainment’. We were excited for the opportunity to bring together researchers and practitioners from across the education sector to share thoughts and experiences on this topic.
The workshop turned out to be particularly timely. On the same day, the Office for Students announced that every university will revise and resubmit their Access and Participation Plans so that they are “demonstrably aimed at helping students achieve the highest possible grades”. Minister for Higher and Further Education Michelle Donelan MP also gave a speech calling for universities to “actively work with and support their local schools to raise aspiration and attainment”.
The announcements by the Office for Students and Department for Education were a clear acknowledgement that universities have highly valuable knowledge, skills and resources that can be used to support schools in raising attainment to close disadvantage gaps. It was also evident from the NEON workshop that there is already a high level of commitment from university outreach teams to work with schools on improving grades.
However, there are several big questions to be answered: What actually works to raise attainment? What role can widening access work play? How can we support schools without simply repeating the curriculum or adding to teachers’ workloads?
The good news is that there are many possible avenues for supporting school attainment, both in and out of the classroom. Below we suggest a number of steps for identifying, implementing and evaluating attainment-raising interventions:
1. Listen to schools: Teachers are excellent advocates for their students’ needs and have a solid understanding of the challenges faced by the specific communities they work within. They are well placed to make suggestions for the types of interventions that could have a meaningful impact on student outcomes. They are also able to identify gaps in their own skills, capacity and resources that would benefit from external support.
2. Look to the evidence: This will help you to better understand what underlying factors may be causing low attainment in your target schools. These factors may relate to the quality of schooling, the home environment, and a child’s general health and wellbeing. It is then important to look to the evidence base for what types of interventions have been found to work (or not work) in similar contexts. Some useful evidence resources are the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit and TASO’s research on outreach participation and attainment.
3. Identify your mechanism: Before starting any form of activity or intervention aimed at raising attainment, it is important to articulate how your intervention will bring about the desired change. For example, an approach to raising attainment may involve:
- A tutoring programme that increases subject knowledge by directly teaching curriculum content. For example, The Brilliant Club’s Brilliant Tutoring Programme supports students in core subjects as part of the National Tutoring Programme. By working closely with teachers, we ensure that the content taught is useful to students
- A supra-curricular programme to academically stretch students and develop critical thinking skills, known to be associated with higher attainment. For example, in The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme, PhD researchers deliver university-style tutorials to students, giving them the opportunity to learn new subject content and develop academic skills and confidence
- A series of teacher CPD sessions that support teachers to identify and implement evidence-based approaches to raising attainment in the classroom
- A community-based programme that aims to remove environmental barriers to attainment by supplying learning resources or safe study spaces.
4. Measure your impact: It is difficult, but not impossible, to isolate the impact of widening access work on attainment. There are two approaches that could be taken:
- Measure changes in students’ grades directly, by obtaining this data from the school.
- Focus on measuring changes in attainment-related outcomes (i.e. outcomes known to be associated with improved attainment), rather than changes in actual grades. For example, you may want to measure changes in critical thinking skills, academic study skills, or motivation for learning, by using surveys before and after the intervention. For further information about measuring student outcomes that matter, you can read the blog that we wrote for TASO.
If you are interested in learning more about attainment-related outcomes and how you can evaluate them, we can support you through The Brilliant Club’s evaluation consultancy services.
5. Strive for causal evidence: To really know what works to raise attainment, we must go beyond simply measuring changes in learner outcomes over time. We know that many factors influence attainment, so it is important to identify which specific interventions are causing a change in attainment and attainment-related outcomes. Designing and running evaluations that can produce causal evidence (such as randomised controlled trials) requires expertise and resources. It is important that there is sector-wide collaboration to share expertise and conduct larger scale evaluations.
Universities conducting widening access work are well-placed to support schools to raise students’ attainment through a variety of avenues. During the NEON workshop, we heard from many practitioners about the range of incredible work they are already doing and were encouraged by their willingness to reflect on their programmes and take new knowledge on board. By collaborating with schools, developing a clear evidence-based strategy, and evaluating their programmes, universities can go even further in raising attainment in schools.
Author: Dr Katie Jones, Research and Evaluation Manager at The Brilliant Club