How do we join up support for young people making choices at post-16?

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The landscape for post-16 education and training is more complex than ever, and many students lack the information to make good decisions about their next steps – whether that be further education, an apprenticeship, or university.

Last Friday we hosted a roundtable discussion between more than 20 of our friends and co-members of the Fair Education Alliance that looked at the issues in provision of careers and progression advice to students at all stages of the education system, and started to think about ways of joining up support for post-16 routes.

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The afternoon’s discussion centred on the gaps in provision of advice and support at different levels – from post-16 right through to careers and employment – why they exist and what the key barriers to overcome them are. It also looked how partnerships might help to overcome those barriers, and at existing programmes and how effective have they been.

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With a varied set of perspectives around the table, including charities and campaigning organisations, schools, employers and young people, there was much to talk about and an encouraging amount of common ground about how to really make a difference.

The discussion covered progression from post-16 right through to careers and employment, and included some incredibly useful perspective from those at the sharp end.

As our work currently focuses on the choices young people have to make about post-18 education, some of the main themes related to that which stood out to us are ones we have been thinking about and working on for some time:

There isn’t a clear way to navigate all the information that currently exists, leading to choice overload.

This is something that we’ve been aware of for some time, and something we blogged about when the House of Commons Education Committee published its Value for money in higher education report late last year.

It’s certainly a complicated issue, especially when you consider, as the Careers and Enterprise Company's "Moments of Choice" paper (2016) pointed out, that "young people are presented with a choice environment in which attempting to act rationally looks like an irrational choice.

We feel that the answer to “too much choice” should not be “too much information”, though it’s clear that making all the information easier to find and clearer to understand so it’s easier to draw comparisons between different options, can only make things easier for young people when faced with a daunting array of options.

Young people’s main influencers – teachers, parents and carers – are not always equipped to provide reliable information, advice and guidance on post-16 and post-18 pathways.

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When we work in schools and colleges, especially in areas where progression to higher education is less likely, this is something we see an awful lot. We blogged about this earlier this year – and it’s something that the Office for Students is also keeping an eye on, as it consulted on it earlier this year.

Young people are often seen as singular decision makers, doing their research and occasionally turning to parents or teachers for advice. But anyone who works with students will tell you that the reality is quite different: their choices are social as well as individual; partly emotional and partly rational, rarely linear and often highly changeable.

Importantly, these decisions are powerfully shaped by key influencers: parents, friends and teachers. And young people from disadvantaged backgrounds rely particularly on these "hot" networks of support rather than the "cold" information provided by websites and search engines.

So for Information, Advice and Guidance to really be effective we need to start by ‘supporting the supporters’ – helping teachers, parents and carers give informed, reliable advice, rather than thinking about them as being peripheral or secondary to the decision-making process.

It’s important to integrate high-quality, joined-up advice and guidance into existing systems for schools and colleges.

We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now – our Access Champions programme is intended to do just that by providing a sustained programme of training and support to schools and colleges.

Over time, we work with a nominated member of staff within the school or college, helping them to become the ‘Access Champion’, responsible for excellence in advice and guidance within the school. We help them with a clear diagnosis of the quality of support for young people and a development plan to make improvements.

We’re still evaluating the programme and will share the results once they’re ready, but there’s really good evidence that this is making real change to young people’s lives and we hear really great feedback from those we work with – it’s been described as “a revelation” by Brimsham Green school in Bristol, and “has encouraged students to take progression seriously” according to St Edmund Campion school in Birmingham. Mildenhall College Academy in Suffolk told us that Access Champions “will transform young people’s lives”. You can read these case studies, and more, on our case studies page.

There is no mechanism for schools to filter the opportunities being offered to them on the basis of quality or suitability.

This is a really interesting problem – and, as a charity that delivers programmes with really good evidence of effectiveness to schools and colleges, something that’s as important to us as it is to the schools and colleges that must make best use of scarce resources.

So we were pleased when the Office for Students announced the Evidence and Impact Exchange in February. By collating existing research, identifying gaps in current evidence and generating its own research to fill those gaps, the EIX will play a critical role in disseminating accessible information and advice to decision makers across the HE sector.

As we said when the announcement was made, we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. We, and our colleagues in the sector, are really looking forward to contributing our evidence of impact to the EIX and to learn from what others in the sector are doing well.

It’s clear there’s much still to do to get to the point where all young people have fair access to their best possible future, but we left the roundtable with a sense of optimism and positivity – there is such a lot of good work going on, and a real sense that, working in partnership, there’s a good chance to make real progress.

We’re looking forward to making real progress over the coming months and years.

Putting users at the heart of what we do

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Ed Penn, who looks after the development of OSCAR, our online system that helps students write outstanding personal statements, reflects on a fascinating project that looked deeply at how users interact with technology, and how simple changes can make massive improvements.

OSCAR is one of the main ways we help students - it guides young people step-by-step through the often-difficult process of writing their personal statement. We know it’s effective: when we worked with the Sutton Trust to look at what makes a successful personal statement, we found that students who follow the approach outlined in OSCAR produce applications that are demonstrably better, and that a better application makes students more likely to get offers from top universities.

But we also know OSCAR’s personal statement tool isn’t perfect - writing the personal statement is a complicated process, and feedback from schools we work with sometimes suggested that students struggle to follow it. Rather than make changes unilaterally, we wanted the people who used it – young people – to be part of the design process.

Late last year we secured funding from Innovate UK, a public body that promotes human-centred design. We asked Innovate to help fund a design consultant to test young people’s views, learn more about what they needed, and test out ways to improve the design of OSCAR’s personal statement tool.

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So in the three months from January to March, we worked with Rachel Smith to learn about student views and what to do to make improvements to OSCAR. Rachel is a user experience expert, and has worked with a variety of young people’s organisations to improve their digital engagement, and suggested we first test the platform as it stands to find out what really mattered to students. So we visited Cambridge Regional College, Herne Bay High School in Kent, and Brimsham Green School near Bristol, where we spoke to 19 students about their experiences of using OSCAR.

From our testing we could see straight away what needed to change. Students wanted lots more information about each stage of the writing tool – they were unsure what they were meant to be aiming for. They wanted the design of some pages to be simpler to make clear where they should enter information and discuss their work. And they wanted to be able to move around the tool more easily with more flexible navigation.

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Taking that insight on board, Rachel, with our in-house team, built several prototypes that reflected what we’d heard. It wasn’t completely different – we knew that the current OSCAR structure does improve student writing. Instead, it aimed to clarify and simplify what young people were being asked to do.

Having sketched these prototypes out, we went back to see what young people made of the changes. We visited Long Road Sixth Form in Cambridge, Mildenhall College Academy in Suffolk, and Mascalls Academy in Kent, and asked students whether our changes matched their preferences.

Most of what we’d designed was better, some wasn’t – but crucially, we now know exactly what students want from OSCAR. Being able to get this level of insight is incredibly valuable, and means we’ll be able to make changes that will really benefit those we want to help most - young people.

We’ll make these changes to OSCAR in the next few months. They’ll be complete in time for the new academic year starting in September, and should help young people work their way through OSCAR with much less support.

As an organisation we’re always trying to do the thing that works, not the thing that’s easiest – which includes recognising when our own work can be better. We’re looking forward to making the personal statement tool more accessible for everyone.

“Our work with Causeway will transform young people’s lives”

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We’ve been working with Mildenhall College Academy (MCA) since 2017, so we took a moment to catch up with Katie Sanders-Pope, Access Champion and Director of Sixth Form at the academy, to reflect on the programme’s impact on her students, staff and her role as a senior leader.

MCA is an academy in a semi-rural area of Suffolk, close to military air bases. Around 50 per cent of students live in areas with low progression to Higher Education (HE).

MCA is part of our Access Champions programme, where we train a lead teacher to make sustainable changes to their systems for progression to HE. In addition to our CPD, one of our Progression Specialists has also mentored students at MCA’s Sixth Form. Progression Specialists are expert mentors who work one-to-one with students from low progression areas to guide them through the HE application process.

Impact highlights

Progression Specialist mentoring

Progression Specialists support students to be their best selves.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

For Katie, having a Progression Specialist working with the Sixth Form was an invaluable asset to the academy – mentors have the time to provide the in-depth, sustained support to students who need it most.

She valued the knowledge and skills in progression that an expert mentor can contribute to the Sixth Form, and felt that her students really benefitted from the influence of someone external to the academy - “Mentors wouldn’t accept ‘I don’t want to go university’ as a first response – they have the time, knowledge and skills to build a relationship and unpick this statement with young people. Students need this time with experts.”

Katie felt that MCA’s Progression Specialist supported her students to be their “best selves”, as the mentoring sessions not only helped students to develop the confidence to apply, but also equipped them with the key skills and knowledge to secure places at their chosen institutions.

Our evaluation found that Progression Specialist mentoring increases offers to HE, in particular offers to higher-tariff institutions, so we were delighted to hear that MCA’s mentees have received offers across diverse subjects, from Medicine and Chemistry to Music Production and Accounting.

Academy systems

Early in the Access Champions programme, Katie decided to focus on implementing OSCAR, our online system for improving university applications and references, as the main process for references and personal statements in the academy.

With OSCAR, our subject references are a million times better - the programme has significantly upskilled our staff.
— Katie Sanders-Pope

Katie reports that the programme has “significantly upskilled” her staff, as using OSCAR subject guidance has cut down the number of corrections she has needed to make in comparison to previous years, saving time and ensuring higher quality references.

With OSCAR resources, references are more positive and include strong examples of students’ subject-specific skills and qualities. Katie has found this particularly useful for potential medicine and midwifery students, where relevant examples are vital for high-quality applications.

Katie has found that, since introducing OSCAR, the quality of students’ personal statements has “massively” improved, reducing the number of drafts students have needed to submit for feedback.

CPD for Senior Leaders

Our Access Champions programme supports senior leaders in post-16 provision to put together a development plan – a list of actions and targets for improving systems for progression.

For Katie, this has helped her to develop a strategic approach to progression, identifying problem areas and the key actions needed to improve her academy’s systems.

Katie feels that MCA’s work with us will “transform young people’s lives”, as, since making the improvements to her academy’s systems, every single student that has applied to HE has received an offer.

Following this outstanding success, Katie is motivated to continue improving Mildenhall’s systems for progression. Her next steps are to work on MCA’s approach to additional admissions testing and to build a process for tracking students’ interactions with HE.

We’re so pleased to hear about MCA’s successes and look forward to checking in again in the future to find out how they’re getting on.

Travel Diary: Ideas Lab, London

Helen Drummond, our Director of School and College Engagement, reflects on a stimulating day’s discussion at the first of our Ideas Labs, held among the glorious surroundings of the Royal Veterinary College in London.

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For anyone unfamiliar with the Royal Veterinary College’s building, nestled between Camden and Euston, you are in for a treat. It’s a beautiful building, packed with history, not to mention skeletons of elephants, ostriches, sloths and some live ponies and sheep. It’s a veritable treasure trove, yet with some of the most sensitive recent renovations it’s clear you are in a modern, global institution.

RVC was the host of our first Ideas Lab today, a session for WP practitioners from around the country to come together to celebrate, reflect and discuss the work they are doing with schools.

After more than 20 years of partnership working between HEIs and schools/colleges, it’s clear that there are many effective, successful approaches to widening participation. In fact, last year’s NCOP report recognised many of these successes, not least the 1,200 schools across the country engaged in activities.

It also noted that ‘bespoke programmes’ were particularly effective at engaging schools and colleges, but that there were challenges in implementing them.

So the idea behind today’s Ideas Lab was simple: make time and space for people involved in these activities to reflect on recent initiatives, share successes and the thinking behind them, and identify ways to ensure sustainability. As we all receive public funds to run most of our activities, we believe it’s important to share.

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We looked at student events, teacher CPD and how to create a sustainable offering. For each session we demonstrated one of our own activities and asked for critique: what did people like, what could be improved.

We considered what the guiding principles should be for impactful student activities and outstanding teacher CPD, and we’ll use the all the feedback to create a new ‘Progression Roadmap’ tool for WP practitioners, which we’ll share once we’ve finished our tour of the country.

It’s a real treat, and a rare privilege, to have the time and space to come together to talk, interact, share, and try to understand the schools, students and families we want to serve. Absolutely everybody said they found the day useful, and their highlights were as varied as the attendees themselves.

Leaving the elephant skeletons behind in one of London’s smaller HE gems, our guests, a varied mix of representatives from University WP departments, NCOPs and FE colleges from around the south of England, have hopefully made some new contacts, reflected on their own work and shared some good practice, and learned about how to better communicate their offer to schools.

We’re running two more Ideas Labs in early April, in Manchester on 1st April and Bristol on 2nd April. A few tickets remain - see our Ideas Labs page for more information and how to book.

A warm welcome for new guidance to help care-experienced young people access HE

The Department for Education has just published guidance for higher education (HE) providers on how to better support care leavers in getting to and finishing university

We know that young people who are care-experienced are often vulnerable and find the transition to HE extremely difficult as they may not have the support networks that other young people rely on when making decisions and applications to HE.

We’re a Statement of Intent signatory to the Government’s Care Leaver Covenant (CLC) and warmly welcome this guidance. We look forward to working with institutions to develop ways to increase the number of care-experienced students who access higher education, that when they do get in to HE they get the support they need, and ultimately a successful transition to independence.