Aim higher, earlier

Schools, colleges and universities must work together on widening participation initiatives, says Stuart Billingham

October 9, 2008

The debate in the higher education sector about the value of widening participation initiatives is becoming noisier by the day. Gordon Marshall, the University of Reading's vice-chancellor, sparked the controversy in suggesting that funds allocated to universities to widen participation may be better channelled into schools to raise attainment. His view was echoed by more than a third of academics in a Times Higher Education poll. But such views polarise the issue unnecessarily.

It is not simply a question of whether funding should be put into widening participation initiatives or into schools, but rather how higher education institutions should work with schools to widen participation.

There is no doubt that social inequalities in educational progression appear early on and that early interventions are crucial. Neither is there a question over the importance of attainment-raising measures as we know that only a third of young people from lower socio-economic groups achieve five good grades at GCSE.

It is against this backdrop that the full potential of widening participation work can be exercised. Aimhigher, for example, performs a unique brokering function between sectors and will play a key role in driving this agenda forward.

Historically, widening participation programmes were one-off activities that, while innovative and engaging, sat outside the core learning experience.

Several key pieces of research commissioned as part of the Aimhigher Evidence Strategy, and reported in the Higher Education Funding Council for England review of widening participation in 2006, revealed not only which widening participation interventions have most impact - summer schools, campus visits and student mentoring programmes - but that these are maximised when the delivery is "undertaken in a progressive, sequential and differentiated programme which reflects the needs of individual learners over a period of time".

Acknowledging this evidence, widening participation has become more strategic. Such programmes are becoming increasingly integral to the core work of schools, colleges and universities; working together to raise attainment and aspirations over time.

Aimhigher interventions start as early as primary level, and these experiences are built upon to support progression through secondary school and college.

In York, for example, the Little Green Apples initiative involves visits by higher education institutions to ten primary schools as well as reciprocal visits to either a university or a further education institution providing higher education. The activities are designed to leave pupils feeling positive about higher education. These ten schools are feeders to the York secondary schools participating in the Green Apples programme, which delivers attainment-raising experiences through to Year 13.

The new phase of Aimhigher, which came into effect in August, will formalise this approach with the new learner progression framework designed to meet the specific needs of individual learners or groups and requires active participation from the school, further education and higher education sectors.

A key aim is to facilitate the effective embedding of widening participation practice in schools. This new phase aims to make a recognised contribution to school improvement plans and give particular focus to the personalised learning curriculum.

It is not only Aimhigher that is adopting this model. The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is developing a higher education-related framework to encourage specialist schools to build higher education into learners' ongoing experience.

So what does this mean to higher education institutions? The Aimhigher framework is already attracting attention. York St John University has committed itself to adopting this model to improve co-ordination and integration of its widening participation activities, including those funded through its Office for Fair Access agreement. Aimhigher North Yorkshire is also developing a similar model for interventions with adults, and the university will also consider using it in its work with these target groups during 2008-09.

There is no doubt that the establishment and maintenance of fruitful working relationships between the sectors will continue to pose a challenge. But with increased demand on both higher education institutions and schools, the case for such cross-sector collaboration has never been so compelling.

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