Making sure that we can make a difference

October 26, 2007

Despite Aimhigher's successes, it still has some way to go before proving it is widening participation, says John Selby. This month, I met seven young people determined to overcome their personal difficulties and succeed in education. Their achievements were simply inspirational and made me realise once again why widening participation is so important.

Among them was a young woman from a school in Salford that had a very high proportion of pupils from disadvantaged communities. Her less motivated friends couldn't understand why she was working so hard on her GCSEs. Despite peer pressure, this summer she achieved ten GCSEs at grades A*-C, thanks to a striking determination to succeed, together with help from her school and an Aimhigher mentor.

Another story of determination to succeed comes from a young man who had spent many years in care in a children's home in Leicestershire. He had been excluded from school but then completed level 1 and level 2 full-time qualifications, supported by Aimhigher and his local college. Both students started level 3 qualifications at their local further education colleges this September with a view to going on to higher education in 2009.

It is six years since the Aimhigher programme was launched by the Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to help increase the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education. Yet while it is clear from the examples above that the programme has worked for some young people, it is not clear that the widening participation effort as a whole is as effective as it might be. There have been legitimate concerns in the past year about poor targeting of measures and alack of overall progress. These are being addressed in new Hefce guidance for practitioners on targeting disadvantaged learners. But such concerns need to be balanced by the success widening participation has chalked up. Here are a few examples from around the country.

In Kent and Medway, Aimhigher has been using further education college students as mentors working with 18 Year 11 boys in a non-selective boys' school. Thirteen have gone on to sixth forms in other schools or further education, achieving a progression rate of 72 per cent compared with an average of 41 per cent for the whole of Year 11 in that school.

Aimhigher Berkshire has been working with Brakenhale School in Bracknell to operate mathematics residential weekends for pupils in the school, with the result that 51 per cent of pupils are achieving A*-C at GCSE, up from just 22 per cent three years ago.

In Sussex, GCSE performance in schools targeted by Aimhigher is improving significantly faster than that of non-Aimhigher schools. The same story emerges from Aimhigher West (which covers the area from Gloucestershire to Somerset), where GCSE improvement is also faster in "priority intervention band" schools. In Essex, Aimhigher reports stronger GCSE performance and growth of post-16 progression in targeted schools. In Leicestershire, between 2001-02 and 2005-06, the fastest rate of increase in accepted applications to higher education came from the 10 per cent most deprived areas. Overall, applications grew by 12.9 per cent in the 40 per cent most deprived areas and 9.3 per cent among the better off.

Despite these successes, the majority of entrants to higher education continue to come from better off backgrounds, and even more needs to be done to close the gap for those from more deprived areas. However, work in these areas is already making a difference. Eighteen-year-old entrants to higher education in 2005-06 were born in 1987 at a time when the growth in inequality accelerated sharply. Many of these young people are succeeding against the odds, and we should celebrate that.

We know that educational success is strongly associated with social class and economic wellbeing, but it is not easy to understand how these factors translate into actual educational outcomes for real people. It can be difficult to identify the effect of interventions to support learners and widen participation in higher education, and to separate these effects from all the other influences at work. In a review of our widening participation policies last autumn, we at Hefce acknowledged that the evidence base for widening participation was not strong enough, and we are working with Aimhigher and higher education institutions to develop it. But we are not in any doubt that, as these examples indicate, widening access initiatives are making a real difference for many young people.

John Selby is director of widening participation at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Hefce is sponsoring the award for Widening Participation Initiative of the Year in The Times Higher Awards, which take place in London on November 29.

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