Being PURSUE: Our Launch Event

I’ve worked in higher education for almost four years now, moving into this sector from a job in what now feels like the ‘real world’, where I was often engaging with people who were taking part in our research projects – ranging from parents being asked about their views on funding for their parent’s group being cut; to people who were homeless and being asked about their experiences.

I’ve been trying to get involved in things that keep me in touch with the people my job is supposed to be supporting

Going from this to a job that was much more focused on a specific group of people (young people who essentially live in certain areas deemed ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’) and basically colleagues in my own HEI and across the sector was quite a shock! Coupled with the fact I work in data and I now have a desk job. Since then, I’ve been trying to get involved in things that can keep me in touch with the people my job is supposed to be supporting – and I think I have found this in PURSUE.

Not knowing much about the university world, and only understanding widening participation from reading about it I was looking for events which would explain it all to me. I ended up attending events about evaluating widening participation endeavours, or how to complete the access and participation plans…but nothing where I heard from actual students. The majority of events I’ve attended or been involved with since working in HE have been around the following subjects:

  • Data in higher education
  • Evaluation of outreach/widening participation work
  • Teacher and advisor conferences
  • University application cycle type events
  • General working in higher education type events
  • General working in widening participation type events

Although I would say these events were worth attending, basically they were nothing like PURSUE’s first event. Disclaimer – I am part of the PURSUE group, and assisted with the afternoon discussions; but the main event PURSUE colleagues had put together was one you couldn’t help but find memorable.

The speakers at the event were those kind of people people who when they talk, you listen

Names that anyone with an interest in widening access, social mobility and social justice will immediately recognise. The talks from each of the speakers were genuinely engaging, it was clear speaking to this audience was important to them. You could tell this was the case for other attendees too, just by reading through the chat! Personally, my favourite speaker (aside from the students) was Nicola Ingram – I loved how she took the opportunity to read out a poem from a student of hers – and openly admitted she hates public speaking!

The Student representation was hands down the best bit of the event – hearing from working class students about their lived experience of university as working class students – intersecting with their gender and race was what I had been searching for since I first started working for the university. The speeches were emotive and rousing, and I could have listened to them speak all day. It’s the kind of stuff we should be listening to and putting to the top of the agenda for learning from. The students were from RECLAIM[1] – an organisation well worth checking out

Afternoon Discussion session – What a turnout! End of day in December, at the end of a very long year….

Tt was great to sit and chat to other people who had similar views and interests – but also those who have so much knowledge, experience and ideas. It didn’t feel like a chore and I didn’t feel like running a mile when the breakout groups began like I have done on other occasions!


Vicky Peace

If you’d like to get as fired up by one of our events, there’s still time to register for our upcoming Language, Accent and Unequal Opportunity event, see below for details.

Working to the Same Goals

A case study of Southampton Hub’s work at Student Hubs

Sophie Ford and Fiona Walsh, Student Hubs

As a charity working within the higher education sector, Student Hubs has a unique point of view on working with communities, students, and higher education colleagues to enact change. We work in partnership with five UK universities, reaching 1800+ university students through over 100 community projects.

We want to share our approach with our Southampton Hub, who works in partnership with the Widening Participation team at the University of Southampton, and our relationship with young people aged 7-14 in the community.

Designing Activities

In Southampton, we work in partnership with schools, social services, youth clubs, and the Council to run volunteering opportunities that make an impact on young people and the university students we engage as volunteers. Our recruitment of student volunteers informs what social issue programmes students are interested in, but our work with individuals in the community shapes what these opportunities look like practically and what interventions for young people are actually needed to ensure they are not prescriptive.

We’ve run tutoring, STEM clubs including coding and engineering, mentoring, activity days and sports clubs, along with tutoring, art and a whole range of other clubs and activities for young people. It’s important to note that these are a mix of academic and non-academic activities.

University is not all about academic activity, and neither should it be our entire focus in engaging with young people.

Many of our programmes have outcomes relating to self-belief and self-esteem, aspirations, confidence, and relationships with adults, even in programmes where there is a direct link to subject knowledge and attainment, such as our Schools Plus tutoring programme. This is because we recognise the importance of motivation, cultural capital and social and emotional capabilities in the ability for young people to thrive at school, and these interventions at an early stage also support the young peoples’ expectations for what further and higher education may hold.

Stepping Out into the Community

Our activities do not only take place on school grounds. Gaps will remain in schools; whether that be due to learning styles not being met, relationships with parents and peers or general attitudes toward education. To fully engage young people, we must meet them where they are at, which means past the school gates and in their community and youth centres, on the university campus, at local libraries, and in local activity centres. These places are key because they are where young people feel comfortable, where they hold positive relationships with the space and the people around them, and where they feel a sense of belonging.

In these spaces there are no pressures for young people to meet academic expectations

It’s there that through our programmes, we get to speak to not only young people but
families and parents, and do the important work of building relationships and supporting the individuals who play such a big role in shaping young people’s expectations about what life after school is like.

Outreach during COVID

Delivering youth programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely enhanced the relationships we have with parents in Southampton, as we have had to find news ways to communicate with them about existing activities, but also to consult them about their needs when shaping new ones. Where we once went through partner schools or services to contact parents, we are now communicating directly with them through text message, phone calls, in person drop-offs and virtual sessions. Here, the parents are not just communicating with staff but, like their children, are building positive relationships directly with our student volunteers who are the tutors and the mentors.

Like the school classroom, the university campus can be seen as an academic space, and it is a space that many of our participants and their families have never engaged with outside of school visits.

We use the University as a Community Space

We use the university bouldering wall or trying a class with the Zumba
society – exposing young people and their families to the idea that university isn’t just about knowledge or career aspirations, but about trying new activities, finding new passions, meeting people and having fun.

In our joined up approach with the University of Southampton, our projects regularly engage with campus-based events such as the Human Worlds Festival and Southampton Science and Engineering Festival. If we are not actively taking our participants to these events, we are encouraging them to attend with their families, potentially encouraging a family activity that they may never have otherwise have considered.

Joining Up a Partnership approach

In the past, youth work and university outreach programmes have worked very separately with their own aims and their own target audiences. In my experience as a young person in Southampton, but also someone who has worked as a youth worker and within higher education, it was always clear to see the difference in privilege between each group:

  • University outreach is “for” young people we expect to go to university (those with knowledge)
  • Youth work is “for” young people with additional needs or who are at risk of being NEET (those who need skills).

Even though it is a new way of working within higher education, engaging with diverse groups, listening to our communities and being youth-led isn’t a new practice. Youth workers have been doing it in their field for years and there is a lot to learn from them.

At Student Hubs we evaluate our programmes using the 6 key principles of youth social action, and our local partnership with Youth Options in Southampton has strengthened this process. By working together we have developed an extensive volunteer training programme including, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Restorative Practice, Managing Challenging Behaviour and added to our safeguarding training. We know that these ‘youth work’ skills are paramount in ensuring that we are developing skilled student (and eventually graduate) practitioners for the future, and that our activities are high quality and young person centred.

Let’s do more together, meet young people and communities where they’re at, and create more joined up interventions with students, communities and practitioners all working towards the same goals.

Sophie Ford is the Southampton Hub Manager for Student Hubs. Fiona Walsh is the Sales Director for Student Hubs. If you are interested in hearing more about Student Hubs’ work, training and our partnerships, get in touch with Fiona Walsh at

To find out more about our work at Student Hubs and Southampton Hub, join Sophie and Fiona as we present at the NEON Summer Symposium 2021 on 2nd July. Our paper presentation will reflect on our relationship with widening participation at the University of Southampton, community engagement in our youth work, our programme Branch Up and how this learning supports the university’s outreach activities. 

Designing PURSUE – Our Launch Event

Sometimes I wish my note taking was a little more comprehensive and detailed. But then again 2020 came at us quickly, and 2021, so far, is doing the same. But right at the end of 2020 we had our first event – the launch of PURSUE as a network – and now, a total of three months later, we’ve caught our breath enough to reflect!

We wanted to create a space to introduce ourselves both as individuals and a network, something challenging, open, welcoming, collaborative and – just like us – with heart firmly on sleeve.

Making Pursue different

Class ties us together in an endeavour for social justice and in this network, we’re going avoid the corporate shine, keeping events free for those interested. Things may be rough and ready around the edges, and we’re not going to apologise for that. We want to be a voice for working-class WP practitioners and people, advocating for Social Justice not “Social Mobility”. We want that ethos to be in every single one of our events.

How do you do that after a year of staring at Zoom, phasing out in Teams and giving presentations at conferences and symposia to a field of camera-off, muted participants?

Pursue is about People

One of the things about using “Widening Participation Target Students” or “POLAR Quintile X” or any one of the hundreds of other terms we use in our profession is that they generalise, the student as the one size fits all recipient of what we do. Instead, we’re going to celebrate the differences, diversity and sheer range of experiences working class people have before, during and after Uni. You can see some of them below:

Starting off our launch with PURSUE committee members and their experiences meant that we opened up discussion straight away, immediately diving in to sharing what it meant to all of us to be working class – or to have been working class – in a higher education environment. On a personal level it all felt very freeing, like we’d started speaking about something that was supposed to be secret – and twitter reported much the same!

Collaborate and Listen

A Key aim of PURSUE (you can check our Seven Endeavours here) is to collaborate and share practice. Our Launch Event featured fantastic voices inside and out of the HE sector, allowing us to hear from academics, third sector, politicians and young people – all feeding into a broader discussion of what it means to be working class in higher education and beyond.

While we’ll follow up this reflection article with more info and details on the speakers and their work, definitely check them out on Twitter:

Prof. Nicola Ingram – @ingram_nicola Sociologist and Author

Duncan Exley – @Duncan_Exley Author and former Director of the Equality Trust

Gareth Snell – @gareth_snell Former Labour MP for Stoke Central

Chris Clarke, Roukagia and Lisae – @RECLAIMproject RECLAIM Project Director of Business Development and Participants

Making Space to Speak

For all that many of those who attended work in Widening Participation as project officers or managers, there isn’t usually a huge amount of space for us to speak about our own experiences at University – positive or negative – when they relate to our class identities. We work in a middle class environment, with working class young people, toeing the line between what the Office for Students pushes – Social Mobility – and what we work for – Social Justice. There’s a tension in that, and one that can lead us to hide who we are and why we’re doing it.

That’s why our launch event made space for people to talk about their own experiences, thoughts, values and lives in HE. We’re proud to be who we are, and many of us have faced similar barriers and challenges in our educational and professional journeys relating to our class. Sometimes, though, it’s bloody hard to talk about it, and turn those challenges into positives – opportunities to push the work we do further. Scott said it best on twitter, so I’ll leave further reflection to him:

Lessons and Learning

There’s a lot more to say about the Launch event – the incredible, inspiring speakers, the young people who shared their voices, aims and inspirations, the fact we had a spotify soundtrack that spanned Gresford to Chumbawumba, and the incredible drive to go away and put it all into practice that we left with – but for me, the important bit was that we launched out into the world showing the principles and practice we want to live by.

PURSUE is about people and their experiences, working class identities and good practice wherever it’s found. It’s about sharing, listening and learning. It’s about having a good chat in the breakout sessions that gets us all fired up to try new things, push boundaries and challenge inequalities. It’s about talking about class, learning about class and then living our class identities in higher education – and we’re going to carry on with that spirit.

We must speak frankly, Mr Shankly

As an impassioned Liverpudlian (by this I mean ‘Kopite’/follower of Liverpool FC, rather than simply a native of my home city), it will perhaps not surprise many to hear that Bill Shankly is one of my absolute heroes.  However, the esteem that I hold ‘Shanks’ in goes far beyond his status as the man who led an unfashionable Second Division club out of the mire,  in the process helping to turn Anfield from “the biggest toilet in Liverpool” into an area which provoked fear in opponents.  Shankly wanted to build a “bastion of invincibility”; something Jurgen Klopp has done quite a good job of restoring recently.  Simply put, Shankly was a man of the people, whose upbringing as a proudly working class man from a pit village in Ayrshire not only shaped him, but also fostered his beliefs, principles and values.

Statue of Bill Shankly, Anfield, Liverpool - from,_Anfield_2018.jpg
The Man Himself

As a leader and motivator, Shankly was unrivalled.  Many of his former players speak with an almost reverential glee when describing the man.  Fans of a certain vintage (me auld fella’s age) talk of Shankly in an awed manner befitting his status as ‘The Messiah’.  Following his retirement as Liverpool’s manager in 1974 (and subsequent uneasy relations with Liverpool’s Board of Directors), Shankly often visited Everton’s training ground and was seen at Goodison Park as much he was at Anfield.  He was a man whose impact transcended traditional rivalries and whose “natural enthusiasm” turned good players into great ones, who was at one with the (largely working class) supporters of Liverpool and the city as a whole.  As a studied enthusiast of Shankly, I believe his greatest asset was his command of language.  As a proud socialist of staunchly working class stock, he understood a working class city like Liverpool and its inhabitants implicitly.  At the heart of this was his desire to speak plainly from the heart, using “the language of the people”

In one of his many famed interviews –, Shankly touched on language.  He began by outlining how he preferred to “speak with simplicity”, before describing how “In our language, there are words that are similar(ity), they are spelt differently, but they mean the same thing”.  He then goes onto attack ‘the big men’ (most likely politicians and a political ‘chattering’ class,) who use elongated words that “only 10 per cent of the viewers understand”, before ending with the following statement:

“Well we don’t, we use the language that everybody understands, instead of me saying somebody was avaricious, I would say he was bloody greedy”

When listening back to this, I am struck by the parallels between what Shankly is highlighting here and much of the language, discourse (to use a more academic term) and rhetoric around Widening Participation (WP).

The Language of WP

One of the key themes emerging from the first PURSUE event held in December was the importance of language in the context of WP.  We began to explore how the language used in relation to the agenda can be guilty of reinforcing ill-informed stereotypes, negative or outdated discourses and can reinforce a deficit model of WP. 

A careers advisor working at The University of Liverpool once told me that ALL local WP students lacked confidence.  D’yer reckon?!

Within previous blogs and in the video from the launch event, a number of practitioners have spoken about their disdain for aspects of the language commonly involved in WP.  Terms such as disadvantaged, aspiration raising, social mobility and underachieving are seemingly engrained within our day-to-day work, even though they offend our sensibilities and are often meaningless.  Therefore, why are they commonplace?  I think a large part of explaining this stems from the fact that whilst working class people are the desired beneficiaries of the WP agenda and many WP practitioners are from working class backgrounds themselves, the language associated with the agenda is not “the language that everybody understands”, instead it is the type of political language decried by Shanks.  Therefore, is it any wonder that it has not connected with either its intended beneficiaries or practitioners, nor has it achieved its desired outcomes?

An illustrative example of this was a 2020 article on the BBC’s website entitled ‘The ‘taboo’ about who doesn’t go to university’  This article notionally focused on the ‘taboo’ of why white-working class boys access HE in such small numbers.  Even in this short article, the ‘cohort’ was described in numerous ways as listed below:

  • white working-class boys
  • white males from low-income families
  • male, white British, free school meals pupils
  • young white males from poorer backgrounds
  • young white males from post-industrial towns
  • white boys from low-income families
  • disadvantaged white males

Alongside these descriptors, the article also interchangeably uses various WP buzzwords such as those mentioned earlier.  If the so-called experts who contributed to this article cannot clearly articulate who they are talking about is it surprising that the issue “gets left in the “too difficult to handle box” (is ignored) and we are left with “perfect storm of inaction” (nothing gets done)?

Our colleagues at Reclaim

One of the most impressive contributions to our launch event came from the representatives of the charity, Reclaim.  Reclaim work with working class young people providing them with a sense of agency and empowering them to believe that “class background is no barrier to what you can achieve”.   At the event, both Chris Clarke, Reclaim’s Director of Business Development and two alumni of projects led by Reclaim spoke plainly, honestly and in an impassioned manner about how their backgrounds, ethnicities and accents have been met with negativity during their life journeys.  From listening to the young people, it was clear that WP practitioners and the agenda as a whole could learn a lot from the young person-centred approach adopted by Reclaim.  An example of a successful campaign led by Reclaim that could act as an inspiration to WP colleagues is the #IfWeDidThis campaign –, which focused on challenging the violent or dehumanising language used by some politicians.  Working class young people led the campaign and their petition received support from 70,000 signatories including the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. 

“There’s no way we’d get away with speaking like that…why should they?”

Reclaim, #IfWeDidThis campaign

As WP practitioners, we must always remember that our job is to communicate as clearly as possible to the young people that we work with. Offering clear and easily digestible Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) is the first and main step to ensure that they are empowered to make good decisions and to become what they want, and can be.  Too often though, IAG in the current climate is found wanting, particularly glossy leaflets focusing on ‘Jobs for tomorrow’, which tend to be the preserve of beige bureaucrats in Local Enterprise Partnerships and are written in the language of the skills agenda (“words that only 10 per cent of the viewers understand”).  Therefore, only a small percentage of the proposed audience are likely understand the content. To end, I will return to another quote from the aforementioned greatest manager of the 20th century “Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling, aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor”

Chris Bayes

Our next event is going to focus on the use of language within with the WP agenda.  Working towards “a language that everyone understands” to take back ownership of the terms and language HE uses to describe us.  If this sounds like something which you would be interested in, please attend our next event and support us in our endeavour to change WP practice.

Let them eat data: Education, widening participation and the digital divide

The Quest for Answers

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

With the closure of schools, the attainment gap between specific groups of young people has become front page news, coupled with the horrifying truth about child poverty in this country. The ‘levelling up’ agenda has taken a serious kicking, with questions raised about exactly which ‘level’ policy makers intend to bring children and young people up to.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise of a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the Digital Divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitates a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and online engagement is currently at 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people. We must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into Higher Education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

What’s wrong with the ‘disadvantaged’?

Exactly that – there’s nothing wrong with them.

However there is a lot wrong with the term ‘disadvantaged’ and it should not be used by widening participation practitioners, and we should challenge other professionals who use this term- whether that be policy makers, politicians or educationalists.

I have four main issues with the term ‘disadvantaged’:

1.       It’s a binary term*- therefore you’re either disadvantaged or you’re not. You wouldn’t call someone like yourself disadvantaged therefore following this logic by default you are advantaged. This then brings with it a whole raft of problems linked to power and inequality.

2.       It reinforces a deficit model– therefore implies there is something missing or something wrong, which is reductive and completely ignores that there may be strengths linked to whatever the disadvantage is perceived to be.

3.       It is a subjective perception– although professionals who use the term disadvantaged often use factual information to define what is meant by it- free school meals for example, or from a low household income- the term disadvantaged itself is not factual but an opinion. It may be a commonly-shared opinion, but one that in my view should be challenged. It also may not be a perception shared by the very people you are trying to describe.

4.       It’s about circumstances not individuals– structural and economic equalities do cause disadvantage, but to call someone disadvantaged places the emphasis on them, rather than highlighting and addressing the cause of the issue. The OED backs me up here and defines disadvantage as: ‘an unfavourable circumstance or condition that reduces the chances of success or effectiveness.’

So what terms should we use instead? That depends on what we’re trying to describe but the following principles should apply:

1.       Ask when trying to describe a group of people that you don’t belong to identify with, why not ask them how they would like to be identified rather than assume? If you can’t do that then…

2.       Be objective think about how you can factually and objectively define the group you are trying to describe, avoid emotive and subjective terms such as vulnerable or hard to reach and opt for more factual terms such as underrepresented, or better still…

3.       Be specific if you are talking about learners on free school meals, then why not say so?

4.       Think would you be happy if someone used that term about you? I know I wouldn’t.

So how can you challenge this? I suggest you lead by example and follow the steps outlined above, and if anyone does use the term challenge them on this and encourage them to think differently. Or if all else fails repeat the phrase back to them using finger quotation marks until they get the jist.

Finally, for anyone interested in exploring this further the following podcast articulates this really well: Word of Mouth – The language of power and inequality in education and leadership – BBC Sounds

*This idea is supported by a whole raft of post-structural theorists, see

Jamie Bytheway

Reaching Beyond the School Gate: Making University Outreach More Meaningful

I began working in university outreach back in 2012. Since then, universities have – quite rightly – been under increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of their widening participation activities.

Across the sector, the most common model of student engagement focuses on schools. We look at educational institutions that have a large proportion of students who are under-represented in Higher Education, we contact that institution, and we deliver activity to their students in an almost exclusively educational setting.

This model makes practical sense for universities. It’s an easy way for institutions to target activity and engage students who, it could be argued, would benefit most from the outreach work that universities deliver. But, given the changes to the landscape of Higher Education since the publication of the Dearing report in 1997, have we ingrained our work within a model that has reached the limit of its success?

It’s no secret that we’re operating in an environment where university participation has experienced a seismic expansion. In the 2019 UCAS end of cycle report it was highlighted that this year alone there were 541,240 applicants accepted to UK institutions of Higher Education. Although the numbers sound impressively large, within such statistics are stories of persistent gaps in participation amongst under-represented groups. Gaps in which little meaningful progress has been made.

So why is this? Well one of the answers may lie in a conference I attended back in 2019. The keynote speaker, Dr Neil Harrison, posed a question relating to our engagement practices in university outreach. Essentially Dr Harrison argued that much of the work we do as practitioners is targeted toward students who are probably already going to university (they just don’t know which one yet).

If that assertion rings true, then can we honestly say our work to widen participation is meaningful?

If our current modus operandi in widening participation is to engage young people who are already going to university, then maybe it’s time we sought to adjust it.

But how?

Working with schools will always form a core part of university outreach teams’ activities. But if we are to successfully meet the challenges around access to Higher Education that have persisted, we need to broaden our gaze. These challenges are not faced by students in isolation. Often, they are shared amongst friends and family members. They are embedded within socioeconomic contexts and are woven into the fabric of communities.

That is not to say that universities shouldn’t engage with schools, it’s an instrumental part of the work that outreach practitioners conduct. But if we want our work to have the impact that we would all like it to, should it constitute all of the work that we do? How often do we step back and consider who’s not in the classroom when we’re standing at the front extolling the virtues of Higher Education?

Recently, I began some work to evaluate a widening participation initiative based in the West Midlands. The project used a model of detached youth work as its primary mode of delivery. Youth workers met with young people in local parks, outside fish and chip shops and in community spaces which were a far cry from the school classroom. The model built engagement with young people through work in the community. This was then complemented by supplementary activity at a local high school, bridging the gap between the two.

During my interviews with stakeholders, I heard accounts of work conducted with students and families who most certainly wouldn’t have sat in the ‘probably already going to university’ camp. Indeed, rather than debating the merits of Higher Education participation, many of the families were facing much more pressing concerns such as regularly having enough to eat and keeping a roof over their heads. Reflecting on the relationship between the youth workers and the young people, a number of teachers at the school voiced their surprise at the rapport developed with students who had been marked as ‘disengaged’ within a classroom context.

In conversations about their practice, the youth workers described their commitment to empowering young people. Providing a mechanism for them to access social and cultural resources that were on their doorstep, but previously inaccessible. This was a model of university outreach which worked with a community. A model which focused on the development of relationships built upon foundations of mutual respect.

Through their work they regularly engaged with parents, extended family members and other members of the young person’s social network. Individuals who, within the current model of engagement with university outreach activity, are too commonly written off as ‘hard to reach’. In turn they became an important source of information, advice and support for the young people, opening a door for the students to engage in on-campus activity at the local university.

In 2019 thirty UK institutions of Higher Education signed up to an agreement making a formal commitment to civic engagement, developing partnerships designed to overcome the social and economic challenges facing local communities.

This provides an opportunity for outreach practitioners and universities to adopt a model of engagement which deepens work withcommunities in a new and different way. It would be a clear, visible display of the civic commitment described above. It would also provide a vehicle in which to drive activity with young people for whom arguably, the current model of engagement for widening participation has systematically overlooked.

For outreach work to have a meaningful impact we need to adapt our approach. To coin a phrase used by Dr Neil Harrison at that 2019 conference:

If we want to make a difference to the lives of young people in communities which are ‘hard to reach’, it’s long past time that we grew longer arms.

Alex Blower

Don’t Talk to me About Aspirations; The language of disadvantage.

This blog is based around a 2-year research project working with young men engaged with statutory or community provision during 2018 and 19 who accessed youth provision via the ‘Children and Young Peoples Partnership’ at Lancaster University. 

“Don’t talk to me about aspirations, who says what I should or shouldn’t be lad, mi dad’s a plasterer and he earns loads”

This quote is taken directly from a conversation I had with a young lad during the summer of 2018, this conversation was during our dinner while taking a break from a district wide inter-estate football tournament held at Lancaster Uni. Myself and a group of young lads had been talking about their plans once they had finished school, whether that was college, a job or otherwise. I’d been working with this group for 2 years and had a good relationship with them, to the point where I had told them about my own problems in education and my route to higher education as an adult. We talked at length about “people who go uni” and their perceptions of higher education in general and how they believe it (HE) perceives young lads like them. 

One of the lads asked me what I had wanted to be when I was their age, to which I replied, my options were pretty limited such were the problems I’d caused at school. I had wanted to follow in my old man’s footsteps and be a plumber, that’s all I’d ever known, and any other doors were effectively closed to me due to school exclusion. We talked at length about the jobs “lads like us do”.

The conversation rumbled on to the idea of aspirations, this group of lads were particularly good at expressing themselves, good with a turn of phrase and full of dry north west humour. The talk of aspirations clearly got up their nose and prompted the snappy bite about aspirations being judged as low or deficient. I thought back to my own experiences and how I’d have gone absolutely ballistic if someone had told me that what I saw as a valuable career was substandard. A career that had put food on the table and increasingly as we got older put food on others’ tables through the company’s success.  

I have mused over this point a great deal over the last couple of years, the ideas of ‘raising aspirations’, ‘transformative experiences’ and becoming ‘socially mobile’. All these terms, (which we as practitioners are guilty in perpetuating and allowing to go relatively unchallenged), are couched in terms of the working class being substandard, in need of repair, below par, lesser than their middle-class counterparts. 

Until we as a sector challenge the deficit approach inherent in every area of widening participation toward working class young people we are doomed to failure. We need to be able to show the richness of the working-class experience, not as a problem that must be fixed but as a different viewpoint or experience that is as rich as any of their ‘more advantaged’ peers. Until we challenge the notion that the working-class experience is of lesser value then we must always be seen as in need of repair, exposure to the finer things in life, the correct way to be. 

PURSUE offers a prominent vehicle to champion and challenge this change by bringing a richness of experience and voice to the sector. Championing the experiences and strengths of working-class young people and the divergent thought and knowledge they bring to the table. PURSUE is designed to champion these voices and experiences as part of an inclusive and diverse sector, which values the voice and experience and all and does not pit one demographic against another in a zero-sum approach to education. One child must not fail in order for another to succeed. 

It’s time to start talking with and not about; challenge, champion and change the way we work with young people, starting with us.

Nik Marsdin

It’s a Job, It’s a Calling

I don’t think I’ve ever felt less comfortable in who I am than when I arrived at University on my first day. My parents drove me down, my ears still ringing with my Grandad’s pride and praise, pack of fags and a bottle hidden in my rucksack and cramming the last bits of the pre-course reading in between marveling at how flat England is when you come from the Peak District. I was off to live in the South, and I was off to Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to work out that I wasn’t the only working class northerner in my college, there were two of us. Even less time to work out that life was going to be pretty different – formal dinners, literally learning to pass the port and, eventually, changing my accent when told that “no one would take me seriously” in academia with what I’d always assumed was a fairly middle class version of a North Derbyshire voice.

I started doing work in WP at Uni because I learned that I was considered a success story for access. Me – couldn’t believe it then, still can’t believe it now thinking about it! Good school, worked hard, always reading and studying, supportive parents, POLAR quintile 4, the whole works. But I’d been a free school meals kid and I’d gone to a comprehensive, and that was enough in context. I started doing tours (paid in a beer or two), reassuring parents and prospective students that Cambridge wasn’t all posh, and that contrary to my own experience, no one faced discrimination for being northern or working class.

But I kept on in academia until I realized that all the tours and taster lectures and workshops and seminars I was running for young people was what I wanted to do – and so here I am, working in Widening Participation in London, with the endlessly awesome fact that I get to work with Primary school kids. I run exciting, engaging and (hopefully!) innovative programs for estate kids local to my Uni, talking about learning as exciting, Uni as a place full of weird and wonderful opportunities, as they tell me how Science, Arts, Maths, History and Music are integral parts of their lives and their dreams. They aren’t “hard to access” or “aspiration poor”. They live in the towers right next to the University. They know what they want – and Uni might be a part of that. They’re endlessly enthusiastic, challenging, honest, questioning and often absolutely hilarious. My job is to point out the door and kick over the barriers I can reach. They’ll go through if they fancy.

Over the last five years I’ve ended up becoming a bit of a fixture of our community – from awkwardly waving back to kids when I’m queuing in Sainsburys, being ambushed by parents when I’m on a smoke break or in the pub who want to know what we’re doing next, getting emails from teachers asking “on the off chance could you….” – and so what I do is inextricably bound up with who I am, and I love it. As I say all the time – it’s not a job, it’s a calling.

So why PURSUE? Because part of that calling is a demand that we change how HE operates. It’s unacceptable that anyone would feel uncomfortable with their lived experiences and identity at University. It’s unacceptable that the concept of the “academy” continues to prioritise a single way of being, that we look to change who our students are, rather than change how we operate.

The sector doesn’t do the hard work sometimes. We shy away from discussing class as if it were a powerful and dirty secret that is too “controversial” to address directly. As a sector we can sometimes hide in the familiar comfort of POLAR and ACORN, or picking and choosing AP+P targets, celebrating wins while describing certain communities as “hard to access” or “unengaged”. We pitch HE as transformative, so that nasty issues of class that might – shock horror – even have political implications – be erased by the paternalistic hand of middle-class biased HE systems. Our approach, our language, our methodology and even the way we think about our roles must be open and honest, engaging with class as a concept – and all that comes with it, from the micro to the macro scale. We are not going to “finish the job” of WP until equity is delivered, and we can’t do that without reconfiguring how we think and talk about, engage with, and accept class. That is what we’re going to do here, and I couldn’t do my job to the best of my ability without being part of it.

Ben Copsey

It’s Class, mate

Ah. Class. The word that shalt not be spoken.

Since I began working in the area of Widening Participation in 2005, my background has been described as “disadvantaged”, “economically disadvantaged”, “POLAR Quintile One”, “from a Low Participation Neighbourhood”, “a WP learner”, “a Pupil Premium student” but rarely “working class”. Strange, that.

Growing up in Stoke on Trent in the 90s was an exhilarating experience. Oasis sung that we were “free to be whatever [we] choose” in The Wheatsheaf, a sticky floored music venue in Stoke Town (that’s Stoke upon Trent, a town in Stoke on Trent. Not the City Centre – that’s Hanley. Call me for clarification). And largely, we believed them.

So what did we choose? The vast majority of my friends didn’t go to university. That’s fine, of course. Many continue to live exceptionally happy and fulfilled lives. Some got shot at in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or both. Some have struggled with life: drink, drugs. We didn’t have the same connections or networks as those 20 miles North in Wilmslow or 15 miles West in Market Drayton who were blessed with a “privileged upbringing”. But that’s the class system, right?

A few of us did go to university, and subsequently got jobs that demand a salary more in line with the Wilmslow set.  So are we “Socially Mobile”? Are we (gasp) “Middle Class”? No. Do we still engage wholly in our tough, tight knit community? Yes. Do we have a brashness and tell it as we see it? You better believe it. Do we still walk along the Trent, then the Caldon Canal to go to the match, sing and enjoy cheap lager? Not only do we enjoy it, it defines us. Do we champion our working class culture and rich heritage of pits and pots? Every day, duck.

So it’s not social mobility; creating opportunities is social justice. My belief is that education and life-long learning plays a significant role in social justice.

At the recent UUK & Action on Access Summit a slide was presented looking at applications to Higher Education in 2019, based on ethnicity and Free School Meals. Some of this years ‘winners’ were Non Free School Meal Black Females, Non Free School Meal Asian Females and Non Free School Meal Other Females. Some of the ‘losers’ were Free School Meal White Males, Free School Meal White Females, Free School Meal Mixed Males, Free School Meal Black Males, and Free School Meal Asian Males. It appears that we have a class issue.

In various victory speeches following the 2019 election, the Prime Minister spoke about “levelling up” areas that “lent us their vote” and that “white working class boys” would be a priority. We shall see what that means at some point, maybe. I would say that regardless of ethnicity, working class communities have taken a battering, and continue to do so: robbed of pathways, industry and educational opportunities. White, Black or Asian; never mind “levelling up”, the “leveller” seems to be class, with the postcode that you were born into going on to define your chances. You don’t have to be white to be working class. Our aim should be to create opportunities, justice and celebrations for all of our rich working class communities.

I won’t use ink waxing lyrically about the programme that I look after, but over 2100 activities delivered to over 40,000 working class young people in three years, on sustained, progressive and multi touch programmes is certainly helping to re-address some social injustices, locally at least. Our lead institution has doubled the amount of POLAR 4 Quintile 1 learners (sorry) enrolling in Year One in the last 5 years. I think we can take some credit for that progress.

One thing that we, and other practitioners, see is that the use of positive role models is key. Student Ambassadors, Project Officers and mentors who sound like them. Not just literally – though that helps – who sound like them in what they say, how they feel, what they have experienced. It’s powerful. It’s real.

The more young people we have making informed, positive decisions about their future, the richer our society will become. And that, as we would say in year 10, is ‘class, mate’.

Ant Sutcliffe