Next steps in access and participation

Read the speech given by John Blake, the Office for Students' new Director for Fair Access and Participation, at today's 'Next steps in access and participation' event.

'Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. My name is John Blake, and I joined the Office for Students (OfS) just last month as Director for Fair Access and Participation.

I’m delighted to know that so many people from across the higher education sector are joining us today. It just shows how essential higher education work on access and participation is, and how committed so many people are across the country to ensuring that students of all ages, and from all backgrounds, can expand their learning, enhancing their careers and lives. 

We have called this event ‘next steps on access and participation’ because, although I am new to this role, of course this agenda is not new: much important work has already been undertaken, and more is going on right now.

Because of the work of the Office for Students on access and participation, we can quantify a huge amount of that work.

Since the OfS was established over 250 access and participation plans have been agreed, committing more than two and a half billion pounds over five years to supporting learners from underrepresented groups to ensure those students both get into the higher education they need and want, and go on to the lives and careers they aspire to.

That is down to the collective effort of the people who have joined us here today, from colleges and universities up and down the country.

It is also down to the hard work and dedication of staff of the OfS, who have in a few short years built a new regulator in a vibrant and changing sector, pursuing its strategic aims notwithstanding the buffeting by political, economic and, lately, pandemic shocks.

In particular, I would like to acknowledge the huge contribution of my predecessor as Director for Fair Access and Participation, Chris Millward, whose approach to building and monitoring access and participation has led to stretching and broad-ranging targets being set by all providers, underpinned by demonstrably ambitious and strategic approaches to achieving those targets.

Ambition is one of the OfS’s core values, and our access and participation work is clear proof of it.

But learning and openness are also core to the OfS’s work, so as well as being proud of where we have got to, the start of a new director’s term also gives us a chance to review the past few years of the OfS’s work and identify where we think we can do more.

There are a few areas where we believe the access and participation process could be better.

We can do more to ensure good work on access leads to worthwhile participation – talking to students from across the sector, especially those from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds. I have heard more often than I would like that students feel their providers fell over themselves to bring them into higher education, but interest in their needs trailed off the moment they were through the door.

Our data makes clear these are not isolated experiences: students from disadvantaged backgrounds have often overcome significant obstacles to get to university. It cannot be right that those students’ entry to higher education is used to polish the laurels of providers who are consistently and persistently not delivering on the quality of teaching and support those same students need to thrive in higher education, and succeed after graduation. The access and participation plan process can do more to prevent this.

We can make access and participation plans more accessible – I’ve spent my career in education and, sadly, I’m no stranger to vision documents that are light on substance – you can’t say that about access and participation plans, which is a good thing. It is obvious serious analysis has gone into them, driven by clear guidance from the OfS. But students and their families, schools and others in the education system, and other stakeholders (including, say, new staff at the higher education regulator …) shouldn’t have to read all of that to know what providers have committed to. The analysis needs to be done, but simple, straightforward outlining of commitments and how they will be delivered is needed too.

We can do more to encourage providers to consider non-traditional pathways and modes of study – degree apprenticeships have rightly expanded hugely since their inception, offering a high quality and increasing high status route into education and employment. How we in the OfS can support providers to use degree apprenticeships and other non-traditional pathways is a something we need to think more on.

And we can consider more carefully our effects on smaller providers – it is right we have a single regulatory framework for the whole higher education sector. It ensures all providers can be held accountable on the same grounds and all students can feel confident their interests are protected.

That is an immovable commitment of the whole OfS.

But we know that smaller providers found the access and participation plan process more challenging – we need to ensure that our work helps them achieve their commitments, and does not drain time, energy and money that should be going to supporting students.

Of course, internal reflection is not the only reason to consider carefully where we are with our access and participation process. In the time since we first set up the access and participation plan regulation, new issues have emerged and some existing challenges expanded.

The first is a challenge where the sheer weight of evidence is now so strong it is essential we give it more thought when considering access and success at our colleges and universities.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers opens almost as soon as they are born – it manifests in words learnt before children enter nursery, the speed of achieving fluency in reading in early primary, then vocabulary, numeracy, oracy and more in upper primary, and secondary, manifested in statutory assessment and especially GCSE outcomes.

And despite clear and in some cases remarkable improvements in the quality of schooling in the past twenty years, that gap remains wide open throughout life.

And, of course, that affects who goes into higher education - which institutions they can attend, what support they will need, what academic outcomes they achieve, and what lives and careers they go on to.

If we are at all concerned with equality of opportunity in accessing higher education, we must be concerned with improving attainment much, much earlier in life.

Secondly, since the access and participation plan process was designed, the OfS has moved its thinking on in other areas also. Just last month, we launched the final consultations in a wide-ranging refresh of how we regulate quality.

I encourage everyone to respond to those consultations, and everyone should know that as we consider your feedback, our access and participation work will be brought into firmer alignment with our approach to quality.

Finally, we have lived through, are still living through, the greatest collective disruption since the second world war. Global in scale and impact, the pandemic has demanded new ways of working, thinking, responding.

In education, the pandemic has laid bare that which we already knew, and made worse the problems we already faced.

Those who live their lives in and at the edge of poverty faced too many barriers already – lockdowns, job losses and digital divides have only made them worse.

In schools, we know that disadvantaged students have suffered the hardest blows, young people who in many cases already had the longest path to climb.

In higher education, whilst we can point to some sudden successes – who knew that it was so easy to record lectures and allow students to review them afterwards? Certainly not those disabled students who campaigned so long for it and were told it was impossible – we also have to face the fact that educational inequality is rarely made better by major disruption.

We will be living with the consequences of coronavirus for a generation or more, and we must be ready to adjust our work on access and participation to reflect that expanded challenge.

To respond to these reflections and challenges, I have three key aspirations for my time as Director for Fair Access and Participation.

The first is unapologetically nerdy: evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.

Everyone I have spoken to about this agrees, that for 20 years or more of widening participation work, we have nowhere near 20 years’ worth of evidence about what works.

We can’t share what works, and we can’t make it work better, if we don’t actually know what does work!

In schools over the past 10 years, the Education Endowment Foundation has transformed the use of evidence and the work schools do to add to the sum of knowledge about effective educational practice.

It seems odd, to say the least, that on something so crucial to the higher education sector as access and participation, we have yet to match that. We have a ‘what works’ centre in TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education), and some strong progress has been made, but the OfS and providers can and should do more.

That means accepting that some interventions will fail, but so long as we are learning from those failures, then some good has still arisen – we are keen to explore the ‘sandbox’ of regulation to give providers committed to generating robust evidence the space to do so.

But we expect the projects committed to in access and participation plans to be evaluated, for those evaluations to be independent, and for them to be published.

My second aspiration is that our access and participation work will align with, and be seen as a crucial part of, the OfS’s quality and standards work.

It is not enough that learners from underrepresented groups can get into college and university – access is about successful higher education, not just any higher education.

Real and enduring social mobility via higher education requires qualifications which are valued by students, employers, and society.

I absolutely reject any suggestion that there is a trade off between access and quality – if providers believe the regulation of quality justifies reducing their openness to those from families and communities with less experience of higher education or who have travelled less common, often more demanding, routes to reach them, they should be ashamed of themselves.

They should also be under no illusion that every power the OfS has, including removing providers’ access to higher fees, will be deployed to ensure providers abide by their responsibility to improve access, participation and quality.

My third aspiration is to see more and more impactful school-university partnership activity.

The attainment gap opens early in life, so attempts to close it have to start then too.

Some have asked why this is the business of universities? Aren’t nurseries and schools, families and communities, local and national government supposed to sort this out?

I could respond by saying that such attainment raising is in the direct interests of higher education providers: more young people achieving more strongly means more potential students eligible to attend college and university, and a greater chance of them succeeding.

And no doubt, that is true.

But I think to say only that betrays a very impoverished view of the role and importance of higher education.

Higher education is offered by corner-stone civic institutions – and whilst some providers have more international horizons than others, all of them have a locality, one that more-often-than-not they share their name with.

Universities and colleges have a moral duty to put their shoulder to the wheel of improving that wider community they sit within, and as both educational and civic institutions, improving attainment in our schools is an essential part of that work.

But they should not assume this duty falls to them alone – of course it doesn’t. We are asking providers to seek out strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector, all working together to contribute to this work.

No one is expecting universities to ‘save’ schools – and school leaders and teachers would not be very happy to find that their colleagues in higher education think or talk that way about them.

But we are expecting providers to pull their weight on pre-16 attainment, a challenge which affects us all.

We will be generous in our expectations of the work providers undertake in this area.

It may be expanding evidence-led, provenly-successful interventions like Bournemouth University’s work on literacy in primary schools. Their student ambassadors worked with Year 6 pupils through a 10 week reading programme, which saw the reading ages of two-thirds of the participants increased.

It could be new thinking and tools for measuring and enhancing the knowledge and skills of disadvantaged pupils in subjects and year groups where we do not yet have coherent curricula matched with integrated, informative assessment.

It will almost certainly include both place-based policy initiatives tied closely to localities and more wide-reaching regional and national initiatives.

We are keen to see innovation and experimentation – provided there is commitment to independent, published evaluation.

We know providers can do this work, because a great many already are. Many more are no doubt doing similar activities without recording them in their access and participation plans. Others will need to time to expand their networks and build partnerships with groups of schools and successful third sector providers.

But we know also that this work, already massively important, has been made more urgent by coronavirus.

We also know that there is much excellent work already in the access and participation plans, work which must carry on alongside these new efforts.

For that reason, I am proposing a three-stage process which will carry us forward, ensuring momentum is sustained alongside opportunities to build networks, plan interventions and commit to effective evaluation.

The first stage is our monitoring of current access and participation work. My colleague, Charlie Leyland, will talk more about that in a moment, but for now I’ll just say we will not be requiring a monitoring return from every provider.

Instead, we will be undertaking a risk-based review of the data we hold and following up with individual providers only where we have concerns.  This will be a tangible reduction in regulatory burden for the many universities and colleges that are on track to achieve the targets they have set for themselves. And an incentive for others to make similar progress in future.

In the second stage, we will be asking providers to review their current access and participation plan and for them to seek variations to ensure the full scale of their work on strategic school engagement, quality, and non-traditional pathways is being captured.

If such work is not currently happening or is not appropriate, providers should seek to remedy that too, with new action beginning from September 2023.

And all providers will be asked to seek a variation so they can create an executive summary of their access and participation plan.

This variation process, which we expect to begin before the summer and conclude before Christmas, will allow providers to discuss both new and changing areas of their work with us, whilst ensuring the ambitious work already agreed can go on.

It will also provide a great opportunity for engagement and learning ahead of the third stage of our plan.

Building access and participation plans on a longer-term, strategic basis has been a crucial change in our approach, and we intend to keep that. However, given the unprecedented pace of change as a result of the pandemic, it seemed sensible to review those timescales, and with the role of director being appointed for four years at a time, it seems sensible to bring the access and participation plan cycle into alignment.

So, subject to consultation, we intend to bring forward the access and participation plan cycle by one year.

New access and participation plans will begin from September 2024, and run for up to four years.

When we consult to update our guidance for that new cycle of access and participation plans, we will include the lessons learned on strategic school engagement, quality, pathways and evaluation from our engagement with providers in stage one and stage two.

We will also consult on changes to our key performance metrics, to ensure they reflect all our priorities and give the right signals to the sector about the outcomes we are seeking.

We will continue our reforms to reduce the burden of monitoring of access and participation plans, and consider using our enforcement tools in areas where providers are not meeting their commitments. We will also seek better ways to shine a spotlight on those achieving the most positive outcomes.

And we will work closely with colleagues in small and specialist providers to ensure that our regulation of them is proportionate, effective and fair.

This is a clear agenda, built on the hard-won successes already achieved by the OfS and the whole sector. It relies upon us in the OfS to be open, thoughtful and responsive to the sector’s feedback, and asks the sector to be bold, ambitious and responsible in developing its work on access and participation.

I am enormously excited about the potential, and look forward to working with all of you and your colleagues across education, to ensure that every student can access the higher education they want and need, and go on to the lives and careers they deserve.

Thank you.'

This speech was given as part of our event, 'Next steps in access and participation'. A recording of the event and a copy of the slides presented are now available on the event page.

Published 08 February 2022

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