A meeting to remember

James Turner reports on a discussion between students on the Sutton Trust US Programme and Mrs Heinz Kerry, wife of the US Secretary of State

There are some meetings which will live with you for a lifetime, some which give you a renewed conviction for your work and for life in general.  Last week we were fortunate enough to host a round-table with Theresa Heinz Kelly – IMG_5295_resizedbusinesswoman, philanthropist and wife of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry – for participants on our US university programme.  For many of us, this was one such meeting.

Mrs Heinz Kerry found time in her hectic London schedule (she’d flown in the day before from Istanbul and was heading home the day after) to spend over an hour talking to our students – asking them about their own university choices and offering them advice on education and career paths. The conversation ranged widely; Mrs Heinz Kerry also gave us tantalising glimpses into a whole range of areas of her academic, philanthropic and professional life, from her efforts to combat apartheid in South Africa to her concerns for the environment.  Wisdom and common sense peppered her remarks, and the consensus was she was an impressive and inspiring lady.

As the discussion closed, and Mrs Heinz Kerry was saying goodbye to the students, I reflected that this has been an extraordinary journey for the Trust, our partners the Fulbright Commission and, of course, for the young people who have been on the Sutton Trust US programme.IMG_5306_resized

Eighteen months ago we were sitting in Millbank Tower planning the initiative – tea for us Brits, Diet Coke for our American colleagues – asking just what could be achieved by a non-profit in such a competitive space, and wondering whether more than a handful of our students would be successful in gaining admission. Yet here we were, in Millbank Tower again, almost 20 of our students bound for US universities this autumn, accessing millions of dollars of aid, with one of the most influential women in the world taking a genuine interest in what we’ve achieved.

For the young people themselves, many had never seriously thought about studying in the US until they saw our programme – and even then, it seemed a very distant prospect indeed.  But, thanks to the exceptional efforts of those involved in running the scheme and their own sheer hard work, we now have ordinary (in the best sense of the word) state school students heading to some of the highest ranked US universities in the world.  The don’t live in million pound houses or attend elite schools; they simply have talent and motivation and that has shone through.

IMG_5313_resizedIt is a high bar we have set ourselves for this year’s group of 150, who we’ll be taking to MIT and Yale in the summer.  But having met many of those young people over Easter at our selection residential, I am confident we have a great starting point for this year’s programme. There were some exceptional young people with some incredible stories, a voracious appetite for learning and for expanding their horizons.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if, amongst them, we have some future leaders of the likes of Mrs Heinz Kerry.

Are boys the losers with tuition fees?

Conor Ryan considers the lessons from this week’s report by the Independent Commission on Fees.

Students are well into the first year of higher tuition fees. While 54,000 fewer young people started university in 2012 than in 2011, the Government has been congratulating itself that the dip was not much greater.

And the water has been muddied by the changes in student controls that took effect just as the £9000 fee cap was introduced. Moreover, this year’s applications suggest that there is some improvement on last year’s dip.

So is all well in the world of higher fees?

The truth is it is too early to tell. And a new report this week from the Independent Commission on Fees highlights a number of areas where there is some cause for concern.

The first is what’s happening to boys, particularly working class boys. The Commission’s study of UCAS acceptance data has shown not only that the gender gap continues to widen, but that it appears even more pronounced in the lower participation neighbourhoods.

Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men and the gender gap seems to have widened as a result of the new fees regime. Among UK residents, 143,600 women aged 19 and under were accepted to English universities in 2012 compared with 118,952 young men.

This represents a decline since 2010 of 2.6% for girls and 4.0% for boys, and a 5.9% decline for girls and a 7.5% decline for boys since 2011.

But in the 40% of English neighbourhoods where university participation is lowest, there were 1700 fewer boys aged 19 and under who were accepted for places in 2012 than in 2011. This represents a decline of 5.4% in the number of young men from these areas going to university this year. By contrast, the fall in the number of young women from these neighbourhoods going to university was smaller, at just 3.7%.

Perhaps of more interest, since it discounts any surge into 2011 to avoid the higher fees, when compared with 2010, the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%. By contrast, between 2009 and 2010, male and female acceptances rose.

In England, while the overall change in the gender gap in the less disadvantaged neighbourhoods was 1.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2012, the overall change in the gender gap in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods was greater, at 2.3 percentage points.

Although the decline in male participation in the most advantaged neighbourhoods was even larger, 20,000 more boys go to university each year from the two top fifth neighbourhoods than from the two bottom fifth neighbourhoods.

It means that the female: male ratio is now nearly 57:43 in the less advantaged neighbourhoods whereas it is closer to 53:47 in the more advantaged neighbourhoods.

With 2013 applications, UCAS has suggested that this gap is persisting. Its January applications report noted that 18 year women remain a third more likely in England to apply to university than men, but this rises to 50 per cent in disadvantaged areas.

If this is the case, it suggests that the information about the new loan repayments may be proving more attractive to young women than to young men, or that young men from disadvantaged areas are less likely to believe that the cost of a degree is worth it. Either way, there is a challenge here for policymakers to meet.

The Commission’s new report has two other important findings that should cause policymakers to take pause. The first is the familiar data on mature students – those aged 20 and over – who had 7.6% fewer acceptances in 2012 than in 2010, more than twice the 3.3% decline for younger students as a whole.

The decision to allow part-timers to have access to student loans hasn’t seen full-timers move to part-time courses either. HEFCE has shown a dramatic drop in part-time numbers, with 105,000 fewer students since 2010, or a 40% drop.

This is important for access, as studying later is an important route to social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and it is vital that the impact of fees on this group is not neglected just because the reductions among young people are smaller.

As the new President of Birkbeck College, Baroness Bakewell, put it at the weekend:

“Part-time study is crucial for our society. It improves skills and kick-starts new careers – exactly what we need for the economy, employers and individuals during these difficult economic times. In response to the dramatic downturn in part-time students nationwide, unprecedented support is needed now to ensure part-time study thrives in future.”

And the other key finding is perhaps a warning shot at this stage, but one that will need closer scrutiny as the university-level data becomes clear.

While there has been an increase in the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged areas going to the least selective universities, there has been minimal improvement in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust’s list of the 30 more selective universities (which includes the 24 Russell Group members) and a small dip in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust 13 most selective group.

While the only rises to the Sutton Trust 30 were in the lower participation neighbourhoods, the only quintile showing a dip in acceptances to the Sutton Trust 13 was the lowest participation group. This means that there is a widening gap between this group and other more advantaged areas, and those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to attend these universities than those in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

Closer scrutiny of patterns among individual selective universities will be important here. Already, there is some evidence from HESA data that in 2011, the proportion of new undergraduates from state schools and colleges at the 13 top universities slipped for the fourth year in succession.

There is clearly an important issue for the most selective universities and their recruitment from the poorest neighbourhoods – and it is one that the Sutton Trust will return to shortly. The Trust has also commissioned the Institute of Fiscal Studies to examine the potential impact of students leaving university with debts likely to exceed £40,000 on their ability to afford graduate study, buying a house, and having children. Their findings will be published later this year.

So, the truth is that the jury is still out on fees. We need to see whether these findings for 2012 become clearer trends in the next few years. It is vital, meanwhile, that Government, universities and schools do all they can to reach young people with the ability and potential to benefit from university, particularly in areas where university participation is already low.

Evaluating the impact of widening participation initiatives

Lee Elliot Major argues for a more evidence-based approach to university access work.

It is nothing short of a scandal that the vast majority of work in our universities and colleges aimed at opening doors to students from low and middle income homes is not evaluated properly. We spend over £1 billion a year on programmes to widen participation and broaden access into our academic elites; yet we know very little about what impact most of these efforts are having. Well-intentioned efforts to aid social mobility – from school outreach programmes to financial support for students – are effectively operating in the dark, uninformed by any hard evidence of what has worked before.

The problem has come to light again with the release of a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) which “found little evidence that impact is being systematically evaluated by institutions”. Previous reports have revealed a lack of even the most basic monitoring of data and outcomes across the sector, prompting the English funding council to issue guidance on evaluation.

The national strategy unveiled by Hefce and the Office for Fair Access (Offa) meanwhile has recommended a light-touch network of regional coordinators to facilitate collaboration between universities and schools. This sounds suspiciously like ‘AimHigher light’- a slim-line version of the previous national outreach programme in England. AimHigher was cut in the last Whitehall spending review due to lack of evidence of its impact. A lot of good work was undermined by the absence of hard data.

The gathering of robust evidence remains the Achilles heel of the sector. It seems tragic that this should be so in our respected seats of learning. Once when the Sutton Trust offered to evaluate an outreach scheme at a highly prestigious UK university, the head of access declined, arguing that they would rather use the extra money to help more students.

The problem with this response is twofold: Firstly, we didn’t (still don’t) know if the programme was actually having any impact on the students taking part. Secondly, if we did evaluate it, then the lessons could enable many thousands more students to be helped properly in the future. The current default – to simply survey participants to see if they enjoyed the experience – is no longer good enough. The question must be asked: did the programme impact on the student in the desired way that would not otherwise have happened if the programme had not existed. Did the programme enable students from poorer backgrounds to enter university who otherwise wouldn’t have done so?

But there are signs that the tide is at last turning. To its credit Offa is urging institutions to adopt a more ‘evidence based’ approach. What is now needed is the full mix of evaluation and monitoring – local pilot studies as well as national randomised trials – to measure the outcomes of access work.

Universities can look to the work we have been doing with schools on interventions in the classroom to learn some of the basic principles. The DIY evaluation guide published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers simple advice on how to evaluate the impact of a programme at a local level. This is about combining professional judgment with knowledge of previous evidence to devise a programme, and then monitor outcomes of participating students in comparison to similar students not on the programme. The Trust is currently developing a common evaluation framework for all of its programmes. This will enable evaluations for small projects without the resources to commission an independent evaluation themselves.

The Government recently designated The Sutton Trust and EEF as the ‘What Works centre’ for education following the publication of our highly successful toolkit for schools. The Trust is currently developing an ‘HE access toolkit’, which we hope will summarise current evidence on the impact of access work in an accessible format. Although it is not clear how much this will be able to say, given the paucity of research in the field.

Undertaking ‘gold standard’ evaluations which involve selecting participants at random to ascertain genuine impact remains a tricky task. But the Sutton Trust has already funded a feasibility study on how a proper randomised control trial (RCT) might be undertaken for an access programme. We are now considering commissioning a fully fledged RCT.

Even if RCTs are currently a step too far for others, then evaluations need at least to involve the use of comparison groups. Two examples of such usage can be seen in recent evaluations commissioned by the Trust. Our review of summer schools used UCAS university admissions data to compare the outcomes of summer school students against similar students not on the programme. The Reach for Excellence programme meanwhile constructed a comparison group from students who qualified but didn’t enrol on the programme.

If I had my way every access programme would require an evaluation that met these basic standards. Robust evaluation is not easy to do, costs time and money, and often produces awkward and humbling results. But not to do so, is in the end failing the students we are trying to help.

This blog post first appeared on Westminster Briefing.

Access and the avalanche

Conor Ryan considers a new report suggesting that the days of many traditional universities are numbered in the face of online and mass delivery challenges.

In 1926, John Clarke Stobart, the classical scholar and Children’s Hour creator who was also the first BBC Director of Education, had the idea that there might be a ‘wireless university’, bringing learning to the masses in a way that traditional universities, then the preserve of a small elite, could not achieve. What followed was rather less ambitious: a series of 25 minute talks supplemented by study aid pamphlets.

It would be another four decades before Jennie Lee started to develop her ideas for what would become the Open University in 1969.   Those of us old enough to remember the late night OU broadcasts will forever have the image of the typical OU lecture from the 1970s imprinted on our minds.

Nevertheless, despite an initial lack of technical sophistication, the Open University helped over 1.6 million people to gain a higher education. More recently, it has embraced the Internet with the enthusiasm due to a medium well suited to its ambitious approach to access, and it now boasts some 250,000 students worldwide with 1200 academic staff and 7000 tutors.  Its model of delivery has been picked up across the world, not least in fast-growing large nations like India and China.

Reading the fascinating new report from Michael Barber and his colleagues for the IPPR this week, one couldn’t help but think of the profound changes that the Open University made in providing access to higher education for many people, initially on TV and latterly via the Internet.

At the same time, the model did not prove as disruptive as it might have to traditional universities which now educate nearly half the young adult population in ways not so different from the approach taken when J C Stobart was expounding his Reithian mission. Nor, despite its often impressive academic credentials, has it managed to challenge the grip of the elite universities in the UK.

Barber and his colleagues argue persuasively that an ‘avalanche’ is coming in higher education which will completely transform the delivery and – in many respects – the nature of higher education. They say all universities face key challenges including the traditional degree structure, the need for specialisation, their links to employability and a devaluing of the worth of an ordinary primary degree.

Of course, we have had some false starts before. I remember all too well what happened to the ill-fated e-university initiative, a construct that was perhaps too premature. Yet, with the growth of Massive Open Online Courses – bearing the unattractive acronym of MOOCs – the world could potentially become a smaller place for students. A relatively small but growing number of UK students now prefer to study in the US – some with the support of Sutton Trust summer schools.

But some US universities including Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, using the EdX platform, are putting many courses and lectures online, opening them up to mass audiences. In developing countries, online may be the only way to achieve mass higher education, but how much will it affect tradition universities in developed nations?

Barber et al argue that it will require universities to adopt one of five models: the elite, the mass, the niche, the local or the lifelong learning. That may well be true. Equally, they point to the impact of rising fees on students as consumers, and their rising expectations as a result. Students may start to demand more contact time and fewer enforced holidays.

Already there are concerns that few students complete MOOC courses, with dropout rates as high as 90 per cent, though that could also reflect differing motivations for signing up.  It may well be that students without a higher education tradition at home are the least likely to be able to sustain such course options. However, universities cannot afford to be complacent, and must acquire far more flexibility in their approach if they are to remain relevant in this brave new world, both in their traditional and online delivery.

Universities will have to make the case for an experience that is collaborative, and which opens students up to networks that still feel more real than the social media alternatives that are supposed to act as substitutes. As importantly, they will need to show that they are delivering it.

Of course, that may mean new ways of doing things. Warwick University, which ran some excellent summer schools for gifted and talented school students in the first decade of this century, has recently created a new online network – IGGY  – that it wants to blend with face-to-face activities and use that as a way to encourage able students of all backgrounds to network.

Whatever the mode of delivery, access will surely be as important an issue to all the new types of university as it is to traditional institutions. MOOCs must not become the poor man or woman’s alternative to a place at Harvard or Cambridge, which seem unlikely to forfeit their prestige or their role in developing leaders in all fields. Unless we are careful, there is a real danger they will do so.

If elite institutions are here to stay, as Barber et al believe they are, new levels of global competition for talent will make it more important than ever to harness brainpower from the whole of society, not just a narrow elite. That social mobility challenge seems no more destined to disappear than the great universities of the world and their formidable brands.

The Trouble With Boys

Conor Ryan reflects on David Willetts’ latest initiative to persuade more white working class boys to study at university.

Universities minister David Willetts was quick off the blocks for 2013 with his ideas on how to encourage white working class boys to go to university.

Young women are now a third more likely than young men to go to university, and there is a three-fold gap in applications between the poorest and richest neighbourhoods. In an article and interview for The Independent, Mr Willetts said that the education system “seems to make it harder for boys and men to face down the obstacles in the way of learning.

He told the paper that the Office for Fair Access  “look at a range of disadvantaged groups – social class and ethnicity, for instance – when it comes to access agreements, so I don’t see why they couldn’t look at white, working-class boys.”

The Minister has a point. Growing research in recent years suggests that white working class boys perform less well than many minority ethnic communities in their test and exam results.

Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally, in a 2006 LSE study, identified a stronger gender gap in secondary than primary schools. They argued that “the importance of coursework in the GCSE examination is likely to be a key explanation for the emergence of the gender gap at age 16.” They also identified differences in teaching and learning styles, and modes of assessment.

In 2007, Joseph Rowntree Foundation research, conducted by Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon, with some Sutton Trust input, found that nearly half of all students defined as low achievers were White British males. White British students on average – boys and girls – were more likely than other ethnic groups to persist in low achievement.

National College research by Denis Mongon and Christopher Chapman from Manchester University with the National Union of Teachers in 2008 suggested that some school leaders were better than others at narrowing this gap. They suggested a focus on clear strategies including relentless application of the highest standards in teaching and attention to data detail were key where the gap was lower.

They rightly pointed out that the social class gap is much wider than any gender gap, yet the data suggest that white working class boys are at an even greater disadvantage than white working class girls. This lower attainment can translate into lower ambitions, as reflected in applications to Sutton Trust summer schools – an important route for many low and middle income young people into leading universities.

Sutton Trust summer schools target the first child in families who might go to university. In 2012, there were 5,295 applicants from girls and 2,712 from boys, a ratio of 2:1. Even with a slightly higher acceptance rate among boys than girls, 62% of attendees were girls and just 38% boys.

Recent exam data bears out both the gender and socio-economic gaps. The 2012 Key Stage Test data suggests that 60% of White British boys eligible for free school meals reach level 2 in English and Maths, compared with 67% of White British FSM girls. This is larger than the three point gender gap among all other pupils. However, there is a six-point gender gap across all FSM pupils. The big difference is in English, where the gender gap among FSM pupils is 12 points.

On the main 5 GCSE indicator (including English and Maths), 2011  data (2012 data is due later this month). shows that 26% of White British FSM boys reached this standard compared with 32% of girls, a slightly smaller gender gap than exists for all other pupils, but one consistent with the gap at age eleven. On overall performance, only traveller boys perform worse now at GCSE. 33% of Black Caribbean boys, for example, now reach the 5 GCSE standard (though overall White British students perform ten points better than Black Caribbean students)

So what can we do? David Willetts is surely right to want universities to provide concerted help through summer schools over several years to lift aspirations. The Trust is planning to use this approach through programmes with Kent academies and working with University College London to support highly able pupils from Year 8 onwards over five years.

Of course, Michael Gove’s changes to the exam system and curriculum – more facts, more end-of-course testing – may reduce the overall gender gap, as girls are believed to perform better in coursework.

But, in addition to OFFA looking more closely at the data, a more concerted focus on white working class boys could also be productive. When the Labour government targeted Afro-Caribbean achievement in the late 1990s, after the Stephen Lawrence murder, it set clear goals and a strong focus that has particularly benefited FSM pupils.  The London Challenge will have been of particular benefit, with its strong focus on leadership, teaching and data.

Today, our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation is testing the most effective ways to lifting achievement for pupils in receipt of free school meals, and has the potential to make a real difference in narrowing attainment gaps. 70% of its target group is White British.

The experience of minority ethnic communities suggests cultural change is also important. Bangladeshi students used to perform relatively poorly in schools. Now they out-perform White British students overall, and 56% of Bangladeshi students eligible for free school meals – including 53% of FSM boys – reach the five GCSE benchmark. That change owes a lot to a community’s desire to learn, backed by parents and teachers working to meet that desire.

Harnessing a similar will to learn in white working class communities must be a part of the solution to the low attainment of too many of their boys – and girls.