Universities are starting to ask for a lot more paperwork when schools visit a campus or ask for someone to come in to deliver a talk or workshop. We know this creates extra work for teachers, so why do we do it, and how can it help protect the future of outreach activity?
You’ve booked the campus visit and carefully selected the young people to attend based on criteria sent to you by the university. You’ve got permission for the pupils to be released from their timetable, and sent letters home to parents and carers. You’ve done the risk assessment, and booked the coach. And then it lands in your inbox: your contact at the university has sent you some data collection forms to send home to the parents or carers of learners who will be visiting next week. These forms ask for all sorts of things — everything from their name and address to whether anyone in their family has been to university, or if their parents have ever served in the military. And never mind how much it’s going to cost to print them all out. You start to reply to the email to say you’ll do your best to get the forms back from parents in time for the visit, when another email arrives in your inbox. There’s a pre-event evaluation form for the learners to complete as well…
It might seem like paperwork overload, but the reason we ask for this information is to make sure that activities designed to widen access to university are reaching the right young people — the ones who need it most. There are two strands to this: monitoring (understanding which learners are attending activities), and evaluation (measuring if the activities have had an impact on the learners who attend them). I will explain both further below.
The government, through the Office for Students (OfS), invests a lot of money in supporting access to higher education for young people from underrepresented cohorts of students, and they want to make sure this funding is making a difference. This is where a lot of the money to fund the widening access and outreach work that schools receive comes from. Over the last 12 months, the OfS expectations on universities to prove the impact of our work have increased.
We collect learner data to make sure those who need help accessing higher education get it. We know, for example, that young people are statistically less likely to go to university if they grow up in certain areas of the country, if their parents haven’t been to university, or if they’ve been in care.
By collecting monitoring data, we can make sure we’re targeting the right young people. The theory is pretty simple: if you’re the first in your family to go to university, you may not have access to the same sort of information and family experience to support you in finding out more about university and making a decision about where you want to go. By delivering workshops about the benefits of university, how to choose a university and course, how student finance works, and what university is like, we’re able to equalise access to this information and help young people make an informed choice about what they want to do at the age of 18. Someone with university-educated parents can ask them what university is like, and may not need the information we provide.
We also want to find out more about changes in knowledge, skills and attitudes of learners who’ve taken part in our activities. Universities are increasingly introducing more sophisticated methods of evaluation of outreach activities. For example, during our residential summer schools, we ask learners to complete a pre-event evaluation, a post-event evaluation before they go home, and a follow-up post-event survey in the following autumn term, as well as a reflective diary during their stay.
We also gather evaluation data from their parents/carers and teachers to corroborate what the learners tell us. We do this because we want to understand what affect taking part in the summer school has on them and their knowledge, skills, and intentions. We want to find out what the best way of delivering outreach is — and what makes the most difference to different cohorts of young people. We do this to make sure we’re using the funding the government provides to deliver the most impactful activities, and to find out ways to constantly improve what we do.
We take being trusted with young people’s data very seriously, and make sure we have robust processes in place to keep it safe.
We use it to report back to the Office for Students about what we’ve been doing and why we think it works — but never in a way that could identify an individual learner. We ask for personal details so we can check if young people we’ve worked with have accessed higher education when they turn 18, comparing this against general population trends to determine if they’ve been more likely to attend university because of the activities we’ve delivered. And most importantly, we use this data to improve the activities we offer to schools, and measure if they’re working.
All of this helps us understand if we’re making a difference to the young people we’re working with… and to keep doing it.
Supporting us to collect this data to prove what we do works, will mean we can continue to access government funding and provide these activities, free-of-charge, to your young people who need them the most. We’ll share reports about activities you’ve attended with you for OFSTED to prove you’re hitting Gatsby Benchmark 7 and others. We’ll do what we can to help you help us collect it — at Higher Horizons we will even drop off printed forms at your school! But we appreciate the extra time this costs you every time you book an outreach activity.
Thank you for supporting us to have a positive effect on the learners we work with — and for helping us to prove it!
Dr. Hannah Merry is the Operations Manager for Higher Horizons, an NCOP network based at Keele University, serving schools and colleges in Staffordshire, Cheshire and Shropshire. Hannah is also the Chair of the East Midlands Widening Participation Research and Evaluation Partnership and an Executive Committee Member at the National Educational Opportunities Network.
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