By Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation
Dr Claudine Provencher Head, LSE LIFE
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
Challenging the structures that enable the current inequalities in access and success in higher education in the UK is not a small undertaking. This blog post explores an example from the UK where colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) work together to deliver transition and academic skills support to students whilst they are still in the final years of their high school study. The work is specifically targeted at students from backgrounds currently under-represented in higher education in the UK with a focus on their successful progression and transition to studying in higher education. The programme aims to move away from a deficit model approach and focuses instead on providing a level playing field to high school students who don’t have access to the academic and application support some of their peers might. In the UK this work falls under an umbrella term of widening participation (WP).
The Widening Participation team at LSE runs a suite of activities specifically designed to support access to higher education institutions, especially those that, like LSE, have very high entry grade requirements and high levels of competition for places. We work with children as young as nine years old as we believe that inequalities must be addressed from an early age. Once working with older students, especially those in their final two years of high school, our engagement becomes more intensive and subject focused. At this point we have 300 students each year from across London schools and colleges attending programmes based around their potential future higher education subject of interest and/or future career (E.g., law, finance, government, economics, and sociology to name just a few). Depending on the specific programme, students will join us for between 8 to 16 months during which they will attend sessions taking them beyond high school to their subject of focused study (i.e. major) in higher education.
A major objective of these programmes is to support students’ application and transition to higher education programmes and, to that end, a core focus of our work has been on providing practical information and sessions to ensure a successful application, and raise awareness of what students could expect whilst at university. Participants also get introduced to possible career pathways connected with their subject of interest and, depending on the programme they are attending, might undertake in-depth work experience in a vocational area. Whilst none of the programmes have any credit bearing element, attending participants are registered as associate LSE students; this gives them access to LSE Library and the myriad online resources available. Interestingly, many attendees utilise these resources to prepare assignments and revise for their high-school exams.
However, recently, we have been able to raise our ambitions and to enlarge the scope of the work with these students thanks to the establishment of LSE LIFE, a centre for the academic and personal development of students, which opened its doors in September 2016.
Right from the start, colleagues complemented the efforts of the Widening Participation team by hosting and delivering sessions that focus on the key academic skills that pre-entry students will need while completing their high school and later on, once they’ve been admitted to university, such as preparing for exams and networking. Critical thinking is yet another example of such sessions. For instance, in the Practice your Critical Thinking workshop offered to students on the Pathways to Law programme this academic year, 30 A-level (high-school) students worked collaboratively to deconstruct the following contentious argument: “race is no longer the key determinant of life chances.” After a short presentation on critical thinking (e.g., what is it, what are the skills required), students set about scrutinizing the statement. Drawing on their own experiences and empirical data, the students added layers of details to arguments for or against the proposition, first in small group conversations and then in a larger workshop discussion. The second part of the workshop was a free-flowing discussion that built on the questions that had come out from the first part, such as: Where geographically is the scholar basing their statement? What time frame are they working in? What does life chances even mean?
These sessions are also an opportunity for these students to reflect on the type of skills they will need to develop going forward, to take ownership of their development, to become more familiar with the expectations that universities have vis-à-vis their students, and to get familiar with a new learning environment. From a staff point of view, they represent a great opportunity for colleagues to become more familiar with the challenges faced by different students and to adapt their approach and the service development and delivery to be ever more inclusive. Interestingly, this reflection is also proving useful in terms of identifying initiatives that could have a positive impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our student community as a whole.
Proof of impact to date, obtained through student feedback, pre and post testing, is positive with students commenting on feeling more prepared for the transition to higher education, understanding what is needed and being able to look at subjects in ways they hadn’t previously. Progression to higher education is another useful indicator and, again, points towards the positive impact our programme is having with 80% of the students we are able to track post attendance going on to higher education, of which over 60% are going to Russell Group universities (24 leading UK universities) including LSE.
We are now working on a quasi-experimental evaluation of at least one programme to further ascertain its impact on students’ overall attainment prior to higher education typically A-level results and their critical thinking skills, two aspects that we know are key to unlocking future education opportunities.
 For anyone interested in more information about the policy drivers behind WP might wish to explore a research briefing by the UK Parliament and explore the regulator of English higher education the Office for Students (OfS). There is of course an entirely separate literature on the reasons for the differences in participation and the efficacy of the current activity aimed at addressing these inequities.