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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

Place-based widening participation

During my teenage years in Doncaster, we had a thriving local band scene. One of those bands, the drummerless Blind Willie McManus, had a song called City in All But Name, with a lyric that stated, ‘Doncaster is more than a place – it’s a state of mind.’ I’ve often thought of that line in recent years, as place-based working came back into fashion in social policy and levelling up became the agenda of government. It captures something that those of us who have grown up in places described by others as ‘left behind’ can feel in our bones: that place matters even in the digital age.

Those instincts are mirrored in the research of Professor Raj Chetty’s ‘Equality of Opportunity’ project, which used the tax records of 20 million Americans to model and transform our understanding of social mobility and the role of place. In his paper exploring the effects of exposure to ‘better’ neighbourhoods on children’s life chances, Chetty found that community matters deeply. He concluded: ‘My work is encouraging as it suggests the problem is tractable and we can do something in local communities to have a meaningful impact on opportunities’ – a heartening reminder that widening participation is a contact sport, and change is possible. 

Here in the UK, recent Higher Education Statistics Agency data has explored the relationship between place-based measures of widening participation and individual student circumstance. They found that even when someone’s home circumstances are better than their area-based indicators might suggest, those individuals are still subject to some inhibiting effects of the place where they reside. The data also showed that, ‘irrespective of whether or not the individual’s parents held higher education qualifications, those from the most deprived deciles were less likely to be awarded a first or upper second-class degree’ in higher education. As we’ve always known, it’s hard to outrun your roots in the UK. 

We know that higher-education participation is increasingly a place-based phenomenon, with some regions surging ahead of others. In London, higher-education participation among students receiving free school meals nears 50 percent, while no other region in the country even comes close to 30 per cent. In Orton Goldhay and Malborne, a community where our Peterborough Parent Power chapter is active, only 11 per cent of 18 year olds make their way to university. And the recent Path Not Taken report by the Eton-STAR partnership identifies local authorities where high-attaining students do not progress to university. As you may imagine, there are substantial differences across the UK, and it is Somerset and Luton that have the highest percentage of non-progressing students capable of higher-education study. Polling of parents by The Brilliant Club showed significant differences in optimism about educational opportunities, and concerns about the support and finances needed to secure a degree. Parents in the North (Yorkshire and Humber, North East and North West) are the most pessimistic about the chances of children in their local area to attend university, compared with children in the rest of the country. We also know that the general public is deeply concerned about these place-based imbalances, with polling for the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Deaton Review of Inequalities showing that place-based inequality is the form of inequality that Britons are unified in being most concerned about. 

It has been heartening to see the emergence of Place Matters – a centre sharing the growing place-based practice across the UK, developed in conjunction with the long-running Tamarack Institute in Canada. One of the reasons for establishing Place Matters has been the sense that the UK has lagged behind other countries in paying attention to place and investing in place-based initiatives in recent decades. There are a small number of promising place-based approaches here in the UK, often created by frustrated educators turned policy entrepreneurs: the Feltham Convening Partnership, Right to Succeed and West London Children’s Zone are inspiring blueprints of a different way of thinking about creating bright futures for children and young people.

The Department for Education’s opportunity areas (2017-2022) were a rare and powerful example of government place-based working to improve education and labour-market outcomes for young people. Established in 2017, these were founded in the 12 areas of the country with the lowest social mobility, as measured by the now defunct Social Mobility Index. Local plans were written and overseen by a partnership board comprised of leaders from different types of institutions, including local universities. For a government initiative, the opportunity areas were granted remarkably high levels of local autonomy. At the end of their five years, the independent chairs of the opportunity areas published a report looking at their experiences of place-based educational improvement. Many of the lessons detailed in their insight guide to opportunity areas connect to an idea developed by British-American political adviser Fiona Hill in her book There Is Nothing For You Here. Hill argues that we must understand that opportunity is a form of infrastructure – one that we must be deliberate in building and scaffolding for the next generation. She calls this a ‘systematizing of opportunity’, and describes how businesses, universities, charities, unions and community organisations need to work together in ‘unlocking the potential of place, one of the greatest imperatives of the 21st century’. Hill builds on the work of Professor Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, which urges action rooted in place to secure decent opportunities for all our children in the future.

I was the independent chair of the Bradford opportunity area, and continue to lead the Bradford Education Alliance for Life Chances: a broad-based coalition of organisations, working together to improve opportunities for young people in the district. These types of alliances are a form of opportunity infrastructure in and of themselves. Our alliance has been built by local people who are willing to work across institutional boundaries in the best interests of children. The breakthrough we are most proud of is our work knitting together health and education, via the Born in Bradford cohort study and our Centre for Applied Education Research, to understand how the two systems interact. The Glasses in Classes project showed a powerful link, and found that around 3,000 pupils were struggling to read in school because of eyesight problems rather than literacy challenges. This has enabled us to get upstream of the health issues holding back educational progress for children, and is now being rolled out to 10 other local authorities in England.

My experience in Bradford taught me that collaboration is especially important in systems and places hollowed out of resources. The pooling of energy, relationships and, yes, sometimes money, allows us to achieve good things against the odds. In London, there is an abundance of organisations and institutions – universities, charities and other forms of civil society – that act on educational disadvantage and related issues. That isn’t the case in many parts of the country. Where I grew up felt like an institutional desert, especially when the library was closed down and the bus timetable dwindled. To put it frankly, it’s better to be born poor in a place with wealth of people and strong organisations keen to help. That’s one of the reasons we see better outcomes for poor children in some parts of our cities compared with children in similar circumstances living elsewhere.

Back in the 1990s, ideas around institutional thinness and thickness theories were a popular framework for understanding how to drive economic growth and development in a place. The idea was that the density of organisations, their interactions and their common goals are essential conditions for thriving places. One can extend this concept to education and see universities helping to create new forms of institutions in their communities by working together with a diverse range of other organisations. The future of educational opportunity should be intersectoral – something public health has been doing for many years, by acknowledging the nonmedical factors that act as social determinants of health. The Feltham Convening Partnership or Bradford Alliance for Life Chances offer radical models of how we could collaborate from cradle to career for collective impact. 

Collective impact is a term describing the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem, using a structured form of collaboration. This approach moves us beyond isolated impact – it turns the question, ‘What can my institution effect as part of its access and participation plan?’ into ‘What can we achieve together in the civic home of this university?’ 

Many of these British collective-impact endeavours have been inspired by US initiatives, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone or Strive in Cincinnati. Successful collective-impact initiatives have five hallmarks: a common agenda, shared measurement and evaluation systems (often delivered by a university), mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support organisations. Strive, for example, brought together local leaders to tackle student underachievement and improve education throughout Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The alliance was wide-ranging, but included eight universities who agreed that: 

The evidence is clear that collaborative overload can deplete productivity and create drag. But when we get it right, it can be an accelerant and create significant breakthroughs specific to places we care about. 

Elsewhere in this collection, you will read essays advocating for a form of auto-widening participation: guaranteed offers in local places. This seems enticingly clean and simple, but it neglects how that single administrative intervention might feel to applicants and communities. Take a moment to talk to young people and their teachers about how those offers make them feel, and it suggests that we need something based much more on relationships and long-term teamwork to foster widening participation and student success. 

What I am arguing for is much messier and sometimes feels uncomfortable. Collective-impact approaches in a place require universities to stand alongside other institutions in common relationship, rather than authoring the plan or seeing themselves as the architects of educational change. It demands deep mutual respect between schools, colleges, universities, health, police, social care, local authorities and voluntary groups and individuals. This has not always come easily to universities, who have found it easier to stand aside from the fray. Yet it is needed more than ever before, as our widening-participation endeavours face the same headwinds that young people and their families face, too. 

Others in this collection have argued for compact agreements, joining the dots of a local tertiary education system. Professor Chris Millward takes the example of Birmingham and imagines what a collective approach to educational opportunity might look like between the five universities in the city, the combined authority and civil-society organisations. It could be an opportunity to develop shared capability to respond to the needs and aspirations of learners and their families, as well as the skills and education needs of business in the region. 

If we are serious about tackling growing regional disparities in education, then a future government should consider replicating the opportunity areas in places where children do not have the best start in life. Instead of 12 opportunity areas, how about 50? And every one with a university as part of it. Alongside this place-based approach policy, we should always ensure that nationwide offers can be drawn into the places without a richness of institutions on the ground and without a university nearby. I work for a charity that is almost place-agnostic but works intensely in more schools than any other higher-education access organisation or university. We can get to a school or college no matter where it might be, thanks to our army of PhD tutors based in every part of the country. This type of provision is vital in docking into places that need it the most, and we are lucky in the UK to have a maturing third-sector provision that can roam across geographies.

I am optimistic and ambitious about the capabilities and possibilities of place-based working at local or even regional level to improve education, skills and life chances. But that does not abdicate the Westminster Government of a responsibility to provide national policies that underpin and support this work. It’s clear, for example, that a child-poverty action plan is required, and a decent school funding settlement is essential. But the hardest policy ask is not a specific policy at all. It’s a change of mindset, just like the Blind Willie McManus song argued back in my Donny days. 

We need a policy and implementation mindset in Whitehall, which accepts that everything is connected in children’s lives. We need government departments that work across silos in the best interests of our children and young people. We need an environment that eases data-sharing between systems. Universities are well placed to help with this, through our multi-disciplinary research and through acting as trusted brokers for data linkages that will enable breakthroughs in children’s lives. 

Throughout this piece, I have used the language of educational opportunity or life chances alongside widening participation. This is deliberate, to help expand our ideas about how universities can contribute to an educational ecosystem from which widening participation can eventually flow. We’ve tiptoed towards this in recent years, with pre-16 outreach work and attainment-raising endeavours in our universities. But what we are missing is the ability – or sometimes willingness – to act as part of a cast of actors and contribute to system change in the places our universities call home. This is bigger and more complicated than a single programme, initiative or institution. But it is worth walking towards, because it enables us to tackle the bigger issues facing our children and communities in education and beyond. It ensures that we can rise to the challenge of place-based inequality, which will continue to be a scarring feature of British society – unless we take action together, soon. 

Anne-Marie Canning MBE

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