Geographical variations in rates of higher education participation have long been recognised. In 1997, the Dearing Report discussed research by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) which showed that ‘the probability of a young person entering a higher education institution is strongly related to the nature of the student’s immediate neighbourhood’. Today, much outreach activity is directed at ‘the most educationally disadvantaged localities in England’ (Raven, 2018, 391). For the government funded National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) – recently renamed Uni Connect – these are areas where HE participation is not only low in comparative terms but ‘lower than expected given (level 2) GCSE attainment’ (Office for Students, 2019).

Whilst the emphasis for NCOP partnerships is on interventions that address such spatial inequalities in participation, a greater understanding of these neighbourhoods could help to enhance the effectiveness of outreach efforts. To this end, Make Happen – the Essex-based NCOP – commissioned me to conduct some research into county’s target wards. Amongst the sources utilised in this study was an early version of the POLAR classification scheme (POLAR2), which includes figures on the percentage of local adults with an HE-level qualification. Also consulted was the Office for National Statistics’ NOMIS datasets which provide details from the 2011 census of the occupations and qualifications of residents for every English census ward.

Analysis of these sources revealed the distinct character of the county’s target wards. Typically, these districts returned the lowest proportion of adults with university-level qualifications. In the original study, ratios were used to highlight the differences. These revealed that ‘whilst more than 1 in 3 adults residing in high-participation areas possessed a higher-level qualification, the corresponding [ratio] for target wards was less than 1 in 6’ (Raven, 2018, 404-5).

Similarly, the same areas returned the smallest percentages in managerial and professional occupations. Indeed, these areas were three times less likely to possess residents in higher and intermediate managerial and professional occupations than high participation neighbourhoods. Converting these differences into ratios provides some indication of the likelihood that young residents will ‘encounter locals with graduate-level jobs’. Accordingly, 1 in 3 adults in high participation areas were in managerial and professional roles compared with less than 1 in 8 for target wards (Raven, 2018, 405-6).

The same study went on to consider various outreach responses advocated by the practitioners who were interviewed as part of the investigation. In revisiting these discussions, two suggestions appear to have particular resonance given the distinct character of these areas. The first concerns the role that undergraduates can play in working with young people from neighbourhoods where few locals can offer first-hand accounts of university life and study. The second relates to a recommendation that is also made by Wiseman et al (2017, 14). This concerns providing ‘young people [with] access to a wide range of graduate employers and employees’, especially in careers they are unlikely to encounter during ‘everyday life’ and in their ‘local communit[ies]’.

For more information about this study, or to share your experiences of working in such neighbourhoods, do not hesitate to contact the author, Dr Neil Raven.  

Neil Raven is a FACE Exec Member and Educational Consultant


Office for Students. 2019. The National Collaborative Outreach Programme End of Phase 1 report for the national formative and impact evaluation.

Raven, N. 2018. Understanding areas of educational disadvantage: an examination of outreach target wards in the county of Essex, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 23:3, 391-413

Raven, N. 2017. The progression challenge. Factors influencing low rates of young higher education participation in a sample of districts across Essex. Unpublished report prepared for the Essex Collaborative Outreach Network.

Wiseman, J., E. Davies, S. Duggal, L. Bowes, R. Moreton, S. Robinson, T. Nathwani, G. Birking, L. Thomas., and J. Roberts. 2017. Understanding the Changing Gaps in Higher Education Participation in Different Regions of England. Department for Education.

Image credit: Sylwia Bartyzel 

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