One of the challenges widen participation practitioners have faced in recent times has been in maintaining regular contact with schools and colleges, as these institutions wrestle with the uncertainties wrought by the pandemic. Yet, the teacher-perspective is central to understanding local outreach needs, as well as what works, and indeed what could work (Moore, Sanders and Higham, 2013; Raven, 2021).*


Over the last few months, I have been fortunate to have remained in regular contact – albeit virtually – with a highly experienced teaching professional. Andy is a teacher and member of the senior management team at an inner city comprehensive with a predominantly white working class catchment. He is also the academy’s outreach lead and, in this capacity, can offer a perspective based on many years of supporting fair access initiatives at a number of schools and colleges.


Conversations with a purpose


Our discussions during this period can best be described as ‘conversations with a purpose’, or motive. Swain and Spire (2020, n.p.) describe this approach to data gathering as one that has been rather overlooked in educational research. Yet, such conversations have the potential to produce rich, in-depth insights, which, given the more free-flowing nature of the interaction, can be ‘more authentic’ than those generated through more formal and staged interviews.


What has worked during recent months


Although a number of planned university visits during the winter and spring terms had to ‘abandoned’, Andy discussed the positive reaction that a series of online lectures offered to year 12s and 13s (sixth formers) had received. Described as ‘very powerful’, these had proved successful because they were ‘not just one-off lectures’. Instead, the students took part in a course linked to the subjects they were studying for their A-level. This involved them ‘sending in an essay’ and receiving feedback. The impact, it was added, was that the course cultivated a sense that ‘they are university students.’ As evidence of this intervention’s effectiveness, Andy talked about how ‘the students were keen to discuss what they had been doing. Moreover, through engaging with the course the students had acquired transferable ‘skills in how you learn online’. In this respect, Andy’s expectation – shared by a number of commentators – is that ‘more online learning’ will be built into future undergraduate programmes (Buitendijk, 2021; Tzirides, Kalantzis and Cope, 2021.).


What needs to be addressed


Yet, Andy was also realistic about the longer-term impact of this intervention. It had certainly ‘stoked students’ enthusiasm and nurtured confidence in their academic abilities’. It had also helped inform them about the choice of post-18 institutions. However, these sessions were directed at those on level advanced (level 3) programmes, who, in many instances, were committed to their studies and were already exploring the HE option. Consequently, there remained a need to focus on those at an earlier stage in their educational journeys and before crucial post-16 study decisions were made. Failure to engage and support these younger people could, it was suggested, be very costly. ‘Unless something is done for them, we could lose a generation to HE. Once they have left at the end of year 11, we will not get a lot of them back.’


What could work



Asked what would work for younger learners, especially those in years of 9, 10 and 11 – and who had embarked on their GCSEs – Andy’s response was that they need the same type of intervention as that offered to their older peers. Specifically, the suggestion was for a short programme of sessions delivered once a week. Andy was quite clear about the number. Whilst doubts were expressed about the enduring impact of one-off interventions (an assessment supported by recent research, Patel and Bowes 2021), a series of four to five sessions could have a significant positive and cumulative effect. It would also help cultivate a sense of belonging and being a ‘member of the gang’. In contrast, a larger number of sessions could be viewed as ‘too much’, and could lead to participants being less likely to ‘commit’. In terms of duration, the suggestion was that individual sessions should run for between 40 minutes to an hour, and comprise short, focused segments. In order to support engagement, interactive exercises within these sessions were also emphasised.



Andy was equally clear about the content of these sessions. The temptation amongst outreach practitioners might be to offer revision workshops, or cover aspects of the GCSE syllabus. Both of these were likely to generate little interest and enthusiasm. If it involves revising ‘GCSE French, they will not want to do that’, and they will ‘push against sessions’ that are based, for example, on the science curriculum, since that is what they do ‘in the classroom’. Instead, it was argued that, whilst subject-focused, these sessions should place the topic being studied in class into a wider context. This could be achieved by exploring its real word application, and informing students why, for instance, ‘they are covering this subject in physics.’ Yet, this would still have a significant benefit for their GCSEs. It would generate an excitement in what they are doing, and ‘make their teacher’s job easier because they can see a significance to it.’



Our conversation also acknowledged the value of involving university students in these sessions, ideally comprising those from comparable backgrounds to the participants, ‘who’, Andy observed, would ‘talk with an accent they’d recognise’. Exploring this further, it was suggested that this undergraduate component could capture the students when they were learning. For instance, when ‘working in the lab, on a production, or involved in a seminar discussion.’ It could also feature them studying in their ‘dorms’. As opposed to a more conventional tours of students flat, this would provide an insight into student accommodation ‘in a real life context and from the students’ perspective.’



Whilst Andy argued that such an intervention could make a real difference to the outlooks and engagement of the young people involved, its impact could be further enhanced – and underpinned – by awarding participants a certificate denoting their completion of the course and outlining the themes addressed and associated learning outcomes. This, it was added, could then be referenced in their personal statements and the CVs they prepare for both their college and university applications.



Although the four to five online sessions could represent a self-contained intervention, the potential for a follow-up set of activities was also acknowledged. Should conditions permit, Andy talked about the positive impact arising from a visit to the school by the lecturer who had given the virtual talks and the undergraduates who had also featured. Similarly, reference was made to the opportunity for the students to ‘visit the university’ and see the facilitates associated with the subjects covered in the online talks.


Whilst our discussions drew to a close on this up-beat note, an important proviso was added, and one that reflects outreach at its best: that it is a collaborative endeavour between schools, colleges and HE providers that requires an ongoing and open dialogue (Raven, 2020). Arguably, conservations with a purpose afford one mechanism for achieving this.


Blog by: Neil Raven

Image: Chris Montgomery





Buitendijk. S. 2021. ‘If we get it right, digital and online learning will change the world’, WonkHE (7 June),


Moore, J., J. Sanders and L. Higham. 2013. Literature review of research into widening participation to higher education. Report to HEFCE and OFFA by ARC Network.


Patel. R., and L. Bowes. 2021. Third independent review of impact evaluation evidence submitted by Uni Connect partnerships, Office for Students,


Raven. N. 2021. Teaching and transitions: understanding classroom practices that support higher education progression in England, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 26:2, 189-211


Raven. N. 2020. ‘Outreach should be tailored to the new normal for schools and colleges’, Higher Education Policy Institute. Blog (7 September),


Swain. J., and Z. Spire. 2020. ‘The Role of Informal Conversations in Generating Data, and the Ethical and Methodological Issues They Raise’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research21(1),


Tzirides, A. O., M. Kalantzis and B. Cope. 2021. ‘Reimagining higher education in the post-pandemic world’, SHRE Newsblog (11 January),



* This paper was originally published as a news post with the Society for Research into Higher Education. See N. Raven. 2021. ‘Learning from lockdown: how outreach can respond to the needs of today’s learners’, Society for Research into Higher Education, News Blog (11 June),

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