Education and youth work: collaborating to close the attainment gap

by Scott Faulds

At this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, there was a large selection of seminars offered which allowed delegates to gain knowledge of good practice from across the Scottish education sector. One seminar of particular interest was run by YouthLink Scotland, the national agency for youth work, who discussed their youth work and skills partnership programme, which is designed to help close the attainment gap. This programme is funded by the Scottish Government via the Scottish Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Funding.

Collaboration

YouthLink Scotland believe that the key to tackling the attainment gap is through strengthening the collaboration between the youth work sector and formal education, via a focus on reducing the impact of poverty on attainment. A key element of fostering this collaboration is through a development of mutual trust and respect. Understanding and respecting different pedagogy, roles and approaches enables youth workers and educators to work together to help young people overcome barriers to learning.

Establishing relationships

It is important to recognise that teachers and youth workers establish different types of relationships with young people. For example, youth workers have a dedicated focus on young people, specialise in personal, social and educational development and are inclusive without being based on a singular interest, skill or capacity. The different relationship developed by youth workers can be useful when interacting with young people who are almost at the point of refusing school and may not feel comfortable speaking to their teachers. The effects of youth work interventions can be profound, with YouthLink Scotland finding that successful interventions have led to improvements in attendance, engagement, attainment, health and wellbeing and school leaver destinations.

Youth workers are able to complement and enhance the formal curriculum by delivering tailored interventions, planned in partnership with teachers, that will help to provide a variety of alternative learning options to vulnerable young people. These interventions can help reintegrate students to the classroom setting and provide them with opportunities to gain youth work awards that recognise wider achievements. Additionally, youth workers are able to contribute to school improvement planning, self-evaluation and help measure the impact of youth work interventions. The involvement of youth workers in these processes allows for the development of evidence of what works and can be used to increase understanding of youth work and how it can support the formal education sector.

Good practice: The Hub, St Stephen’s High, Port Glasgow

An example of a successful collaboration between youth work and the formal education sector is the development of The Hub at St Stephen’s High, Port Glasgow, where 80% of pupils are within the first to third deciles of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

The Hub is a nurturing environment that pupils can be referred to by principal teachers of Guidance and other members of the senior management team. It is important to note that The Hub should not be considered an internal exclusion base, rather, it is a space that facilitates short term interventions with a focus on the pupil returning to the classroom environment. The main focus of The Hub is to improve the attainment of disengaged groups of pupils, with intervention from teachers, classroom assistants, youth workers and other third sector organisations such as Barnardo’s.

The Hub offers a streamlined approach to providing support to disengaged pupils, with the level and type of support tailored to the needs of each pupil. This can include operating activities outside of the formal school setting, and the collaboration with youth workers ensures that activities can also be operated outside normal school hours. A representative from St Stephen’s High, spoke highly of The Hub arguing that the ability for disengaged pupils to develop support systems with youth workers was key to their successful reintegration into classroom-based education.

Additionally, the Hub provides services to both the wider school and local community, such as a breakfast club and food bank. The Hub also encourages and develops parental engagement through events such as “parent and carers wellbeing day” and “twilight teas”. These events are becoming increasingly more important to youth workers, as research has shown a link between parental engagement and the attainment gap, especially around periods of transition.

Final thoughts

Tackling Scotland’s poverty-related attainment gap is a long-term challenge that will involve collaboration from groups across the country. The collaboration between youth work and the formal education sector allows for the exchange of pedagogy and approaches that will ultimately allow for the development of better interventions to help vulnerable young people.

It is important to recognise that some young people may not feel comfortable talking to a teacher and therefore the availability of youth workers may allow them to develop alternative relationships which can help them re-join classroom education. Re-engaging young people who are close to refusing school is vital in eradicating the poverty-related attainment gap. All actions to prevent this must be explored.


If you enjoyed this article, take a look at our previous blog on the Scottish Learning Festival, which reflects on Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s keynote.

We have also blogged on a range of topics around education, including on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in schools. You can read more here.

Follow us on Twitter to see which subjects are interesting our research team.

Scottish Learning Festival 2019: getting back to the basics in Scottish education

by Rebecca Jackson

The Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) is the annual conference and exhibition for educational practitioners across Scotland. Across two days thousands of delegates and over 200 exhibitors from across the spectrum of Scottish education gathered at the SEC in Glasgow to take part in over 100 workshops and seminars reflecting the best of Scottish Education.

The conference theme this year was Achieving Excellence and Equity and across the two days delegates and speakers discussed a range of topics related to this, including the empowerment agenda for teachers and learners, how to drive improvement across all areas of education and the importance of wellbeing in developing a healthy and successful learning community, able to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Back to basics in Scottish Education

This year’s keynote address was delivered by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney MSP. In his speech Mr Swinney encouraged delegates to get back to basics on education, emphasising his belief in the importance of the core principles of Scottish Education and how increasing the focus on the “four capacities” can help learners achieve their potential. The four capacities allow learners to become: successful learners; confident individuals; responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Giving teachers autonomy to teach

He emphasised his belief that the autonomy of teachers should be key in the classroom and that teachers are best placed to make the key calls in relation to the learning of their students.  Mr Swinney suggested that helping teachers feel like they can take responsibility for their own workload and to prioritise tasks that directly impact on learning over admin tasks was pivotal in ensuring that curriculum for excellence and the new qualifications recently introduced worked effectively for both teachers and young people. However it was clear from the reaction in the auditorium and in subsequent discussions, that there are some teachers who feel they are quite a way from being able to truly take control of their workload with many highlighting significant amounts of marking and administration and “teaching to test” which prevented them from teaching in the way they would like.

The Cabinet Secretary also faced a number of questions from the floor, including on the funding of special educational needs provision and the idea of mainstreaming (as opposed to funding specialist provision for SEN pupils), as well as questions on teacher workload, the value of National 4 qualifications and multi-level teaching, where national, intermediate and higher levels are all being taught in the same lessons. Mr Swinney said that multi-level teaching was working in some areas, and in some areas it helped to expand the range of subjects pupils are able to choose from, but he admitted that it may not work in all instances and that a review of the practice would be included in a more general review of senior education which has been ordered by the Scottish Government.

The gap that is proving difficult to close

The attainment gap was also high on the agenda,  both in the keynote and in the breakout seminars. Closing the gap and raising attainment among children, young people and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds is something which is clearly a focus of people working across the education sector  in Scotland, but the results and outcomes they are seeing look to be a mix of outstanding success stories and those young learners who are still falling through the net (who provision is not reaching and whose outcomes are not improving). Continuing the work of raising attainment through the Attainment Challenge (which has been granted funding beyond its current deadline to 2021) was highlighted, as was the effective and important work already being done in many schools to help and support those children from poorer backgrounds through their learner journey. The overriding message was to keep going because the gap is closing, even if it is not as quickly as we might like.

Everyone working together for common aims

The breakout seminars spanned topics across education, including early years, special needs education and the engagement of people from outside the school environment to create a holistic approach to the care and support of young people, including through youth work. The resounding tone of the discussions was that there is so much good work being done to support young learners in Scotland, that not only should we recognise it but we should try to share knowledge and learn lessons from it.

The conference ended with a call to action, encouraging practitioners from across the education sector in Scotland to come together, to work in partnership to improve outcomes for young people in Scotland and encourage practitioners and learners alike to strive to be the best they can be for the benefit of Scotland now and in the future.


If you enjoyed this article, keep an eye out for our second blog on the SLF, which reflects on one of the seminars attended by our Research Officer, Scott Faulds.

We have also blogged on a range of topics around education, including on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in schools. You can read more here.

Follow us on Twitter to see which subjects are interesting our research team.

Youth Work in the Digital Age – What Next?

by Scott Faulds

On Tuesday 3rd September, youth work organisations from across the European Union came together in Glasgow to launch the European Guidelines for Digital Youth Work, training materials and a collection of short films showcasing Good Practice. This was the culmination of a two-year transnational Erasmus+ project, designed to foster shared understandings and inform, inspire and empower the wider youth work sector to get to grips with youth work in the digital age.

The project was conducted in partnership with YouthLink Scotland, Centre for Digital Youth Care (Denmark), Verke – The National Digital Youth Work Centre (Finland), wienXtra MedienZentrum (Austria), JFF – Institut für Medienpädagogik (Germany), National Youth Council of Ireland and Camara Education Limited (Ireland).

Keynote Speaker: Dr Jane Melvin

To kick off the conference, keynote speaker Dr Jane Melvin of the University of Brighton, spoke of her journey from technophobe to technophile and of her belief that there is no longer an option for youth workers not to embrace digital technology.

Dr Melvin argued that youth workers should utilise any tool which could allow for the better engagement of young people. She described this as the “digital hybrid approach”. This approach encourages youth workers to adopt a critical standpoint when considering the use of digital tools and actively encourages the questioning of why and when digital tools are utilised. Dr Melvin contends that it is as much about using digital tools thoughtfully as it is about deciding when not to use them.

Additionally, Dr Melvin stressed that the concept of young people being digitally literate is no longer relevant in a time where technology is advancing at an ever-faster pace. In the digital age, it is vital that young people can navigate a variety of different digital tools and be confident in adopting new technologies as they emerge. This ability to transfer existing knowledge to critically assess the best way to interact with new and emerging technology has been described as digital fluency, and Dr Melvin advocates the need for every young person to develop this fluency to enable them to thrive in the digital age.

In closing, Dr Melvin stated that for youth work in the digital age, it is essential to find a balance between conservative stability and runaway adoption, to ensure that youth workers can truly reap the benefits of the digital age.

Digital Youth Work in Scotland

As the conference was held in Glasgow, it seemed only fitting to hear about some of the work that youth work organisations in Scotland were doing to help adapt to the digital age.

We heard from Claire McGinley and Inigo Sands from Paisley YMCA, which has received awards for their digital youth work and has fostered partnerships with Microsoft, Google and the University of the West of Scotland.

Claire and Inigo began by stressing that there is no specific type of young person who will take part in digital youth work, as digital skills are vital to allow young people to access the world of work. We all access the digital world as part of our day-to-day lives and for young people there is less of a distinction between the real and online world. Therefore, is it crucial that youth workers are able to help young people develop their digital skills. This is something Paisley YMCA has had a great deal of success at with, through fostering a good environment for ‘stealth learning’.

Paisley YMCA has a maker space, a STEM for girls’ club, coding dojo and are able to adapt to the needs of young people as new digital tools emerge. However, it is not simply about young people becoming experts at using a 3D printer; the activities offered by Paisley YMCA are about giving young people an opportunity to try new things.

Claire and Inigo concluded that there is no secret formula to digital youth work; you just have to do it, and be open to the opportunity for vertical learning.

We also heard from representatives from the Young Scot 5Rights Young Leaders, who spoke of their work to promote the five digital rights for young people, which were based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The five rights are:

  1. The right to remove
  2. The right to know
  3. The right to safety and support
  4. The right to informed and conscious use
  5. The right to digital literacy

The Young Scot 5Rights Young Leaders presented the Scottish Government with their report, Our Digital Rights, which featured 20 recommendations of how the Government can best support the protection of these rights. Recommendations included the integration of digital literacy across all school subject areas, the ability to limit the unnecessary collection and use of young people’s data and the provision of greater internet access in rural areas of Scotland.

The Scottish Government accepted the recommendations of the report and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, has agreed to keep the 5Rights Young Leaders involved during its implementation. The 5Rights Young Leaders concluded by voicing their desire for Scotland to become a leading example of how young people and children can benefit from the digital age without having their safety and privacy compromised.  

Good Practice

One of the key aims of this Erasmus+ project was the facilitation of the exchange of good practice and knowledge across the European Union. At the conference, we had an opportunity to hear from each of the partner organisations and learn about the work they were doing in their respective countries. The Digital Youth Work website features a collection of videos featuring Good Practice, as well as an extensive library of training materials.

One particularly interesting example was the online counselling services offered by Denmark’s Centre for Digital Youth Care, who operate three tailored online services.

  1. Cyberhus – a general forum for young people aged between 9 and 23 years old
  2. Mitassist – focused on young men and utilises gamification to keep them engaged
  3. Netstof – focused on discussing drug and alcohol problems for young people aged between 15 and 24 years old

These services offer a space for young people to seek advice and discuss problems anonymously, either with their peers on the moderated forum or with qualified social workers. Cyberhus has 40,000 unique visitors each month and the top three issues regularly discussed are self-harm, eating disorders and relationships. The number of regular users and the type of issues discussed can be challenging for staff, who all have to complete a twelve-week course before working on the platform.

 

Digital Youth Work Good Practice video featuring Denmark’s online counselling platforms


The Centre for Digital Youth Care view this service as vital in helping support young people in Denmark. The anonymity these platforms provide is often attractive to young people, with the vast majority not wishing to provide social workers with their location or confirming if they are already in touch with a professional treatment provider. Anni Marquard, the creator of Cyberhus, believes that youth workers must be willing to adapt to allow them to engage with young people. After all, 88% of all visits to Cyberhus are from smartphones. The use of digital tools to enable anonymous online counselling has enabled young people across Denmark to access support when they need it most and the platforms regularly provide more counselling sessions than their real-life counterparts. Thus, it is clear that youth workers must be ready to adapt to the digital age in order to best engage young people.

Final Thoughts

The conference demonstrated that a great deal of work has been done by organisations and countries across the European Union.

The ability to exchange good practice and knowledge from youth workers across the EU enabled everyone to gain a new perspective on how to approach the implementation of new digital tools and was aided by the format of the conference which encouraged networking and dialogue.

The basis of this transnational Erasmus+ project was the exchange of good practice to enable youth workers across Europe to harness the tools of the digital age to better support young people.

Through the production of the European Guidelines for Digital Youth Work, Good Practice videos and training materials, it is clear that not only has this project been a success, but it has resulted in the creation of a powerful and effective resource that can empower youth workers across the world to meet the challenges of the digital age.


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ARLGS library visits: the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the National Piping Centre

The Whittaker Library at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Late last month, Academic and Research Libraries Group Scotland (ARLGS) held an afternoon of visits to the libraries of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and the National Piping Centre (NPC) in Glasgow. Both venues hold fascinating collections, and the visits were a great chance for library and information professionals from across Scotland to see the collections and meet the librarians behind them.

The RCS and the Whittaker Library

Co-ordinated by ARLGS’ event planner, Isabelle Bridoux, the afternoon began at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where librarian Dr. Karen McAulay gave a talk on the history of the performing arts school and its Whittaker Library. Founded in 1847 as the Glasgow Athanaeum, the school quickly became one of the largest and busiest performing arts schools in the country. It has been based at its current site on Glasgow’s Renfrew Street since 1988, and is now considered one of the world’s best performing arts schools.

Dr. McAulay’s stories about the foundation of its Whittaker Library were particularly interesting – it was set up by the school’s janitors and began as a small, closed access collection, which has adapted over the years into the expansive, comprehensive collection of music, drama, dance, production and film which serves the RCS’s students and staff today.

The Whittaker Library’s LP collection

Dr. McAulay spoke about the challenges the library team have faced over the years, including some difficult decisions they have had to make in limiting their collection of physical resources to cope with demands on space. It was apparent how much work has gone into adapting the collection to keep up with the rapidly growing student base and the new courses the school launched in recent years, and Dr. McAulay emphasised that the increasing availability of electronic resources had helped to facilitate this. However, the unique value of their print and physical resources was also evident, and it seemed that striking a balance was important. The library has retained an impressive collection of CDs, LPs and DVDs, and Dr. McAulay emphasised the continuing value of these formats – there are many unique recordings which do not end up available online.

The New Athenaeum Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The visit to the RCS ended with a tour of the rest of the school (including the New Athenaeum Theatre, the opera school, and an impressive wall of fame).

The National Piping Centre

On arrival at the National Piping Centre, a presentation (and bagpipe performance!) was given by librarian James Beaton. The piping centre operates as an educational charity, promoting the study and the history of piping in Scotland.

The centre has a small internal lending library for students and staff, which holds a large collection of material for studying piping, including printed books, manuscripts, sounds holdings, and teaching tapes. The collections held in the library are truly unique. James Beaton’s talk covered the oral tradition of piping – there was no literature on piping at all until the 18th Century, and older resources relating to piping are rare, making the collection of older material presented during the visits particularly special.

Examples of the collection at the National Piping Centre

The talk covered a varied and interesting range of topics, touching on the complexities of indexing such specialist and valuable material, and the process of and issues around digitising such resources for the library’s online catalogue.

 

Final thoughts

This event showcased the value of libraries in creative and academic institutions, as well as the challenges faced by the librarians who run them. A particular theme which ran through the afternoon’s discussion was the importance of the creative arts in education. Concerns were cited about the decline in subjects like music and drama in schools and the potential impact on the arts industry, and it stood out that libraries like these are playing a vital role in facilitating the continued study of the creative arts.

Teaching offenders to code: supporting digital skills and reducing reoffending among those leaving prison

Breaking the cycle of reoffending by teaching prisoners to code

In the UK, we have one of the highest numbers of adults in prison in western Europe, and of those who have been in prison, almost half will re-offend within a year of release. Reoffending in the UK is estimated to cost as much as £15bn each year. One of the major factors in reducing reoffending is finding and sustaining employment upon leaving prison, however, it has been suggested that the skills and training that offenders receive while in prison only prepares them in a limited way for life “on the outside”.

The importance of digital literacy and the disadvantage caused by a digital skills deficit

Whether it is applying for benefit payments, booking a doctor’s appointment, online shopping, paying council tax or word processing and data navigation in a wide range of today’s job roles, having a basic understanding of digital literacy is important. For many people these skills are acquired over time, sometimes even by accident as we come into contact with more and more digital services in our day to day lives, including in many of today’s jobs where word processing and email skills seem to be a given.

However, for people leaving prison, perhaps who have been away from the fast pace of digital development for a few years, the leaps and bounds in terms of technological change and how we use digital platforms for a range of tasks can be a daunting prospect. While there is some exposure to digital platforms inside prisons, there are increasing calls to ensure that in order to better reintegrate into society on release from prison, digital skills should be higher up the agenda for those prisoners being prepared for release.

Linking digital skill programmes to labour market need

While we raise concerns about digital literacy, it is also widely reported that the UK is facing a digital skills deficit, with job roles going unfilled because there are not enough skilled individuals to fill them. Why not then, supporters argue, align the two policies to meet a need within the skills market and better support offenders to be able to live a full, digitally literate life on their release from prison.

In his Ted talk on teaching coding in prisons, Michael Taylor highlights some of, what he sees as, the key issues with the current skills and training programme in prisons: it is mundane and repetitive, and it is not linked to skills or labour market need. Coding, he argues, in addition to being accessible, cheap to teach and not requiring any pre-requisite qualifications, is an easy way that prisoners can be equipped with high-level digital skills to help them find employment, and teach skills that employers want and need to employ.

He also argues that coding is a way to equip offenders with the basic tools to go into a range of careers or further training across a range of occupations, in a range of sectors doing a wide range of different jobs – giving the variety and scope for development that many offenders simply don’t get from current skills and training programmes. The benefits, he argues, go beyond just teaching the ins and outs of how to code, with digital skills having wider applicability around managing information, communicating, transacting, problem solving and creating as well as raising confidence and self esteem.

Learning from digital skill programmes in prisons elsewhere

The Last Mile programme in California is being used as a model to create a UK based coding programme for prisoners. The programme teaches digital skills, specifically coding, to allow offenders to find employment once they leave prison. The American programme is based out of San Quentin prison and has consistently shown positive outcomes for participants, with a recidivism rate for participants dropping from over 70% to 0 in the latest cohort of “graduates”. These positive and tangible outcomes are one of the reasons supporters have been so keen to roll out a similar scheme in the UK.

The UK Government has acknowledged this evidence and in March 2019 the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced it is investing in two pilot schemes, one at HMP Humber and one at HMP Holme House which will see a selection of “carefully vetted prisoners” participate in new digital skills programmes. Prisoners will learn CSS, HTML and JavaScript before moving on to more advanced coding techniques. They will then be invited to work for partner companies, eventually on day release, with a view to better preparing them for work when they are released from prison, while also helping employers manage perceived risks that come with hiring former offenders.

Final thoughts

Offenders leaving prison face a number of barriers to successful reintegration into the community, and preparing them fully to meet all of these challenges can be a difficult task in itself. However, by better equipping offenders with digital skills we will enable them to leave prison with knowledge employers are looking for. Coding programmes could be one route to developing skills for prisoners due for release which can help them adapt to life outside prison, give them purpose and options and, it is hoped, reduce the likelihood of reoffending in the future.


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Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward

Image: Universities UK

On the face of it, the UK’s university sector is an international success story. UK universities attract global talent, valuable income and investment, produce world-leading research, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and improve people’s everyday lives in countless ways. Britain’s universities are also more racially and culturally diverse than ever before.

But a recent report has shone a spotlight on fundamental barriers to racial equality at UK universities, indicating that a student’s race and ethnicity can significantly affect their degree outcomes. The Universities UK (UUK) / National Union of Students (NUS) report highlights significant gaps in attainment between white students and their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) peers, finding that 81% of white students graduated with first and upper second class honours in 2017/18, compared to just 68% of BAME students. That’s an attainment gap of 13%.

The report echoes findings from the Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England. Earlier this year, the OfS reported stark gaps in achievement for black students, and also found that higher numbers of BAME students were dropping out of university before completing their courses.

Why are BAME students not doing as well at university compared with their white counterparts?

The UUK/NUS research identified four factors that are contributing to the attainment gap:

  1. Varying degrees of satisfaction among different student groups with the higher education curricula, and with the user-friendliness of learning, teaching and assessment practices.
  2. Relationships between staff and students and among students: a sense of ‘belonging’ emerged as a key determinant of student outcomes.
  3. Recurring differences in how students experience higher education, how they network and how they draw on external support were noted. Students’ financial situations also affect their student experience and their engagement with learning.
  4. The extent to which students feel supported and encouraged in their daily interactions within their institutions and with staff members was found to be a key variable.

 How universities can improve outcomes

As part of its research, UUK and NUS engaged with students, the higher education sector and external organisations to identify the most significant steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  1. Strong leadership – university leaders and senior managers need to demonstrate a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example.
  2. Having conversations about race and changing the culture – universities and students need more opportunities to have open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and what is causing the attainment gap.
  3. Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments – A greater focus is needed from across the sector, working with their students, on ensuring that BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university, and an understanding of how a poor sense of belonging might be contributing to low levels of engagement and progression to postgraduate study.
  4. Assess the existing mix of data and evidence used to understand the causes of the attainment gap – The sector needs to take a more scientific approach to tackling the attainment gap, gathering and scrutinising data in a far more comprehensive way than currently, in order to inform discussions among university leaders, academics, practitioners and students.

The report also provides a checklist to help university senior leaders to move forward with their own strategies. Among the actions on the checklist are:

  • consider whether coaching, development opportunities or programmes are needed to give leaders the confidence to talk about race and take a leading role in opening conversations.
  • consider mechanisms for recognising (and perhaps rewarding) staff and students who press for the removal of racial inequalities.
  • take responsibility for ensuring that appropriate resources are dedicated to removing the attainment gap, including for any appropriate tailored interventions, research and expertise in data analysis.

Learning from what works

Another important recommendation in the report is that universities should share and learn from evidence of what works and what does not. Case studies throughout the report demonstrate that higher education institutions across the country are trying to close the attainment gap:

The University of Manchester and the university’s students’ union have been working in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Birmingham to deliver a Diversity and Inclusion Student Ambassador Programme to tackle the causes of differential outcomes for BAME undergraduate students and those from low socio-economic groups. Key features include creation of safe spaces, where students and staff can engage in open dialogue on inclusive learning and teaching environments, academic support and well-being; and training student ambassadors to safely challenge racism, microaggressions and discrimination.

Intercultural awareness workshops have helped students at Glasgow Caledonian University to develop a better understanding of different cultural norms and values. The programme provides a baseline for first-year students to develop their understanding and recognise the unconscious bias that exists within global academic, social and working environments. It has already won a Student Engagement Award and been shortlisted for an NUS Scotland 2019 diversity award.

The University of Arts London has developed a data dashboard – the academic enhancement model (AEM) – which gives accessible information to course teams about all aspects of the student experience and differentials. The AEM is a cross-university approach to removing attainment differentials, based on agreed data thresholds for attainment and student satisfaction scores. Courses that fall below these thresholds work with AEM leads to create co-designed AEM support packages. The approach has contributed to UAL’s success in tackling attainment issues: in 2018, the university saw a 4.9% reduction in its BAME attainment gap.

Closing the gap, reaping the rewards

The report has united universities and students in highlighting the race attainment gap, understanding the reasons behind it and tackling the problem.

Baroness Amos, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), who co-led the report, said: “Our universities are racially and culturally diverse, compared to many other sectors, but we are failing a generation of students if we don’t act now to reduce the BAME attainment gap. Amatey Doku, NUS vice-president for higher education, added that for far too long universities had presided over significant gaps in attainment between BAME students and white students. “From decolonising the curriculum to more culturally competent support services, many students and students’ unions have been fighting and campaigning for action in this area for years.

Now that the issue has been raised, it’s up to universities to take action so that all students – whatever their background – are given every opportunity to reap the many rewards that higher education can bring.


If you’re interested in developments in higher education, take a look at our recent blog posts on the subject:

A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


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Turning the tide on perceptions of value: what do students think value for money really means?

A little over a year and half since we last wrote about the value of higher education (HE), which highlighted a downward trend in perception of value, it would seem the tide may be turning.

As we previously highlighted, one of the headline findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI’s) 2017 Student Academic Experience Survey was falling perceptions of value for money, with the percentage of students perceiving university not to be value for money almost doubling in the previous five years. But the 2018 survey highlights a distinct turnaround, with students reporting “statistically significant improvements in perceptions of value for money from their higher education experience.” Could this be the start of a new trend?

‘Promising upturn’

Among the main highlights of the 2018 survey, which describes a “promising upturn”, include:

  • 38% of students in the UK perceive ‘good or very good’ value from their HE course – an increase of three percentage points from last year’s survey, reversing a five-year downward trend
  • fewer students studying in the UK (32%) perceive ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value, compared with 34% in 2017
  • there is a clear, statistically significant, improvement among students from England, representing the largest number of students, where 35% report ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value
  • there has been an improvement among students domiciled in Scotland (though not statistically significant) where 60% of students surveyed perceive ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value, continuing to report the most positive opinions overall, while students from Wales and EU students studying in the UK report similar perceptions of value as last year, 48% and 47% respectively. Perceptions of value in Northern Ireland remain in decline – albeit not statistically significant
  • Students at institutions which secured a Gold award in the Teaching Excellence Framework are more likely to perceive they have received good value, but there is no noticeable difference on this measure between Silver and Bronze-rated institutions

While it should not be forgotten that almost a third of students still perceive poor value, which remains a concern, this reversal of a five-year trend is undoubtedly encouraging. Moreover, what makes the latest HEPI survey particularly interesting is that for the first time, it includes evidence on what lies behind these perceptions.

What does value for money mean?

As our previous blog showed, the increasing cost of HE has contributed to the decline in perceived value for money as many believe the financial cost is not worth the career prospects. But it isn’t all about the financial element, although, as has been previously argued, perceptions of quality are not always clearly articulated. To help make things clearer, the latest survey incorporates new sections on: what factors relate to good or poor value, happiness with subject choice and experiences of different ethnic groups.

These new sections provide greater insight into just what students perceive as value for money. Interestingly, when asked about what factors influence their perceptions of value (chosen from a pre-defined, randomised list), 68% of students who felt they received ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money regard teaching quality as the most important factor behind this, followed closely by course content (67%) and facilities (62%).

None of the top five reasons for perceiving ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value related to financial cost, whereas price dominated the list for poor value where two out of the five most popular answers related to cost – tuition fees (62%) and cost of living (37%). The survey suggests that these findings indicate that cost and value are difficult to separate in the minds of students and that a perception of value for money can be difficult to attain given the level of current fees.

Career prospects and campus environment and university buildings were also cited as significant factors driving good value. This suggests that investment in the physical environment should be included among other priorities, given its status as a ‘major contributor’ to the student experience.

No time for complacency

Despite these promising findings about the student experience, there are still real concerns. Perhaps somewhat worrying is the finding that past gains in teaching quality have not been built upon, with students’ ratings of teaching staff down slightly on last year. Given the importance of teaching quality in perceptions of value, if this does not change it could very well contribute to a return to the downward trend in value perceptions.

Other concerns highlighted by the survey, include  perceptions of the wellbeing of students, which remain relatively low and continue to fall. In addition, some ethnic minorities tend to experience barriers and have lower perceptions of value.

As highlighted by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI and a co-author of the report, the survey “exposes the areas where improvements are needed.” He also argues that “institutions have to work harder to ensure all students are catered for in full.”

Nevertheless, the survey emphasises that the fact the student experience remains positive should be recognised, particularly given the level of financial burden that students take on and the widening range of alternative routes available. Hopefully, the next survey will reveal a continuation of the upward trend in perceptions of value.


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How can the UK Government support our rural entrepreneurs?

Rural Wales, house by a river

By Steven McGinty

Rural businesses play a significant role in the UK economy. Yet, policymakers often overlook their contribution and, as such, have failed to realise the economic opportunities in many of our rural areas.

Last year, University of Essex researcher Anupriya Misra presented an insightful webinar (register to hear a recording of the webinar) outlining some of the key challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, as well as the likely drivers of growth.

The make-up of the rural economy

Research by the House of Lords Library shows that the rural economy accounts for approximately 20% of England’s total economic activity, an estimated £229 billion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the key differences between city and rural economies is the size of the agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors. In England, they amount to 2% of the Gross Value Added (GVA) of the rural economy. However, in rural areas classed as ‘sparsely populated’ this figure significantly increases, with these industries accounting for 32% of registered local businesses.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, agriculture, forestry, and fishing play a more prominent role in the rural economy. In Scotland, 13 out of its 32 local authorities have more than 50% of their population living in rural areas, with these councils contributing 20.6% of Scotland’s GVA. In Northern Ireland, 25% of VAT registered businesses are involved in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and outside of Belfast, it’s the largest industry in each local authority area.

The challenges for rural entrepreneurs

Many rural businesses have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and the products they sell make up a significant proportion of UK exports. For example, 25% of Britain’s goods exporters are registered in rural areas. Nevertheless, these rural entrepreneurs can face barriers their counterparts living in cities are far less likely to experience. This includes:

  • Slow broadband – Online rural businesses can be particularly affected by slow broadband speeds. In addition, businesses involved in the tourism industry are affected, as free wi-fi is becoming an increasingly important part of the visitor experience.
  • Skills shortages – Rural businesses in sparsely populated areas can struggle to recruit the right staff, and their existing staff can experience challenges accessing training and development opportunities.
  • Poor transport infrastructure – Poor infrastructure can make it challenging for rural businesses to recruit, as well as connect to suppliers and customers in larger urban centres.
  • Difficulty accessing finance – Lower land values in rural areas can also limit a business’s ability to provide collateral for loans.

Why do some rural areas do better than others?

An interesting question raised by webinar presenter Anupriya Misra is why do some rural areas outperform others? In her view, a mixture of supply and demand factors impact on an area’s economic performance. For instance, having access to high skilled labour, good transport links to cities, beneficial planning laws, and business support are very important for supporting rural economic growth.

Additionally, rural areas which have a wealthy local population or have products with strong global demand are also likely to be high performing.

Business advice and networking

A key theme to emerge from the webinar was the important role business advice and networking plays for rural entrepreneurs. Fledgling rural businesses will often need a range of support, including help to develop their business management skills (such as basic accountancy skills), legal advice, as well as guidance on grant writing and the funding opportunities available to them.

Entrepreneurs looking to grow their business, will need other forms of support, from help to develop an online marketing strategy to advice on providing great customer service. Informal networks, and opportunities to connect with other business owners, can also be an invaluable resource.

In 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up the Rural Growth Network (RGN) Pilot Initiative to help rural areas overcome the barriers they faced.  This included projects in Cumbria, Heart of the South West (HotSW), North East, Swindon and Wiltshire, and Warwickshire. In practice, this involved creating a network of ‘enterprise hubs’, offering rural businesses a mix of premises, business, and infrastructure support.

An evaluation of the initiative highlighted that introducing enterprise hubs brought several benefits to rural entrepreneurs. 70% of start-up founders surveyed reported an improvement in their business skills and half reported that they improved their networking with other firms. In financial terms, the net economic impact of the RGN pilots, in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA), was estimated to be around £16.5 million, with £56.6 million expected over a further three years. And, for every £1 invested by Defra, £1.50 was created in net GVA.

Researcher Anupriya Misra concluded the seminar by suggesting that the rural economy could be improved by following Defra’s evidence and creating a new network of rural enterprise hubs, which provide business skills and support that meets the needs of local communities.


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