Widening Participation on Early Years degrees - the ups and downs of advanced standing
Mark O'Hara and Rosie Bingham
Sheffield Hallam University
This paper describes an evaluation of a project in 2001, between Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), regional Further Education (FE) colleges and the Building Pathways team, to develop progression routes. It focuses on the student experience, seeking to understand factors that enable or hinder their progress.
Background to the project
Since 1997, the Labour government has promoted life long learning and widening participation, in an attempt to overcome the exclusion of some social groups from the potential benefits of Further and Higher Education (FHE), (DfEE, 1997; DfEE, 1999). In some geographical areas, aspirations and continuation rates are low, with sizeable sections of the community having low skills and poor qualifications, frequently resulting in a cycle of disadvantage. Consequently the government priority is to widen the participation of young people in FHE (DfES, 2002). Researchers, such as Metcalf (1997), illustrate that the reasons behind social inequality in FHE are highly complex and include disparities in qualifications, low aspirations, funding and historical factors, such as differences in FE and HE practices (Burgess, 1999; DfES, 2001).
Overcoming these challenges is premised on the need for different organisations and stakeholders to collaborate, and thereby create differing ways of doing things, different cultures and attitudes.
One issue for widening participation relates to qualifications, and extends beyond disparities in A level grades; there is also lower achievement prior to post compulsory education (Metcalf, 1997). Similarly, barriers may be created by the higher frequency of A level-equivalent, rather than A level, qualifications within underrepresented groups in Higher Education. Tackling the recognised social class differences in aspirations and awareness of education/career opportunities will also be influenced by family/parental attitudes (DfES, 2001). Attempts to raise aspirations may have been further complicated by national HE funding policy decisions, with the resulting introduction of bursaries for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (Allison, 2001) alongside government measures to shift the costs of HE increasingly onto students, in the form of loans and fees. The perception that further study leads to long term debt could deter students from socially excluded /less affluent backgrounds.
Developing the progression routes
It was against this background and parallel policy decisions within the University (SHU, 1998; SHU, 2001), that Building Pathways approached staff in the university's School of Education, seeking to improve the opportunities for learners to move from Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma (HNC/D) courses in early childhood studies into Early Childhood Studies and Early Years Education degrees. A provisional agreement was reached in July 2001 and the final agreement was incorporated into the School’s primary and early years programmes revalidation in May 2002. FE students in partner colleges now have the opportunity to apply for advanced standing (into Year 2 or Year 3) on both the Early Childhood Studies and the Early Years Education degrees.
The development process was evaluated, to illuminate the issues involved in translating aspirations into identifiable routes and procedures. This evaluation sought responses from all groups using a semi-structured interview technique. The data was collected and coded, according to themes emerging from the data itself (Robson, 1993; Verma and Mallick, 1999).
The responses fell into four categories. Firstly, there were those that were largely unsurprising. Without exception, all respondents identified the individuals’ personal commitment to the underlying principles, and their strong motivation and commitment, as the primary factors for success. Support from management was highly valued, with all respondents identifying it as crucial.
Secondly, responses related to the challenges of getting different organizations/cultures to work together. Cross-institutional discussion was identified as important and although mapping common features of course design/content was time consuming, it proved crucial in making the case for progression routes within the HEI. The role of Building Pathways was also seen as vital by everyone, and proved highly effective at building trust and developing shared expectations across very different communities of practice. The formalised aspects of the process (a launch event and the embedding of agreements in validated documentation) constituted a public and significant statement for FE partners, increasing the likelihood that the procedures will survive the departure of key staff.
Thirdly, there were responses which were structural and resource based. Every respondent was clear that such work required sufficient time allowance and funding. The process also highlighted unanticipated questions to be addressed by the university, for example, staff experienced difficulty in disseminating validation documents to Associate College colleagues, for the mapping exercise. (These related to ownership and intellectual property rights.) Difficulties also emerged in persuading some HE colleagues that widening participation would not result in lowering standards. The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspection regime and the mandatory Initial Teacher Education requirements for core curriculum competence (DfEE, 1998) were the cause of much heated discussion. Then came challenges around the supervised placement days FE students had in schools, as there is a minimum required to achieve Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). Questions were raised about the university not accrediting the Level 5 work of HND applicants, by only offering them 120 credits at Level 4. This issue, combined with concerns over core curriculum knowledge (particularly literacy and numeracy), delayed the agreement for HND students accessing the QTS route. There were also worries that aspirations could be unfulfilled, particularly for students wanting to go into teaching, where numbers are determined nationally with penalties imposed for exceeding targets. Directing applicants towards non-QTS routes, where places are more plentiful, could simply defer the problem, as there are relatively fewer places on Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses.
Fourthly, respondents identified potential issues the students may face, and there were many constructive suggestions to help support the transition. This is the focus of the next sections.
Tutors' and students' perception of issues for students
The following summary is drawn from interviews with FE and HE tutors, and from 2002/3 intake of Year 2 (two students) and Year 3 (five students).
All the FE tutors identified the students' knowledge base as being practically orientated. Whilst this was appropriate for the HNC/D, they thought FE students might have less knowledge of underpinning theories. There was a general view that 'our students have lots of practical experience, but may lack the skills and knowledge to relate this to educational theory' . This concern was borne out, as the 2001 students performed better in modules with a greater practical focus, than those requiring more theoretical underpinning. The HE tutor thought 'some find it hard to bridge the gap between theory and practice', with students 'being exposed to more abstract ideas' which they found more difficult. Interestingly, the students did not identify this as a critical gap, although they acknowledged some work was 'above my head' and ' some information is very new to me'.
Most FE tutors were concerned about the level of academic skill and felt there could be a particular gap in the cognitive areas of critical analysis and creating an argument. One questioned 'Can our students step outside their practice? Can they stand back and reflect, evaluate, theorise, draw conclusions.' This was reflected in the HE tutor comment that the students 'went for volume and quantity, but their structuring and selecting to make an argument is weak'. The Year 3 students reported they felt confident in writing essays, but creating an argument was a 'whole new area of learning'.
FE tutors raised possible issues around independent learning. They thought HNC/D students were used to a high level of academic support and guidance. One was 'not sure our students are ready to be completely independent learners', while another wondered whether their course was actually 'creating too much of a dependency and doing too much directing, not enough weaning'. However, this concern was not perceived to be a difficulty by either the HE tutor or the students. This may be due to the students being 'well-motivatd, with a desire to succeed and determined to make the most of it' (HE tutor).
FE tutors identified the learning experience in college as a 'supportive home environment, which includes the academic and the personal needs of students'. The reservation was this may not be so evident in university. However, such support is managed through an Academic Tutoring system, in which all students formally participate, and the students were happy with the level of pastoral care (one had particular personal difficulties).
There was a feeling that FE students may lack self-confidence. One HNC tutor felt 'many of our learners need time to develop their confidence, and may not have got there by the time they move to university'. There was a strong view that confidence and self-esteem are key factors in progression and that the colleges worked hard to develop these. They hoped this would continue in the HE environment. During the initial interview (October 2002), all 7 students expressed their general anxiety, citing reasons ranging from 'not knowing what university was really about' to 'having to cope with new teachers and new situations'. However, by April 2003, all were more confident. The HE tutor described them as 'fairly confident, bubbly and lively'.
One issue identified by most FE tutors related to their FE colleagues' overall awareness of progression possibilities. Whilst there were enthusiasts for such routes, others might be less positive, or less well informed. One questioned 'Will the teaching team all be on board and saying the same things to the students? (may be an issue with part-time staff)'. Another was clear that 'all tutors need to understand this ……… and encouraging their students (some tutors have a negative view of their students)'. This was not an issue for the students in this study, but may need monitoring as more HNC/D students consider the route.
The FE tutors had some reservations about how well they could prepare their students for working in a university environment, with one tutor commenting ' I'm not sure tutors are well enough informed about SHU to help their students more realistically' and another saying 'I don’t think we're all very clear about HE expectations, so may find it more difficult to prepare the students'. This was seen as a crucial area - as one tutor commented, 'our students need to be set up to succeed, not to have to just struggle through'.
All the students were initially concerned about expectations of the university, with such comments as 'I hadn't a clue what to expect and didn't know what would be expected of me'. They acknowledged they had not really understood what university was about, although four of them felt that the reality was less daunting. This may be no different from other new students coming to university, but these students have less time to make the necessary adjustments.
There were also reservations about how well informed HE tutors were about FE, and the possibility of university tutors 'not necessarily tuned into FE students' and their need to 'know what our students have experienced so they can build on it '. This latter comment was mirrored by one Year 3 student, who thought one particular HE tutor 'had no idea of all the experience we'd had with children.' However, other students felt their practical experience gave them an advantage at certain points in the curriculum.
Assessment was identified as a potential problem area, with FE tutors 'not sure that our students have as wide a variety of assessment'. One was quite forthright - 'I sometimes think we are more supportive over assessment - and give more in the way of ideas and information to help the students do their assignments. Perhaps we mollycoddle them - and I'm sure that doesn't happen in HE!' Interestingly, one Year 2 student confirmed that 'the college tried to help me, so as to be useful for university. They gave you all the information and told you what to include in essays. We were babied really, and so it wasn't useful in the end. '
The HE tutor initially thought joining in Year 3 might be a problem as 'they are exposed to different assessments than before', but both tutor and students subsequently felt they coped well with the broad range of assessment tasks. Neither students nor tutors were ' aware of the nature of student needs until the first assessment '. This was highly significant for Year 3, as all marks determine degree classification. Four students said this created more pressure than anticipated, perhaps, as one student said 'because I didn't realise how degrees were graded'.
This was particularly evident in the Year 3 students' comments around the dissertation. It was 'above my head' and 'very new to me'. The students felt un-prepared for such an important assessment, which 'other students had already been thinking and preparing for'. They knew other students ' did a module in Year 2, (research proposals) - we missed out'. This was not anticipated by any tutors, as the mapping exercise showed the FE courses included a research module and an independent study assignment. However, in practice, it seems the research methods experience had not adequately prepared them for the requirements of a dissertation. This will present a greater problem in future, as Year 1 HE students now undertake a research methods module, further built on in Year 2.
FE tutors were confident that the students' placement experiences would stand them in good stead and the students confirmed this. However, they felt disadvantaged joining in Year 3, by having to sort out placements after other students. Other modules depend on the placement, and the HE tutor stated 'they need one which supports their dissertation. The issue is that existing students have had communication about it over Summer'. She also felt that there 'may be unrealistic expectations - SHU has to be careful over the places it uses.....one student was put out she could not arrange her own.'
Realism about a student's ability, and advice given by tutors, was seen as a key factor for success. Two FE tutors were clear that 'students may have the 'right' to progress, but we won't be doing them any favours by not being open and realistic about their ability. They may need a lot of guidance about which year to join'. Of those joining in Year 2, one thought the extra time would help her, and commented 'I think I've got a better chance of doing myself justice ….. I need time to get used to different ways of learning'. The other was advised to join Year 2 because her college profile was less strong. In the HE tutor's opinion, a 'merit profile is not quite enough - they need some distinctions'.
Some FE tutors wondered whether students might need time to adjust to different teaching approaches. However, the studnets felt their colleges used similar methods as the university, although they were now 'on our own much more. We have to work out what to do much more, and there's less guidance really, although we can ask for help.' Some felt their university experience was less personal and commented on the large lectures/seminars.
The FE tutors identified other areas which might present difficulties for their progressing students. One was finance (for example, travel, childcare), which linked to work and its impact, particularly during placement. Barriers at home might be a difficulty - 'the students might find some problems come from families… They may be in a culture of not carrying on with education and so are under pressure to get a job rather than go to university'. Whilst these issues are not particular to progressing students, they need to be raised with them, as areas to plan for.
Some suggestions to smooth transition
Students said they would like:
o see the level expected
o compare the skills needed
o look at the criteria
The HE tutor would like to see:
All the students were adamant they had made the right decision about progressing to university and feel their experience has been positive. One commented that 'coming to SHU was the best thing I ever did'. All are achieving, and the HE tutor described them as 'conscientious and determined'. The progression route has been successfully established, through the determination and commitment of all those involved, and we have learned some valuable lessons. We will continue to work with both students and tutors to further develop the transition between FE and HE.
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