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The value of character-building and social capital in outreach work

misstuni / 123RF

David Woolley, Head of Schools Colleges and Community Outreach at Nottingham Trent University, outlines growing evidence that outreach work that can develop students’ character and social capital is highly effective and therefore worthy of investment.


A lot of faith and money is put into university outreach. Sums vary according to methodology, but according to a recent OFFA report almost £480 million will be spent on outreach activities in 2018-19.  This is an increase from the previous year and is likely to rise again given OFFA’s call for a redistribution of funds from financial support towards outreach activities.

The traditional outreach approach of raising aspiration has a weak evidence base and the faith and the millions invested deserve a more ambitious, innovative and evidence-informed approach. One area worth exploring is how outreach can and should develop character and social capital. 

A recent report from the Sutton Trust highlights how life skills such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication are associated with better academic outcomes.  Furthermore a couple of recent Guardian articles show how a focus on music, drama and art has contributed to a remarkable improvement in a Bradford primary schools SATS results and the importance of social capital in widening participation activities. The recent Higher Education Policy Institute series, New insights on WP, also had an article on the importance of social capital.

In summary, there is an associated effect of a broader range of life skills, social capital and academic attainment.  These skills and capitals might underpin academic success.  However, if you come from a disadvantaged background your social networks, confidence levels and communication skills are likely to make it harder for you to obtain this social capital than your more privileged peers.  Is this where outreach activities can make a difference?   

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) recognises this as some of our own research leads us in a similar direction.   We are very interested in ‘participation’ per se and have evidence of its value across the student lifecycle.
At a pre-entry level our latest data shows that the HE participation rates of former NTU pre-16 outreach participants who engaged in three or more outreach activities were twice as likely to progress to HE, compared to those who only engaged in one activity (68 per cent – 34 per cent respectively).  It is a similar story when looking at attainment.  In 2014 attendance at one activity was associated with a 57 per cent success rate at GCSE level (5 A*-C) whilst three had a 71 per cent rate. 

At a post-entry level, there is strong statistical evidence of an association between taking part in two of our extra-curricular programmes and higher degree classifications. In 2012/13, 84.3 per cent of students who had taken part in our Students in Classrooms scheme and 79.5 per cent of students who had taken part in our Volunteering schemes achieved at least a 2:1 degree classification, compared with 67.5 per cent of all NTU students achieving this standard.  This holds even when prior-entry qualifications, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status are taken into account.  (We are due to update this data in the next year and produce a paper on it).   Graduates from these two schemes were significantly less likely to be unemployed (approximately six months after graduation) than the average for all NTU graduates and over twice as likely to have progressed to postgraduate study.

Student dashboard tool

This matches with our data on the value of participating in studies.  NTU is a leader in learner analytics.  Our Student Dashboard tool provides individual students and the staff supporting them with information about their participation in their course.   As with our other programmes, more engagement is associated with greater academic success.  

We are therefore increasingly designing our outreach work, across the entire student lifecycle, to increase participation in studies and extra-curricular activities, and associated with that, enhance social capital and develop non-cognitive skills through a positive psychology based approach. Nottingham Trent Children’s University encourages 8 – 14 year olds to take part in extra-curricular activities such as after-school clubs and visits to local museums.  Our Progression Scheme for 14-19 year olds includes theatre trips and ‘tasters’ in horse-riding and rock climbing to improve participation in the Duke of Edinburgh scheme.  Our highly innovative character development programme, PEPPER (Purpose, Effort, Positivity, Personal Responsibility, Enquiring Mind and Resilience) continues under rigorous development.   

The vehicle for our post-entry outreach work is our Central Engagement and Retention Team (CERT) whose student mentors currently enhance a sense of belonging and community especially during the transition to NTU.  This scheme ‘does what it says on the tin’ – encourages engagement in existing provision and in the future will use our Student Dashboard to do so, giving targeted support to disengaging students.

So there might be something in this and it is worth exploring if done correctly - and that means targeting and evaluating correctly.  Firstly achieving participation in these extra-curricular activities by the target groups is essential and pleasingly the percentage of our outreach participants from target groups is over 70 per cent with our school-based programmes, rising to over 90 per cent with our learner-level programmes. 

Then, the impact on these groups must be evaluated. Understanding data is at the heart of how we understand problems and develop testable solutions.  At NTU we have been tracking the participants of our outreach programmes since 2008 and have records for almost 25,000 unique participants.  

Evaluation of character and behaviour change is not so straight forward.  Evaluating changes in life skills and the relationship to attainment improvement is more problematic still.  But regardless of how challenging, as with all outreach, any work in this field needs to be evidenced.  Evidencing impact is one of the reasons why we have chosen a psychological approach to our character education programme over, for example, a virtues approach.  Our pilot character education programme was evaluated using a quasi-experimental design, and any significant expansion of the programme will only take place once we can show causation through a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) or a methodology of similar robustness.

None of this can replace academic attainment which remains crucial.  We must acknowledge that this development in our outreach accompanies our excellent Raising the Grade revision conferences.

But taking a strictly academic route to academic improvement won't lead to success for all.  The problem is too cryptic and too complex; doing more maths does not always lead to better maths. Those estranged need to be re-engaged, those who are failing need the confidence to bounce back.  This can only happen in an approach which champions participation within and beyond the classroom, and in which a well-timed, apportioned and balanced ‘effort’ from all is required.

 

This article first appeared on HEi-know on 23 November 2017

 

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