By Michael Bennett, Associate Director for Widening Participation |
With our report on our findings from our first two years published, Michael Bennett reflects on what the future holds in store for the What Works Team
I wrote in my conclusion to the What Works Two Year Report two year report that the team has done so much in a short space of time and is well placed to look to the future. The individuals and team collectively have been brilliant and prolific and it is exciting to think about the future.
We don’t always need to square away new things with everything that exists already. But plugging into existing structures does help.
New ideas and approaches work best if you have the receptors ready for them to plug into. That is not always easy. The King’s What Works approach covers all social research using various methods, but with an emphasis on randomised control trials. Internally, this emphasis was new, and launching the work has required a shift in culture, practice and a willingness to embrace this ethos. In introducing a behavioural insights focus into the university we were breaking new ground and had to create a whole new framework, building on what has worked elsewhere, ACES, which teams have welcomed and taken forward as a tool to help them design their own interventions.
It’s been great to see how the What Works approach has been embraced internally. In the report you can see that, as well as prospective and current students, colleagues from across professional services, as well as the Students’ Union and individual faculties, have all got stuck in. Outside the College, teachers, parents and other partners have all been involved. We’ve had some of the most creative and challenging and enjoyable meetings I’ve ever been in while puzzling out new approaches and solutions. Involving everyone, in a way that they understand and appreciate, is really essential, especially when embarking on work which may be new to people and require shifts in behaviour, assumptions and practice.
Evaluators gonna evaluate. Remembering why and for who informs the how.
In the design, delivery, evaluation and review you should always focus on the who and the why first. That leads you to the what and the how. The What Works approach within King’s synthesises these and prioritises the who and the why. Students and the communities around them are central, and what we want to achieve with and for them governs everything else.
In the two year report you can read about the Your King’s Your Success Project aimed at understanding whether psycho-social interventions can improve attainment, but looking specifically at their impact on students from specific ethnic minority groups as well as all students. We are currently evaluating this project using questions (The ‘Settling into King’s’ questions) that we have successfully added to the enrolment and re-enrolment tasks at King’s to measure all students sense of belonging. The findings of this annual check-in with students in turn led to our focus groups with Asian students.
There’s also our focus groups with white working class females, which has prompted a larger study with white and BAME working-class females in schools. This work has led to a series of structured interviews with students from specific groups that are particularly less likely to progress to university, including care leavers, estranged students and forced migrants, which we’ll be publishing the findings of soon.
All these projects started with asking ‘what do we want to achieve?’. We did this by first exploring these questions with students to understand their experiences and perceptions and using behavioural insights and experimental methods to build an understanding of the behaviours of the students themselves.
Innovation is well and good but not for the sake of it. Maintenance is also important.
Over the past 20 years there’s been progress in equality of opportunity[i]. Access to university is fairer, although this varies by groups and individuals and there is still much work to do. There has been significant investment by universities in some new and innovative approaches, which represents the legitimate chance to change peoples’ lives. Within King’s, The Vision for King’s 2029 is to be top in the Russell Group for social mobility. Formalising the What Works approach at King’s and developing the team has been a core part of holding ourselves to account and understanding properly the impact we were already having working towards that aim. It also helps us keep students at the centre of what we do. This is a key part of our Education Strategy, as a real, demonstrable way to “care about our learners on an individual basis and design mainstream interventions that remove all forms of inequality in learner engagement, retention and success”.
What Works forces us to ask ‘What do you want to achieve – are you doing it?’ If so, great. If not, make changes. Do not hang onto things for the sake of it. Learn from elsewhere. Evaluate and change and develop. But innovation isn’t machine learning and RCTs in and of themselves. It’s not theories of social capital either. It’s what you do with these old tools.
It’s also about maintenance. The work we do in What Works supports us in that too, identifying where we should carefully and proactively care for and maintain something, and roll up our sleeves and fix it up. The report also includes our best practice for evaluation, which is about understanding your processes just as much as your impacts. In this way we can make an activity, a service, or an environment into the best version of what it can be, to give our students the best chance at success. For example the research protocols we have developed for our Widening Participation activity are both research pieces and evaluation plans, with a real focus on how they will be used, including to make connections, fill in gaps and bring in new or overlooked voices to improve our work.
We’re at the point where the focus is on getting it done.
There is fantastic work going on across the centre and this has also been an opportunity to work with other great university teams, not least when we set up the new what works centre for the higher education sector funded by the OfS, TASO. While now a separate and distinct entity, this was co-established with our friends at Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team . It’s exciting to see how the sector will evolve in the future.
We’ll approach the coming years with the values and insights I’ve outlined and we will publish our findings even if they tell us things we weren’t expecting. We’ll safeguard our students by making sure the work is ethical and won’t do harm. While transparency is required, just as important is honesty. And we want students and staff to feel that they are working with us from a position of safety, clarity and dignity. We will continue to drive forward new activity and approaches to improving access and participation for students and we will also make sure to repair and renew activity where it’s needed.
We’ll also continue to work with the sector, so when you’ve read our report if it sparks ideas then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
[i] Office for Students (2019) Annual Review: A new approach to fair access, participation and success available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/annual-review-2019/a-new-approach-to-fair-access-participation-and-success/#stagnation