The Boy Who Could not Read: The Importance of Widening Participation that Reaches Out

In this blog post Adam Formby, senior lecturer in sociology at York St John University, talks about both his work and lived experience of widening participation.

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What is widening participation (WP) for exactly? And how we do we best support learners and families and underrepresented communities more broadly? Since 2017, these questions have been at the heart of the National Collaborative Outreach Project (known as Uni Connect from 2019). Modern WP is framed around geographical measures of Higher Education participation where “higher education participation is lower than might be expected given the GCSE results of the young people who live there” (OfS, 2019). I work with Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) – specifically in areas identified as below the national average of 43 per cent in terms of HE participation.

Usually when I write about WP I am a programme evaluator. I reflect on the efficacy of initiatives and look at what can be improved and changed. Over the past four years, GHWY has developed into a far-reaching initiative capable of supporting different ‘underrepresented’ communities in West Yorkshire. Specifically, we adopt a community-model of WP whereby activities go beyond traditional models such as ‘open days’, ‘mentoring’ or ‘tutoring’ – moving WP into the community space to work with learners and the community that surrounds learners. We have created a form of community-lead outreach that supports informed-decisions about trajectories as a whole (and of course this often means not going to higher education at all). It is perhaps no surprise this is the area I care about. The question of how to support young people animates my life – I came to university through the same WP schemes I now evaluate. Yet, it is makes me reflect on how I would respond – what really worked in the case of myself? Was it really the WP?

I come from a lovely little town north of Liverpool called Southport (best chips ever made). If you had spoken to the 15 year old version of me about the future – answer was simple: ‘plumber like Dad’ (and I would have been happy with that). School was difficult. I couldn’t read up to the age of 8 – my mum and dad and older brother Dave would sit with me at night and go through words I couldn’t figure out. Maths felt unlearnable. I passed that GCSE on the third attempt – I remember missing a core exam which my parents still find hilarious – even so, they made me do it again until I got it. When I got to college I failed the first year entirely and had to start again. Education became synonymous with feelings of shame – and the very idea of University was frightening – not for the likes of me. It pointed to a future of getting a job, staying local to town and embracing the identity defined by the place that raised me. No risk if you don’t try.   

But something odd happened. I did leave. And in many ways WP played a massive part as to why.

At 16, my sixth from took a trip to the University of York for a residential summer school (very similar to ours at GHWY). The city was like nothing I had ever seen before – cobbled historical streets, that huge Minster, pubs everywhere – and the University of York was again like….nothing I had ever seen before. Green and lush. Lake in the middle of it. Ducks everywhere. They did this thing – Social Policy – it was about helping people. I didn’t know there were courses like that. We spent the weekend doing activities, hearing lecturers talk, seeing York. Two students got arrested for nicking CDs from HMV on the Saturday. Looking back, that visit was so different to anything my life. My head of sixth form, however, advised: ‘Adam, York is a hard one to get into’ (fair, I had just failed the whole first year). Yet, with the help of positive relationships and my family, I started working. Hard. Really, really hard. Eventually I got into the Uni of York and found myself studying Social Policy in 2005 – I still can’t believe that happened.

But as life-changing as WP activity can be it never is just one thing. Often, we see narratives that treat these experiences as WP success stories based entirely on the work of the individual – ‘first-gen university students find a subject they love; experience the University and get in’. But really it is about family, great teachers, positive relationships, the community – it is about people who cared. If they weren’t there, that visit to York would have meant nothing.

Aa first-gen student I remember finding it hard to imagine the possibility of University as being part of any future – and when I arrived, it was a shock to meet students for whom University was just pre-destined by background. They were defined by a complete absence of the doubt and uncertainty that had been a recurring feature of my own educational life. Colleagues such as Harrison (2018) describe a conceptualisation of ‘possible selves’ when framing WP work. Emphasizing the need to move away from delivering WP to young people and instead with and alongside parents and the overall community. Put simply, imagining your future with people that care is a way to make that future real.

These formative experiences are why I care so much WP and what it does for young people every day. I love the work I do because I see the difference it makes. Modern WP should always reflect on the context of young people’s lives and reach out to them on their terms. We need to talk to the embedded community that live around young people. Especially at a time of Covid-19, generational austerity and diminishing youth services – now, more than ever, WP is vital for the life-chances it provides.

By Adam Formby.