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Can education be the answer to a widening gap between rich and poor? Maybe, say UCL Institute of Education’s Becky Francis and Ann Phoenix.

Words Kate Hilpern Photograph Alun Callender


The research shows it’s hard to combine being popular at school with doing well academically

What is widening participation really about? Is it the answer to a fairer society? Or just a political convenience? Is getting more people into higher education a good in itself? Or is social mobility actually broader than education?

At the Institute of Education (IOE), Becky Francis and Ann Phoenix specialise in researching social identities and educational attainment. So what do they think about widening participation?

Phoenix and Francis agree that key to the issue is the question of wider social inequality, and the consequent difference in children’s starting points as they begin education. But perhaps especially because of this, the quality of education – and especially of early education – can have a significant impact on success or failure.

“Even school culture can have a massive influence on what makes kids sink or swim,” says Francis, Director of the IOE. “I went to what was a very working-class comprehensive, but my middle-class background gave me the cultural capital to get on. I didn’t do well – just enough to go onto the next stage really – but many of my friends, who were just as clever as me, but from more working-class backgrounds, didn’t make that next stage.

“Meanwhile, some of my own research has found there are limitations of acceptable behaviour among children – that it’s not cool to be clever in some of these schools and, interestingly, that it’s hard to combine popularity with doing well academically. I think it’s important to keep these social factors in mind.”

Ann Phoenix, Professor of Psychosocial Studies, agrees, pointing to an area of the research she finds particularly compelling: the significance of the body in popularity at school. If you are considered good looking, you get a certain amount of prestige in school. Her own work on masculinities found that most boys don’t want to be seen as ‘goody-goody’, and has parallels with Francis’s research into the body and stereotypical gender perceptions. “Prestige is heavily invested in sport, for example,” says Francis, “where the reality is that some bodies are better built to thrive – bigger bodies make you more likely to squash, rather than be squashed, in rugby, for example.”

And the story doesn’t end once students have won their place, says Phoenix. “It’s not just about getting more working-class and minoritised ethnic groups into university per se – it’s also about getting them to think beyond their local universities, which is where we know they’re likely to go, and to be accepted by high-status universities,” she says.

To this end, UCL is trying to inspire students to look further afield by engaging hard-to-reach pupils through its summer schools and school visits, and by providing scholarships and bursaries to pupils who need financial support. But it’s not just about engaging students in the first place, as Phoenix points out: “It’s also an issue if these groups mainly come out with 2:2s and thirds, particularly in a climate where there’s debate around what exactly a graduate job is now.”

In fact, as Phoenix says, even when more disadvantaged groups do get into the more elite universities, they find that academic staff and curricula do not reflect social diversity. Many ask, for instance: ‘Why isn’t my professor black and why is my curriculum white?’

She points out that, for its part, UCL was, in 2016, one of only eight institutions to receive a Bronze Award for a pioneering pilot of the Race Equality Charter for Higher Education, and has a Silver Athena SWAN award recognising its efforts to improve the recruitment, retention and promotion of female academic and research staff.

One of the biggest changes in student access in recent years has been the dramatic growth in international students, points out Francis. This has the enormous benefit of diversifying and enriching the student experience.

However, she points out that this does not widen participation in terms of socio-economic background, as, currently, this international population still tends to represent students from affluent backgrounds. Outreach work to students from working-class backgrounds, and supporting schools in more disadvantaged areas, remain important – hence UCL initiatives such as its membership of the Realising Opportunities (outreach) scheme, and its sponsorship of initiatives, such as the UCL Academy.

Are universities on a journey in the right direction? Phoenix and Francis are in agreement: the answer has to be ‘yes’. “UCL is a great example of a university that is committed to widening access,” says Francis, “upholding the pioneering vision of its original founders to offer high quality education to everyone, regardless of background. The way I see it, discussions like this, and the research projects that form the backbone to them, are part of an essential journey. It’s one I’m very excited about being part of at UCL.”

UCL offers an exciting range of visits, events and programmes for students in Years 7-13 as well as adult learners. These programmes also engage a wide variety of staff and students and are designed to give everyone a greater insight into UCL’s degree programmes and student life. For more information visit: www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/widening-participation/wp-home

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Portico Issue 3. 2016/17