A Year Online . . . Reacting, Reflecting and Refining

Image by Behnam Norouzi
Widening Participation is without doubt a varied, fun and interesting area of work and one in which I am always so grateful to be in. As with almost every sector, our work has changed dramatically in the past year or so as we responded to the Covid pandemic and moved to remote working. It’s hard to think that back then we had no idea that this would go on for so long and in some ways that could have meant we waited until it blew over and then went back to normal. Thankfully nobody did that, we were all acutely aware that our vital work must continue and that we had to adapt quickly to facilitate this. Research quickly showed us that the negative impact on young people’s education was most keenly felt by those from already disadvantaged backgrounds. Not only was our work still needed but it was needed more than ever!

So what did we do?

In my role as a leadership coach and Co-Director of Inclusive Futures CIC, I have the honour of engaging in coaching conversations with people from all different walks of life; from 16 year olds studying B-Techs to CEO’s and Directors. I experience first-hand the incredible impact of listening properly, holding back on advice giving, and staying curious. All the work we do at Inclusive Futures, with staff and students has a coaching philosophy at it’s core. As coaches, we do not give our story, we do not share our opinions, and we don’t give advice on how we or others have overcome obstacles or achieved outcomes. We wholeheartedly believe that our coachees are the experts on themselves and their situations, not us. They are not broken, and they do not need us to fix them or their situations. The individuals we work with are resourceful and already have all the answers they need. Our job is to facilitate them to find the answers that feel right, drawing on the knowledge, strength and experience that they already have. Research reviewed by TASO, along with wider studies have shown that coaching can enhance students’ problem-solving skills, coping skills, resilience, wellbeing, study skills and learning goals achievement[ii] which contributes to higher rates of engagement with higher education. Coaching within the workplace can also have a huge impact on employees. A survey by the International Coaching Federation found that 80% of people who receive coaching report increased self-confidence, and over 70% benefit from improved work performance, relationships, and more effective communication skills[iii].
Image by Behnam Norouzi
First of all we had to look at our communications – print newsletters were not going to work, we weren’t in the office to answer phones and school’s emails were not necessarily being monitored as regularly. We were also aware that not everyone would have access to laptops and computers at home and so we wanted to make sure our communications were as accessible online as possible. We massively increased our use of social media and redesigned our webpages to include a wealth of digital resources including a Youtube channel of Information, Advice and Guidance videos aimed at supporting potential applicants.
We also developed a blog with a real selection of voices covering a wide range of topics from how to write and personal statement, to Black Lives Matter and mental health and well-being in the pandemic. Through experimenting with new forms of communication we were able to really engage in a more immediate and personal way with schools and students and this had a mutual benefit, by supporting young people but also securing their engagement with our programmes, even as they were online. The platforms gave opportunities to hear from more diverse voices and really brought the student voice to the forefront of our work as well as providing paid opportunities to our students. As we increasingly relied on digital communications we also didn’t want to lose focus on accessibility and were keenly aware to assess our output for readability, add captions to video and images and ensure that there were text only options for webpages. We used social media to engage with programme students both during recruitment campaigns and also in the lead-up to their virtual events. We aimed to build excitement and a sense of community within the cohort and also to dispel nervousness as we all got used to the virtual world. In order to continue to reach as many people as possible we came up with initiatives to increase our followers through competitions and challenges, these also gave a much-needed sense of fun to our work and produced some fantastic content.
Image by Behnam Norouzi
We, like many others, hosted online summer schools for the first time and were blown away with the levels of engagement from the young people who attended. From sunny gardens to boiling bedrooms, staff and students alike gave their very best to make an event of it – even when we all so far apart! Officers thought of inventive ways to connect and engage with the participants, who in-turn showed real resilience and fortitude by committing to online days during such challenging times. In the autumn term this online provision continued as our officers were beamed into assembly halls across the region via MS Teams links and Zoom calls. Even when the schools closed we still managed to do online interactive sessions, including virtual campus tours all via the wonders of modern technology!
Looking ahead . . . We know that we all want to be back in schools and to have lecture halls filled with excited visitors again but how and when that happens is still uncertain. Even when we can ‘go back to normal’, should we? We need to look at the advantages to some of the digital alternatives we have provided, where can we see potential for things to stay, could we enhance our offer with a blended delivery? If our work is to reach the harder to reach communities, is this not an opportunity to increase our presence? Sometimes an in-person event is just too much of a logistical step or economic barrier to some schools and their families, by continuing to offer high-quality digital alternatives alongside our traditional work we can say yes to more, be more inclusive and vitally; be a service to help mitigate the wider than ever gaps in education which have worsened as a result of the pandemic.

Blog by Katie Travers - Widening Participation Events and Communications Coordinator in our WP team

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