Reflections on Practice and Context

by Ashleigh Hope – Head of Access and Participation, Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Image by Yeshi Kangrang

I am approaching a decade in Access and Participation, the latter half leading the work in a small and specialist institution. In the last five years, I admit to some despair at the regulatory push for innovation, and envy of the imagination and resource available in some universities. When HE awards season comes around I pour over our projects, considering which might be in with a chance and panicking that maybe I haven’t quite cracked it. It’s difficult when you’re a small team of one, or two (and very recently, three!), and you just need to deliver – trailblazing necessarily takes a backseat.

However, with new regulation comes reflection. And, on reflection, maybe radical innovation isn’t always needed. We have to demonstrate that what we are doing works. Identify a risk, design an intervention to combat that risk, and then tell the sector how you did it and how it did – bonus points if it worked. Identifying a risk and designing an intervention don’t require sophistication to be successful. Take our Supported Application Scheme. The main barriers to accessing Guildhall School of Music & Drama for underrepresented student groups are cost, confidence and belonging, and access to prior training and skill development. We invest substantially in the latter via a range of sustained activity, including multi-year music training bursaries in our excellent under-18 provision. When approaching the other barriers to access, and armed with feedback from students, applicants and advisors and available research, it was apparent that a simpler intervention might work.

If applying to more than one conservatoire or drama school (and they very likely are), applicants could spend upwards of £500 on application fees, and travel and accommodation for in-person auditions. Acting applicants tend to incur this expense multiple times, as they apply more than once; there is around a 1% chance of receiving an offer each admissions cycle. When I started at Guildhall School in 2018, we offered free applications to applicants working with local schools and youth groups to remove the financial barrier, but these lacked geographical reach and impact on access. As one teacher explained, the free application was a nice gesture but her student was too nervous, and found Guildhall too daunting, to attend their audition. There’s little point in offering a free application if it doesn’t get the applicant through the door so, using the (much-needed) free application as a starting point, the Supported Application Scheme was born.

We’re in our fourth cycle now, and it’s gone through various iterations, partly due to Covid, but mostly as we learn and react to the needs of different applicants. It currently offers eligible undergraduate applicants nationwide:

  • A free application
  • A wide range of workshops, events and Q&A opportunities with staff and students, which mostly take place online but with as much in-person activity as we can squeeze in (and that is fair to non-local applicants!)
  • A travel and accommodation bursary for in person auditions and interviews for those based outside of Greater London
  • A free consultation lesson for music offer holders to help them choose a principal study teacher
  • Free tickets to Guildhall performances for all, and one free ticket to a theatre show closer to home for Production Arts applicants
  • 1:1s with the Access and Participation team, particularly for offer holders who need an unbiased, knowledgeable sounding board
  • Support with student finance and scholarship applications and transition to the School
  • A £350 start-up fund for any participant who enrols.

It’s not particularly glossy, it’s cheap (around 2% of our overall A&P budget), and we REALLY wish we could think of a catchier name, but it directly combats the barriers that applicants face and it works. It really works. Telling the sector about it is a work in progress thanks to our small numbers and difficulty proving causal impact but, anecdotally, the applicants love it, the students love it and the graduates love it – in fact, they work on it (we couldn’t deliver half of the activity without our alumni’s expertise!). Statistically, Supported Application Scheme participants are consistently more likely to receive an offer than all UK applicants are overall. Black, Asian and ethnically diverse offer holders are significantly more likely to accept their offer if they are on the Scheme than if they are not – 24% more likely in the Scheme’s first year. Those who become Guildhall students confirm that the Scheme’s workshops, opportunities and support were integral to their decision making and helped them feel that they belonged at Guildhall. The majority of them continue to identify strongly with the access work and the team. If they see us running activity they’ll make the time to chat to the participants and this year we are formalising drop-in hours following feedback about the value of the relationship developed with the team pre-entry, and having a point of contact independent of their training or ‘official’ student support. Within the new Access and Participation Plan requirements, there is definite potential for even further expansion of the Scheme for enrolled students, to support EORR risks 6-11. Perhaps this will necessitate something truly innovative that we will shout from the rooftops. But, most likely, whatever we develop will be grounded in conversation with stakeholders, our observations and a bit of common sense.

So, to anyone fretting about intervention strategies, take a leaf out of the small team handbook; don’t overthink it, trust your instincts, try thinking inside the box. Be a bit less innovative – something great might come from it.


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