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Over the last two years, pressure from policymakers for university outreach teams to play a strategic, proactive role in supporting the GCSE attainment of young people from underrepresented backgrounds has gradually increased. The debate about whether it is something that universities ‘should be doing’ rattles on. But the appointment of John Blake as Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS) signalled that attainment-raising activity would be a key feature in the regulatory landscape of widening participation.

In the intervening period, it’s fair to say that the sector has faced somewhat of a scramble. First came a protracted debate over what attainment-raising activity actually is. Then came a conversation about how to design programmes which hold a reasonable chance of achieving success. One of the key challenges inherent within such a process is that there are very few widening participation practitioners in the sector who hold the prerequisite knowledge and expertise to meet such a challenge successfully.

Rather than being populated by experts holding qualifications in youth work or education, the majority of university access and participation teams are staffed by individuals holding little formal experience as educators. Many colleagues will find their way into the work after undertaking casual employment as a student or undertaking an internship with the outreach team for a year after they graduate. Of course, there are more than a few ex-teachers or youth practitioners out there, but we would be naive to think that they were in the majority. Whilst the OfS has published an Attainment Raising Toolkit, and organisations such as TASO have published findings from a Rapid Evidence Review, on the ground it still feels as though university practitioners are scratching their heads and waiting to be told what it is they are expected to do with more clarity. 

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