Today I conducted the last of the interviews with Widening Participation practitioners. Soon the recordings will be sent off to the transcription service; and, once the transcripts return, I can begin the process of fully analysing this phase of the research. Before then, I have a few observations to share on the interview material, albeit very impressionistic ones.
In total, I have interviewed twelve professionals working in the field of widening participation. Six of them are based in London, and six in the East Midlands. Eight of them are currently based in the higher education sector, three work for Aimhigher partnerships, and one works for a learned society. Of those currently working in higher education, all but one work for mainstream, research-led universities (but two of the group have previous experience of providing WP work in the ‘new university’ sector). If I get an opportunity to extend this research in the future, I hope to include a more balanced representation of professionals working across the full range of the higher education sector.
The dozen professions I interviewed had varied career routes that led them into widening participation work. Six had previously worked in university administration in other capacities (either in admissions, student recruitment and related marketing activities, or in welfare advice roles). Four had previously worked as secondary school teachers; with another having taught in adult education. One had started her professional life as a careers adviser. Two of the interviewees had worked as university academics, with one still being primarily employed in this role. It is my impression that the analysis will reveal some subtle, yet (I think) significant, differences in approach to young people’s aspirations and life choices between those with a background in teaching and careers and those with greater experience of higher education.
I found it interesting, but not completely surprising, that almost all of these professionals – to my recollection, with only one exception – were keen to claim a ‘widening participation’ background for themselves. Personal experience of being the first in family to attend higher education appears to be an important motivating factor for many working in this field. Certainly, while Government ministers have tended to advocate widening participation in terms of the economic advantage it can offer individuals and the nation state, widening participation practitioners seem more likely to understand the importance of their work in terms of social justice and an equalities agenda.
All of the interviews have contained rich descriptions and explanations of how the places where young people grow up (and attend school) shape their aspirations and ambitions for adult life. Although there are some commonalities in the evidence provided by WP practitioners working in London and the East Midlands, I also anticipate that a full analysis will indicate some significant variations between these two regions. In part, this might be a measure of the complexity and diversity of the populations in inner London. It may be that future research, comparing practice in more regional settings will reveal whether their is indeed a high degree of regional variation in the issues affecting young people, or whether this is a case of London’s exceptionalism.
What is perhaps hardest to gauge without thorough analysis of the interview transcript is how WP practitioners conceptualise young people’s ‘aspirations’. Although all of the professionals had a clear conception of how they were trying to enable young people to make informed choices about their futures, and to expose them to new possibilities as part of that process, several of them found it quite difficult to explain what ‘aspirations’ actually are and how they can be ‘raised’ in practice. Nevertheless, even those professionals who found it difficult to define the concept of ‘raising aspirations’ could identify those moments when they felt their interventions had made a real and lasting impact on individual young people, and identified the kinds of events and activities that they believed to be most effective in altering how young people thought about what might be possible in their lives. Tied to this, I think many of the interviews contain really rich explorations of the multiple ways in which ‘aspirations’ are bound up with a range of other emotions; and, how these are experienced through and in relation to place.
I’m looking forward to getting to grips with a full analysis of these interviews in the near future.