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Fostering new initiatives to support Access to HE student outcomes

By Sam Whitaker

Whenever I speak with colleagues at our colleges, one word is always mentioned - resilience. The resilience of Access to Higher Education students constantly impresses me, but it is important to remember that resilience alone does not equate to success. During these challenging times I have reflected on how important communities are for individuals to succeed. Resilience is a principal of success, but the pandemic has taught us just how pivotal community support is to that success. Not only have students needed to be resilient, but college course teams have equally shown great resilience in the face of recent challenges. They have continued to give uncompromising support, innovating in short periods of time. The success of this is because these teams know their students the best and can best identify local initiatives that will have a big impact.

Over the academic year 2020-21, we wanted to help our colleges further support their students. That’s why we used surplus funds to offer a COVID-19 College Support Grant to our member colleges to support their students’ retention and achievement. In total, we awarded £63,648 to 22 colleges.

In December 2021 during our annual CAVA Conference we had the opportunity to hear case studies from three of our colleges on how they used the COVID-19 College Support Grant and its effect on students. All three colleges took very different approaches in their use of the grant.

The first college we heard from at the conference explained how they had used the funds to offer additional hours of teaching and pastoral support. Like so many others, the adult students at this college were struggling to find time to support the home schooling of children under their care, whilst simultaneously being expected to attend online classes for themselves. For this college to be able to offer extra classes at more convenient times, alongside extra pastoral support for students struggling with these increased expectations, was game changing for the students at this college. Whilst it is difficult to monitor these numbers, it was estimated that at least 16% of the Access to Higher Education students registered at this college in 2020-21 were convinced to stay and complete their Diplomas after revealing that they were considering leaving the course due to COVID-19 related issues.

Our second college used the grant to fund textbooks chosen by the teaching staff. Each textbook was carefully selected to ensure that the content would be relevant to the student. There was a strong focus on giving these students the textbooks as a tool which would aid them throughout their studies and beyond, whilst also teaching them key skills such as how to properly research a topic and how to reference.

The third college testimonial came from a college who used the grant to fund new technology. The grant supported classroom-based activities that developed students' understanding and learning using virtual reality apps, and learning platforms such as Nearpod. These interactive sessions were used to support the delivery of Science units, allowing students to break down aspects of their learning and work through problems and tasks. One student gave the following feedback about this use of the grant: “The Nearpod sessions allowed me flexibility when I was unable to attend college in the classroom. I was able to catch up through doing the lesson in my own time or if I was able to attend the lesson at that time, I felt part of the class as I could see what others were doing.”

In total, the grants helped fund 725 additional teaching and pastoral hours, 87 digital devices, 14 WiFi dongles, specialist software, wellbeing support and additional resources for our Access to Higher Education students.

In 2020-21, CAVA had 31 providers who delivered 146 Access to Higher Education Diplomas in England, with 4,244 registered students. Across all students, our retention rate was 86%, with 75% achieving a full Diploma and an additional 11% achieving a partial transcript. We also saw positive progression outcomes, with 81% of students progressing into higher education; 2% progressing into further education; 6% progressing into employment; and 2% progressing into other routes following their course.

Each year we celebrate students who have gone above and beyond to achieve their best during their studies, through our CAVA Student Awards. This year we were so pleased to see that so many nominated students had directly benefited from the initiatives put in place using our support grant. Access to Higher Education Diploma students inspire us every day and we wanted to share some of these incredible stories with you all. You can watch our recent CAVA Student Awards to see just how important this coupling of community support and personal resilience is to these students' successes.

Sam Whitaker is Communications and Events Officer at Cambridge Access Validating Agency (CAVA)