As we release our first ‘Student Destinations’ report, Acting Head of Programmes Laura Bruce reminds us why evidence-based programmes are crucial to successful outreach.

Robust evaluation. Demonstrating impact. Evaluation frameworks.

The outreach sector is placing an increased focus on evidencing what is working, and rightfully so. With over £800 million a year spent on university outreach activity, for example it was recently reported that Oxford may spend over a hundred thousand pounds spent per additional low-income entrant, the demand for demonstrable impact is increasingly creeping into conversations.

As an evidence-led organisation, demonstrating impact has always been at the heart of what we do. This is vital in ensuring our programmes continue to be supported financially. Most important, however, is the need to understand what works in our interventions. This enables us to provide the best service possible to the young people who take part in them and to spend our resource on what we know works.

Sutton Trust ‘Student Destinations’

In the last year at the Trust, we have been working to refine our evaluation methods, undertaking both impact and process evaluations across a suite of programmes to better understand what is working and why.

With this in mind, we are delighted to publish our first Student Destinations report today and share the outcomes with our partner organisations and more broadly across the sector.

Working with UCAS to not only track student destinations but to benchmark progression against students with similar grades and socio-economic backgrounds, allows us to move a step closer to evidencing the impact that we see on the ground every day.

By no means is our work on evaluation complete. It will be years of ongoing work looking to refine our methods and working in collaboration with our partners to constantly improve the evaluation we undertake. It will be challenging.

Why we need more data

Access to the data needed to evaluate interventions is inconsistent, disjointed and often expensive. Working with NPD, UCAS, HESA, HEAT and co. to negotiate and navigate data requests can be a full time job and typically there is a delay in receiving the data.

We are calling for access to data to become more coordinated and for outreach activity to have a broader definition of success than simply progression to a particular institution. Our Pathways to Law programme, for example, has defined success as students progressing to a university within the consortium, rather than each institution attempting to enrol their own participants.

The Trust is in the unique position of working across consortiums of universities to deliver outreach programmes, such as UK Summer Schools, and this has enabled us to act as a facilitator to outreach collaboration.  This allows for larger data sets to analyse, and data sharing across institutions, which we believe ultimately leads to stronger evaluation.

Working together

No organisation can solve social mobility and university access in isolation. We want to see universities recognised for supporting young people to access a university that may not be their own, but may be the right choice for the young person. To do this, universities should have better access to data of where these students go and be able to celebrate this as a positive outcome.

By no means does this eradicate the need for universities to increase access to their own institution – there should rightfully be targets around access, progression and student success. But if the success of an outreach activity at a university is measured predominantly on recruitment to that same institution, we will miss many of the positive outcomes that young people take from some fantastic programmes and young people will lose a vital opportunity to learn about informed choices.

Data is not enough

Of course, impact cannot be measured by statistics alone; we are working with young people who have individual stories, a range of influencers and difficult decisions to make. This is why it’s important for us to consider the impact of our programmes on attitudes and skills such as confidence and decision making as well as tracking destination data. We aim to demonstrate these through surveys, alumni case studies, comments and feedback from young people on the programme, some of which are included in this report.

We are looking forward to continuing our efforts in evidencing our impact, yet also remain committed to keeping the individual at the heart of what we do.

Read the full report here.

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