Reflections on NEON Summer Symposium 2024 

The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) recently held its annual, two-day national Summer Symposium at the University of West London. The event brought together professionals from across Higher Education (HE) access and outreach to share good practice and learning. 

Two members of Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY) staff who attended the Symposium reflect on their personal highlights and the impact it will have on their work. 

Find out more about the Symposium. 

Helen Sykes (Head of GHWY) 

It has been several years since I had the chance to attend a NEON Summer Symposium, and June 2024’s event definitely made it worth my while. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet passionate and like-minded people, and to learn, speak about and reflect on a range of activities and approaches.  

I was heartened to hear a leader – Professor Peter John, Vice-Chancellor of the University of West London – set the tone for the two days by talking about Equality of Outcome in preference to Equality of Opportunity.  

Many people will be aware that the Office for Students has developed the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, and I can see that work around this and their reframing of Access and Participation Plans (APP) has in many instances had a positive influence on APP activity.  

However, the argument for equality of opportunity can be used to further entrench privilege and to justify unequal accessibility of the most prestigious jobs and the highest salaries. It still feels as though the same opportunities can merely be offered to all, without consideration of a range of individuals’ abilities to take up or fully engage with those opportunities, including structural barriers that may be affecting this. Examples of structural barriers can include expecting participation in extra-curricular activities which are scheduled when an individual has paid work or caring responsibilities, or which have an additional cost that may be prohibitive. They may include an expectation of understanding what is required without being explicit: something recognised as the hidden curriculum. 

With equality of outcome, it becomes incumbent on those providing opportunities to ensure that they are accessible, inclusive and that all are enabled to get the most out of them. Professor John acknowledged that it is a controversial idea in some interpretations – and may not necessarily be desirable in all circumstances – and I am aware it has some vocal opponents. There are however some situations where few would argue that equal outcomes are not desirable. If an outcome is literacy, then who could argue that a child should be able to leave mainstream education without being able to read? 

What is also clear is that equality of outcome should be accompanied by a focus on understanding where structures may be maintaining inequalities, rather than taking a deficit approach to individuals who are existing in structures which are not designed to support their success.  

I was reminded of the ‘Social Graces’ model (Burnham, 1992), to which Nathan Ghann introduced us in his excellent CPD training as part of the Advance HE project that Go Higher West Yorkshire has been delivering with Leeds Trinity University’s Race Institute. Using the Social Graces – representing Gender, Race, Religion, Age, Ability, Culture, Class, Education, Ethnicity, Spirituality and Sexuality – as additional lenses through which to view and review perspectives can be incredibly helpful to understand what the assumed ‘neutrality’ of an activity is, and who that might be inadvertently excluding.  

I feel energised after attending a fantastic couple of days which provided the opportunity to share, learn and debate. I want to make sure that at GHWY, we continue to reflect on our practices and accept people as individuals with their own contexts and needs: moving beyond providing just equal experiences and opportunities to all, to working with individuals to provide the experiences and opportunities that are right for them, and ones with which they are supported to engage.  

John Hague (GHWY Area Manager) 

I was delighted to attend the NEON Summer Symposium in person this year, as my previous experiences of this event have always taken place online. I felt inspired by the energy of fellow professionals, working in the world of outreach to create stronger opportunities for future generations from underrepresented backgrounds. 

The theme of the conference, ‘Inequalities in access and success in higher education – the next 5 years’, acknowledged many of my current concerns in relation to the future of the Uni Connect programme. It became clear that many professionals in the room, including senior leaders and directors, agree that there is significant value in the work of Uni Connect. 

Professor Peter John (Vice-Chancellor of the University of West London) acknowledged that around three million students would suffer without access to the Uni Connect programme, demonstrating the value of widening participation initiatives. At Go Higher West Yorkshire, the Uni Connect programme has developed a strong presence in the local and regional communities supporting Professor John’s comments that many young people will benefit from the programme. 

I attended a number of workshops delivered by Uni Connect partnerships from across the country, focusing on attainment raising, evaluation and strategic outreach. I was reassured to discover partnership approaches to attainment raising, as it seems common themes are in motion across the nation; oracy, metacognition and reading skills.  

Given the recent funding cuts in relation to the Uni Connect programme, I felt inspired that many of us are continuing to proactively develop strategic models to overcome the barriers faced by young people from underrepresented backgrounds. 

I felt inspired by the role of technology towards the future of outreach which seemed to be a common theme across many workshops at NEON this year . It was great to hear from members about the role of artificial intelligence when developing succinct evaluation measures, such as transcribing observational workshops or interviews within a short space of time. 

Leaving the conference left me feeling reassured, particularly by the comments of Professor Peter John CBE who referenced the ‘bourgeoisie’ attitudinal issues that we must overcome as a society and as practitioners in outreach to enable better outcomes and inclusivity for future generations.