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15 September 2021

How a team at King’s is delivering on a series of innovative projects to improve the experience of students from widening participation backgrounds and the student body as a whole – creating a welcoming community, for all.

How a team at King’s is delivering on a series of innovative projects to improve the experience of students from widening participation backgrounds and the student body as a whole – creating a welcoming community, for all.

King’s is proud of its extraordinarily diverse student community - one’s background should not affect opportunities in life.

There are many Widening Participation initiatives at King’s, such as the K+ programme which supports sixth form students from underrepresented backgrounds through their application to university, or Rombelong which provides tutoring to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, and they have supported over 60,000 students to pursue their chosen educational pathway. In doing so, they have changed the face of the student body. Of King’s students, 77 per cent come from state schools, 54 per cent are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group, and King’s has the fastest growing population of low-income students in the Russell Group.

However, there is more work to do and it is important to ensure the outreach and Widening Participation programmes are as successful as they can be, both in welcoming a diverse body of students into higher education, and ensuring their success.

That’s why the What Works Department was setup in 2018.

What Works is a unique research and evaluation team embedded in King’s Social Mobility department. Running randomised controlled trials and research into the success of Widening Participation programmes and the experience of students at King’s, the team aims to build a robust evidence base to answer the question: what works when improving outreach activity and the experience of underrepresented groups in higher education?

For example, a student’s confidence in their own academic ability - their self-efficacy - and their sense of belonging are linked to their educational trajectories, motivation and academic performance. Therefore, tracking and understanding these feelings as they complete their degree can help universities ensure their students are supported and reaching their full potential. This is particularly important for those who have experienced social or economic disadvantage.


Over the past three years, the What Works team has been measuring King’s students reported self-efficacy and sense of belonging through the ‘Settling into King’s’ study.

When looking at responses, they found that:

  • Students entered King’s with similar, highly positive expectations of their feelings of belonging and wellbeing.
  • However, students in subsequent years tended to report lower confidence in their academic ability than the newly enrolling first years.
  • Both Widening Participation students and non-Widening Participation students saw their confidence in their ability decline during their degree, with Widening Participation students reporting a lower feeling of confidence on average.

This research showed the importance of reviewing and nurturing students’ sense of belonging and self-efficacy over time, particularly for students from underrepresented groups. The university has taken this into consideration when developing and evaluating other targeted interventions. For example, the Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) is a development programme that offers paid internships and opportunities to network for underrepresented second year students. Working together with the What Works department to evaluate the impact of the programme, the CLA found that it had a statistically significant positive impact on the reported self-efficacy and networks of its participants, indicating the success of the programme.

What works is integral in ensuring robust evidence is available to practitioners to support delivery of our Education Strategy, which commits to embrace students as co-creators of their educational experience and ensure all King’s students are equipped for success.

Darren Wallis, Executive Director, Education and Students

The research conducted by the What Works team is used throughout the university to ensure King’s is accessible to all. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the What Works department ran four pulse surveys to measure the impact of remote learning on students’ studies. By undertaking research to indicate whether students have access to resources such as computers, textbooks, money for food and chances to socialise, university leadership is now using this data to ensure no student is at a disadvantage as we go forward into a new educational era of blended on-campus and remote learning.

However, the research led by What Works not only has a significant influence in improving access to education at King’s, but also throughout the higher education sector as a whole. In 2019, What Works hosted and contributed to the incubation of the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), which as of April 2021 has now become an independent hub after successfully spinning out of King’s College London. Working in partnership with higher education institutions, TASO will have an even greater reach, providing leading research, toolkits, evaluation techniques and more to help widen participation and improve equality within the sector.

Please visit the What Works webpages if you would like to find out more about this impactful research.