A view from the coal face: Providing educational pathways for underrepresented youths

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A number of students in a library using an ipad to study

A view from the coal face: Providing educational pathways for underrepresented youths

by Jayne Taylor | May 17, 2023 |

As of today the happenstance of your birth is the biggest predictor of your future success. Both social class and region have an enormous impact on your future academic and career paths.

In the UK today a higher education, or university degree, is still the most effective way to be socially mobile with many top jobs requiring a higher education.

In order to gain a place at a top university you need to attain very highly – higher than the national averages. You will usually need to achieve an ABB in your A-Levels and in many cases much higher. To attend the most elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge you may also need to undertake additional tests, interviews and other selection events.

Social class continues to be the biggest predictor of whether you will attend a top university. The most privileged – those who attend a private or independent school have a 57% chance of attending an elite university. Those who are the least advantaged – those on free school meals – have only a 5% chance of attending a top-third university.

Just the very fact that you attend a state school means you only have a 26% chance of getting to a top university and this number changes depending on where in the country you live. In England, the overall participation rate in higher education among 18-19 year-olds was 39% in 2020. However, there are significant regional disparities in participation rates. In 2020, London had the highest participation rate at 51%, followed by the South East at 45%, while the North East had one of the lowest participation rate at 28%.

So where are we with social mobility and top careers such as those in Engineering and technology?

A 2019 report by the Social Mobility Commission found that social mobility in the UK has remained largely stagnant. The report highlighted that access to elite careers such as those in tech is particularly limited for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

When we talk about disadvantage we are predominantly referring to social class and poverty however, when you add other markers such as time in local authority care, or if English is not your first language, disadvantage is compounded and your statistical likelihood of social mobility decreases. Although it should be noted Care Leavers and those with English as a second language do overcome barriers to be academically successful and highly socially mobile but not at the same proportion as those who do not experience compound disadvantage.

Of course, we know poverty has many other impacts, digital poverty, food and heat insecurity, a lack of space to work and study, a lack of extra and super curricular opportunities, transport challenges all of which add to the enormous gap between the experience of those with and those without when it comes to accessing education and jobs.

According to the report even amongst graduates themselves class has an impact with graduates from the least well represented areas (POLAR Q1) earning 19% less than those from the most advantaged areas after five years.

The report also found that access to elite careers is highly dependent on social background.  There are significant regional disparities in social mobility, with areas such as London and the South East having higher rates of social mobility than areas such as the North East and the West Midlands.

It is worth noting that outside of the large cities, we often find further challenges in areas of rural and coastal deprivation. Not the least because good jobs and careers are often clustered in the cities. Here in particular we see a dearth of opportunity with few large industries on the doorstep to support with work experience or role modelling. Access to resources are limited and teachers skilled in certain areas such as mathematics and computer science are at times very hard to recruit.

Apprenticeships are another route into elite careers however, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to secure apprenticeships than their more affluent peers.

According to a 2021 report by the Social Mobility Commission, just 13% of higher-level apprenticeships were taken up by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in 2019/20, compared to 33% of higher-level apprenticeships taken up by young people from more advantaged backgrounds.

Apprenticeships continue to be hugely popular with those from a non-traditional higher education background but we need more of them in the right professions and more opportunities spread across the country.

I hope that gives you an idea of the challenge in the UK – social class and location, the need to attain very highly to access the types of universities that might help you into the top jobs.

It is also worth mentioning that school funding is complex and uneven. Schools with lower levels of funding may struggle to provide the same level of resources and support. Which can lead to a widening of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers.

The problem – young people need a higher education in order to access networks, jobs and top careers including those in tech. State schools especially those in rural and coastal areas are strapped for cash and with many conflicting priorities.

Universities that are highly selective can’t necessarily grow due to their own constraints and funding for HE is not rising in line with inflation causing ongoing challenges.

Added on top of this the demographic of 18-year-olds is rising rapidly in this country with higher education progression rates growing in the South.

This means places at the top universities are getting even more competitive with higher grades often the most efficient lever universities can pull to manage numbers. Many universities are working hard to ensure access is fair with an increase in contextual offers and excellent widening participation schemes, but these are by no means universal or accessible for all who experience disadvantage.

But it is not all doom and gloom there are solutions.  We can look to our privileged counterparts in the independent schools and look to mimic their connections, their partnerships with industry, and their resources.

So what is the solution – at The Elephant Group we focus on the 3 A’s.

Aspiration – making sure bright young people are shown the advantages to an elite education, that they are entitled to it, they understand the routes and see themselves treading those paths.

Attainment – the only way to get to a top university is to achieve at the very least an ABB if not higher.  We need to support young people in reaching their potential, support with the curriculum, support with metacognition and build in skills for the future.

Application – support making the application, writing the references, taking the additional tests, preparing for interviews etc.

I would also add another part to the solution; we need solid information on the skills for the future, how to engage with the future job market and a diverse range of role models.

The solutions Amazon in the community are positing are on the right lines – bursaries are a key part of the puzzle, especially in our current cost of living crisis which is causing many students to opt to stay at home, missing out on the ability to choose the best university for them and the key experiences of moving away from home and community.

Teacher training, subject knowledge enhancement, ensuring schools in rural areas and areas of deprivation have access to programmes, technologies, information, support, and access to teachers trained in computer science who can enthuse a generation of young people about technology, engineering, and the careers of the future.

Introducing careers in an engaging way is key as per the Amazon class chats and working with the third sector and schools to fund and support a hyper-local approach is vital.

Every region has its challenges so working with the communities, the parents, the schools, and the charities which are of their place will provide powerful results.

Jayne Taylor, CEO of The Elephant Group

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