Our CEO James Turner looks back on a turbulent year for social mobility, and what might be in store for 2021.

Every CEO will be reflecting on what an extraordinary year this has been. No part of our lives has been untouched by the pandemic and for those of us interested in equality of opportunity and social mobility, the impacts have been far reaching. 

Our sister charity, the EEF, has forecasted how school closures are likely to widen further the attainment gaps between rich and poor. And our own research has highlighted the variability of education for young people during lockdown, with the poorest young people suffering most – as well as worrying declines in other opportunities such as apprenticeshipswork experience and internshipsall of which are crucial stepping stones to mobility. And big questions remain over the exam class of 2021 who, with months of disruption in key years, have had the very toughest of times

So where does that leave us? An immediate focus must of course be to address the ongoing consequences of the pandemic – which our own research has estimated will cost £11bn for today’s secondary school cohort in long term lost earnings.  That means ensuring schools have enough resources to help students catch up; strong and consistent provision for remote learning when school closures are unavoidable; and a fair exam and university admissions system, which recognises the variability and turbulence of the last nine months.

But beyond those cornerstones, what does the picture look like for social mobility and how can the Trust play its part in levelling up? Our chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, has spoken about some of the progress that has been made since the Trust was founded. The fact that state school students now make up around 70 percent of Oxbridge’s intake, up from less than half when the Trust started in 1997, is a powerful emblem of change and testament to the hard work put in by so many in schools, charities and universities.  Our own university summer school programme, which started at Oxford 23 years ago and which now has Cambridge as our largest university partner, has certainly played its part. 

But state school intakes are just one measure. We know that on other metrics – which communities and schools students are drawn from, as well as how wealthy those students are – there is some considerable way to go in ensuring the brightest and best reach the UK’s leading universities, as UCAS’s latest report showed. That’s why access programmes remain so important and why reforms such as Post Qualification Application (where students apply to university once they have their grades) can potentially do more to make things fairer. And the importance of universities recognising the pre-18 playing field is far from level, and looking at a candidate’s potential as well as their grades, is more important than ever at a time when education for the haves looks even more starkly different than it does for the havenots.

In 2019, the Trust’s Elitist Britain report, highlighted how far we have to travel in terms of opening up opportunities in the most selective and influential jobs. In 2020, some of the biggest challenges we see are still around employability and making sure young people from poorer homes develop the skills and experiences that stand them in good stead for their career aspirations. Our Pathways Programmes, which ally university admissions support with work experience and skills building, have been tackling this gap for 15 years – but there are areas of the country that we don’t currently reach and a clear need for longer term support into the undergraduate years. The professions themselves need to continue to adapt, to ensure they attract and retain the best talent, regardless of background: which is why our Employers’ Guide and work with the Social Mobility Commission is such an important development and must be built on further.

There are new frontiers to the social mobility challenge too  around access to the best apprenticeships, for instance, and postgraduate education – as well as a need to continue to focus on FE and skills, the importance of which is nowabsolutely rightly, being emphasised by policymakers.  We will be doing more to shed light on the inequalities in these areas and to offer practical suggestions for change.   

All of this is of course nested in a wider set of macro issues around our education system, its workforce and its funding. The Trust’s recent reports on the impacts of the pandemic shed light on the immediate consequences of Covid, but in doing so also highlighted the longstanding inequalities in the early years and schools sectors which sow the seeds of stifled opportunity long before age 16 and our own programmes start. 

So the long term calls of the Trust for structural reform remain: that the early years are critical and need to be seen as an essential part of the education system, not simply childcare, and have commensurate funding and career progression structure that the poorest schools should have significantly more funding to attract and retain the best staff and to compensate for the inequalities beyond the school gates they contend with dayin and dayout; and that admissions to schools, whether comprehensive, grammar or independentmust operate in a way that gives every family a fair chance of accessing the best provisionEvery pound spent well in education gives economic and social dividends well beyond the initial investment.

I am incredibly proud of how the Sutton Trust team adapted to the challenges of this year. We switched all our provision to digital delivery, thanks to the massive acceleration of Sutton Trust Online, supported by our brilliant partners at Bloomberg. This allowed us to reach more young people than ever before – 7,000 plus – and will forever change how we work and the scale at which we can directly support young people.

And in March our research and policy team switched immediately to focussing on the impacts of the pandemic on social mobility, releasing a series of reports looking at all the key phases of education. It is no exaggeration to say that these had a huge impact on the public debate, contributing to, among other things, the roll out of IT and data for the poorest pupils, the establishment of the National Tutoring Programme and other catchup funding, and the reforms to university admissions currently being considered by government. We also put our shoulder to the wheel, lending practical support to the creation of the Oak Academy and in supporting our sister charity, the EEF, in setting up the NTP. 

There is of course much more that needs to be done and real concerns about the lasting impacts of Covid on social mobility.  Far from being a time to let our foot off the gas, we need to press the accelerator harder to cover more quickly the rocky road ahead.  

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