Our CEO, James Turner, reflects on a challenging year in education.

The Sutton Trust’s role, for approaching 25 years now, has been to shed a harsh light on the inequalities we see in our education system and the consequences for that in terms of social mobility. 

Unfortunately, painting a picture of growing inequalities has not been difficult over the last 18 months. We know that existing disparities have been exacerbated by Covid. While there have been some glimmers of hope – for example more young people from poor backgrounds going to the most selective universities than ever before – the overall picture is clear: a widening of the attainment gap at school, as well as a reduction in other valuable opportunities, such as apprenticeships. 

I’m really proud of the impact the Trust has had over the last year, not only in highlighting these challenges, but also in stepping up to the plate and doubling the number of young people we work with directlyThanks to our many partnerships, we have been able to expand and deepen our reach, providing young people with more opportunities in more areas than ever before, as well as extending that support into their early careers. And projects such as our new COSMO study, in partnership with UCL, will help to shed muchneeded light on the heated debate around the long-term implications of the pandemic. 

That work will ramp up further in 2022 as we look to do more with our partners to positively impact the social mobility agenda at a perilous time.  As we do so, there are a number of issues that are at the forefront of our minds: 

  • The pandemic still looms large. Even before the Omicron variant, we and others were warning that the effects of 18 months of disrupted learning will store up problems for the future. We do not yet know whether January will see further school closures because of the public health crisis, but it seems clear that pupil and teacher absences will be a major issue. Despite government efforts, our research suggests that the digital divide is still a very real concern in schools, limiting the access poorer pupils have to online learning, which was highly unequal in the 2020 lockdowns.  And factors such as having a quiet space to study or having parents with the confidence and know how to support that study are even harder nuts to crack. Investing in the schools sector, and particularly in teachers, has never been more important.
  • Local and national opportunities are a false choice – we need both, and both are important for social mobility. The government’s levelling up agenda has huge potential. Creating more local opportunities for social mobility is crucial — and perhaps an area overlooked in the past. Local universities, apprenticeships, economic regeneration all have a role to playBut this shouldn’t be at the expense of the progress that has been made in giving low income youngsters the same national and international opportunities for social mobility that middle class children enjoy as a matter of course.  Poor children like everyone else deserve options – and many who have been socially mobile in fact end up back in their home regions.  
  • Universities are still key to social mobility.  While everything isn’t rosy in the HE garden, widening participation can be levelling up’s friend. Our recent work with the IFS showed how different parts of the university sector contribute to social mobility in different ways – which overall has been a positive driver of opportunity over the last 20 years. Newer universities – who take in the vast majority of poorer youngsters and are often centres of employment in their local economies – should be supported to get the very best labour market outcomes for their students.  But we shouldn’t lose the focus of the last decade or more in widening access to the most select universities – which are still the main pathways into the top professions and influential jobswhich many of the young people we work with want and which impact all our lives.  Let’s keep universities focussed on where they can do most for spreading opportunity – and think carefully about whether they can realistically have an impact on attainment-raising in schools. 
  • Apprenticeships are ripe for expansion.  The number of higher and degree level apprenticeships is miniscule compared to undergraduate places – and far too few go to low-income young people. We need more high-level skills for the future economy, and massively investing apprenticeships is one of the most efficient ways to do this. Germany shows how a thriving apprenticeships system can coexist alongside a higher education sector of a similar scale to the UK. And rather than it being another false choice, vocational v academic, universities – as well as SMEs and large corporates – have a key role to play in developing apprenticeships that meet local and regional demand. Genuine choice for young people for a variety of high quality and sustainably funded routes is what is needed, underpinned by good, independent advice so that outcomes meet aspirations.  
  • Admissions still matter. Social mobility is easier when opportunities are expanding – a chance for one young person does not mean someone else missing out. But some valuable opportunities are finite and individual decisions (who goes to which school for example) have wider impacts on other children’s outcomes.  Making sure that all schools, comprehensives and grammars, are taking their fair share of students from different backgrounds would boost attainment, social cohesion and aid teacher recruitment and retention.  And for universities, it would be a retrograde step for meritocracy to turn our backs on efforts to spot potential in talented applicants from poorer homes – recognising that ability is not always captured solely in grades. 
  • The early years is where it’s at. It’s almost a social mobility cliché to say the marginal pound is best spent in the preschool years. We certainly have always made the case for intervening at every stage of a child’s life, as inevitably some pupils will be missed. Nonetheless those early years are crucial as it’s when the gaps emerge that only widen as time goes on. Despite its importance, the early years sector is fragmented and underfunded, and struggles to recruit and retain a highquality workforce. The poorest families actually have least access to provision – even though they would benefit most.  Reform in this area would pay huge dividends in the years ahead. 

Our own list is not exhaustive – social mobility is impacted by so many factors – but in such a broad landscape, we need to focus where we think the need is greatest and we can make a difference.  The Trust reaches its 25th anniversary in 2022, and much progress has been made since it was founded by Sir Peter Lampl in 1997; we are not preaching a counsel of despair.  The challenges are doubtless great, but I am always heartened by the real life stories of young people who have overcome adversity thanks to their own hard work, our programmes and the work of many others.  Their stories are the best source of energy and inspiration as we look to make an even greater difference in the future. 

A big thank you from me to the wonderful Sutton Trust team, our many supporters and donors, and our brilliant partners in universities, schools, businesses and the third sector.

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