As students go back to school and applications open for our Pathways to the Professions programmes, Director of Programmes Laura Bruce reflects on why Pathways was setup and the barriers it seeks to break down.

As the new school term starts this week, some students will begin thinking about what they want to do when they finish. This might be university, an apprenticeship or straight into work. But what we do know is that for many, certain careers do not feel attainable or accessible. For over 10 years, our Pathways programmes have worked to change this – and here’s why.

The problem

Elitist Britain 2019 highlighted how the alumni of state schools are under-represented at the top of pretty much all areas of British life. While there have been some small shifts in certain areas, change is not happening quickly enough.

At the Sutton Trust, fair access to the workplace is an integral part of our mission. Social mobility is not simply achieved by attending a leading university, it’s what happens outside of education that ultimately determines the future of an individual. We need to work to have a workplace that represents the diversity of our society – after all, it is here that the decisions that affect our day-to-day lives are made.

The barriers

I recently watched “How to Break into the Elite”, a documentary featuring the research of Dr Sam Friedman and Dr Louise Ashley. I was particularly struck by the statistic that less-advantaged students who achieve a first-class degree are still less likely to secure an “elite” job than their more advantaged counterparts who have achieved a 2:2. So if your degree outcome is not the key to securing your job, what else are young people having to do to get on in the workplace?

Research by the Sutton Trust has highlighted two key barriers affecting access, though this is by no means an exhaustive list!

  1. Access to work experience

Our Pay As You Go? report highlighted that 70% of young people that had undertaken an internship had done so unpaid. That’s an average cost of over £1,000 a month for those undertaking an internship in London and over £800 a month in Manchester. Without a salary, these opportunities are simply inaccessible to many talented young people without the means of family support.

  1. Networks

Our recent University Aspirations 2019 polling showed that young people now think ‘who you know’ and ‘confidence’ are bigger factors in getting ahead than a university education. Without somebody to make introductions, talk to you about how to prepare for an interview or even secure you work experience, young people from less-advantaged backgrounds are left struggling to make connections for themselves.

What we do

Our Pathways programmes aim to break down some of these barriers, working with leading universities and employers in the areas of Law, Banking and Finance, Medicine and STEM.

Students attend a work experience placement to give them a first-hand insight into the profession and workplace. They also build professional networks at our panel discussions, careers fairs and through corporate volunteers attending programmes. All the while supported by their local university to make informed choices about their next steps.

Last year, we received over 2,000 applications, and over 90% of students accepted onto the programme met three or more of our social mobility criteria. Programme alumni told us that the connection to employers is the most valuable part of their experience – it’s clear there is demand for an intervention that helps students to build their networks

We have seen, on average, two thirds of students progressing on to study law and over a third of students progressing onto a medicine or related degree. We also have some fantastic stories of the careers some of alums have gone on to do.

What’s next

As applications open for the 2019/20 cohort of Pathways to the Professions programmes – and with an expanded medicine programme to now support students in Nottingham and Newcastle – we look forward to welcoming hundreds more students onto the programme this year.

Beyond that, we’re looking at the rise of technology, coding and engineering as potential levellers for social mobility, and have taken note of the rising role apprenticeships can play as an alternative route to university. Stay tuned over the next few years as we explore the role the Sutton Trust can play in these new areas…


Applications are now open for Pathways to Law, Pathways to Medicine and Pathways to Banking & Finance 2019/2020.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Hilary or Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07917 462 164.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news