Sutton Trust alum and Year 13 student Daniel Dipper shares his thoughts on the latest session held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, and what the coronavirus crisis might mean for the next generation of students.

The message about social mobility and education was clear; much more needs to be done, and COVID-19 is both an opportunity and a cause for doing so. Here’s a brief overview of each panellist’s presentation:

Chris Pascal, Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Research on Early Childhood, suggested the pandemic is “deeply concerning for societal health and progress”, highlighting how one-third of settings in deprived areas are unlikely to be operating in a year’s time (the very places where this provision is needed). Overall in the sector, there is a crisis in the workforce with increasingly lower qualified staff on very low pay.

Jo Hutchinson, Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute, outlined that whilst the increase in applications for teacher training during lockdown is welcome, progress in closing the attainment gap since 2011 has been “glacially slow” to the point of no improvement.

Kirsti Lord, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, focused on the many apprentices who are no longer employed or who have been furloughed, and the loss of capacity in the college sector due to uncertainty about funding, which jeopardises education for some of the 2.2 million young people and adults annually in the college system.

The message from Laura Bruce, Director of Programmes at the Sutton Trust, was that we need to look both at the immediate concerns around the devastating impact this pandemic could have on young people who were planning to go to university this year, as well as looking towards next year and at the outreach activities designed to support  students in the future.

The future of outreach and provision for year 12 students

This event gave a powerful insight into the problems facing the sector, but more importantly on what more must be done. As a Year 13 student, many of the concerns raised by Laura Bruce rang true with me, including fears about the teacher assessed grading system potentially having an adverse effect on high attaining disadvantaged students. Grades for these groups are more likely to be under-predicted, and there are issues around unconscious bias, concerns which are echoed in the Education Select Committee’s recent report. As an Oxford University offer holder, this is something of deep concern, particularly considering the weight placed on previous school attainment where my grades are above the average performance.

Laura Bruce called upon Ofqual to monitor these grades to ensure they are in-line with previous trends, to adjust grades if necessary to make sure no groups are left behind, and for universities to apply contextual admissions in a more “concentrated way”. Research suggests contextual applicants when admitted achieve the same as, if not better than, their more advantaged peers, so not only is it an effective way to widen participation for under-represented groups, but it is also a system which benefits universities. There is a real risk this pandemic could undo all the great work towards diversifying intakes and ensuring equality of opportunity that was taking place, so contextual admissions will likely be more important than ever in the future.

The problems are wider than this though, with research suggesting over 33% of applicants are not satisfied with the support they have been receiving from schools, which is something I can wholeheartedly agree with considering the lack of teaching and only minimal support I’ve had since the school gates closed in March. There are many problems facing next year’s cohort as well, with only 74% of Sutton Trust university partners confident that face-to-face outreach will return by next summer. This means that many applicants may not have the opportunity to see the institutions they are applying to. From my own experience, provision for Year 12s has also  been incredibly variable, leading me to step in to support some students at my school due to the fact they had received no advice with university applications at all up until the middle of June. The launch of Sutton Trust Online has helped to fill this gap, but it is unclear how much support, if any, Year 12s have truly had in schools. It is clear that university outreach must be safeguarded to make sure these disadvantaged applicants are still getting the support they truly need.

Looking forward: a holistic education system

The lasting message from the event was the strong call to action to look holistically at the education system. Early years provision is often not thought of as being within the education system, a lack of support from children’s social care services makes the job of schools all the more challenging, and we need to acknowledge what happens in early years has an impact right up to further and higher education. An integrated education system would be the “holy grail” as Laura Bruce described it, putting the student at the centre, supporting transitions between different stages of education from birth right up to in-work training and ensuring that every part of the system has the funding it truly needs.

The National Tutoring Programme, championed by the Sutton Trust and others, is a key step in trying to curtail the impacts of the pandemic, but this must only be the start of a concerted effort to help disadvantaged pupils. As Jo Hutchinson described, from day one disadvantaged students begin to fall behind their advantaged peers, meaning by age 5 they are 4.5 months behind, by age 11 are 11 months behind and by age 16 they are 18 months behind. When we factor in a pandemic which is estimated to increase the gap by 75%, and the fact that students who are long-term eligible for free school meals have an education attainment gap closer to 24 months, it is clear there is so much more that needs to be done.

Disadvantage is almost like extra baggage, holding students back and continually getting heavier as they progress through the system. Intervention at every stage needs to take place, so that the gap doesn’t keep growing. This meeting of the APPG was a wake-up call that action across the education system is needed before these impacts get out of control.

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