James Turner highlights some good news on social mobility

The debate around social mobility often focuses on the negatives.   Rightly so, many would say, since the UK’s record on educational inequality and uneven opportunity is a cause of national shame.   On a number of measures we are at or near the bottom of the social and educational mobility rankings.

But the efforts of the Sutton Trust and others to highlight this sad state of affairs has galvanised many – charities, government, schools, universities, even businesses – into action.  There has been an unprecedented focus on improving social mobility over the last ten years or so – so, sometimes, it is worth pausing to recognise those signs of progress.

The latest end of cycle UCAS figures are just such an opportunity.  They show that over 18% of 18 year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas of the country now go to university. The 2014 entry rates were the highest level ever recorded for all groups of young people, except the most advantaged  – and the ratio between the chances of the least and most well off going to university have narrowed from 3.8 in 2006 to 2.5 today (far too high, but at least the direction of travel is right).

Importantly for the Trust’s mission, there has also been a narrowing of the gap‎ in terms of access to the third of universities that are most selective.  Back in 2006, the wealthiest fifth of young people were nine times more likely to go to one of these institutions than the poorest; now they are just under seven times as likely.  That’s a huge mountain to climb, and there is still a bigger gap in the most selective of this group, but, again, we’re steadily heading in the right direction.

Our university summer school programme has played a big part in this. Working in a coordinated way with ten university partners, over the last 17 years we have reached 15,000 students from low and middle income homes. This year alone the programme will benefit‎ almost 2,000 students from all parts of the UK.   The summer schools aim to dispel some of the misconceptions the young people may have of leading universities, and support them to make strong and informed applications.

Independent evaluation has shown that summer school students are more likely to go on to a top-ranked university in absolute terms (three quarter do so) and fifty percent more likely to take up a place relative to a control group of similar pupils. Cambridge – which runs the largest Sutton summer school programme with 500 places – is a great example.  Back in 1998 when the‎ programme started at the university, state school students were represented in roughly equal numbers to their independently-educated peers.  Today, state schools account for nearly two thirds of undergraduates at the university – a significant increase and a proportion which roughly reflects the profile of students getting the highest A level grades.  And the summer school programme is particularly focussed not just on any state school, but on reaching bright students in those challenging schools and colleges which don’t have a track record of success in this area.

Applications for the programme are open until the 9 March and we want to hear from as many students as possible.

Of course, we’re not resting on our laurels: there’s plenty more to do. The stark differences in the chances of going on to university, and particularly the most academically elite universities, remain.  There is also a compelling argument that we are swimming against the tide.  Without all the efforts of the last 15 years, the inequalities may well have widened and the lot of the bright non-privileged students would have deteriorated further.

But occasional reminders that it is possible to chip away at the‎ edifice of immobility gives us all reason to carry on: to recognise the value of what thousands of teachers, university staff, charity workers, business mentors and others are doing and what difference it is making to young people’s lives.  That’s a heart-warming thought for a cold January day.

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