Improving University Access


By Martin Hanlon, Associate Assistant Principal and Director of Learning Yr12 & Yr13 and Learning Development at Ark Evelyn Grace Academy

In the week when the Sutton Trust produced their annual state of the nation report, with Sir Peter Lampl stating that there is a ‘worrying and complex regional divide’ in the country and that there is a need for us to be ‘raising the game’ of all teachers, it seems pertinent to reflect on the ways that schools can impact on social mobility and improve the lives of their students, whilst promoting a fairer and more equal society. In many cases this means increasing the numbers of students that schools send to universities, particularly the more competitive ones, although it is recognised that good quality apprenticeships and other routes into employment are improving all the time.

I think the first thing that can – and should – be done is to improve and enhance links and relationships between schools and universities. I speak from a position of privilege, working in London and I am conscious that we are surrounded by a lot of universities, some of which are among the very best that the country has to offer. All universities are conscious of the social mobility agenda and most do a decent job at offering opportunities to engage with schools. Some, such as UCL, are exceptional in this regard, offering a number of opportunities throughout the year for teaching staff and students. Yes, it can be difficult for both schools and universities to make links – but it is vital that young people are exposed to higher education from as young an age as possible if they are going to raise their aspirations and set out on the path to academic success. After all, you can’t aspire to something that you don’t know exists.

Schools – both primary and secondary - should run regular trips and visits to universities and universities need to become expert in welcoming students of all ages and all backgrounds, developing long-term and meaningful relationships with young people. In the same way, universities should visit schools and it would be great to see strong relationships being developed between schools and their local universities – especially in areas highlighted in the Sutton report that continue to struggle with social cohesion. Organisations such as The Brilliant Club and intouniversity already work across the sectors and this action needs to be replicated on a wider scale.

It is also important that schools show their students what academic excellence looks like. This can be done in many ways, but one of the most effective ways is to provide opportunities for students to work alongside undergraduates and post-graduates. CoachBright excel in this area and other programmes, such as Futures, Realising Opportunities and the Social Mobility Foundation course run by the Sutton Trust, provide excellent opportunities for students to develop meaningful dialogue with real people who work, study and learn with universities every day. Teaching staff - who have all been to university – should also act as role model exemplars of an academic education and should be encouraged and supported in sharing their learning journeys with their students. Conversations and dialogues about the joys and challenges of education and learning should be embedded into every aspect of school life.

Careers advice and guidance is crucial, especially when it comes to post 16 decisions. At the school I work in, we offer a relatively small range of A Levels – mainly facilitating subjects - which means that students are being prepared for applications to competitive universities and their choices of subjects will not disapply them. It’s challenging and hard work, but one has to be pragmatic and practical.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to be able to do so, use your alumni. The best role models for young people are those who were once them and have been able to focus on their goals, achieve academic success and can now share their experiences with others.

So, there’s no guarantees, but employing some of the strategies above might make a difference to improving the lives of your students and taking one more small step along the road to greater social mobility and cohesion.