Levelling the Playing Field

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By Matt Jones, Principal of ARK Globe Academy

Recent media reports have made clear that there is not a level playing field when it comes to social mobility and access to university. Only 7% of the population has had the choice to attend an independent school, yet this small percentage is wildly over-represented in our top universities and in their access to the best and highest-paying professions. 
 
This situation has motivated 108 MPs to write to our most prestigious universities calling for significant changes to end this "social apartheid". More worryingly, the Social Mobility Commission’s report, Time for Change, indicates that despite billions of pounds of taxpayers' money being spent on policies to improve access to top universities and the professions, very little has changed in 20 years.
 
In fact, if you are a state-educated child today, you are much less likely to work in medicine or become a journalist compared to 30 years ago. 
 
During the five years that I have been Principal at Ark Globe, the gap between independent school educated children and state school educated children accessing the most selective universities has actually widened. The government provides universities with approximately £800m each year to improve access to higher education.
 
Clearly, this strategy is not making a difference.
 
Ark Globe, in south-east London, is in an area with high levels of economic deprivation – it’s an area where very few parents are able to afford an independent school education, meaning their children face an enormous statistical disadvantage when it comes to accessing the best universities – before they’ve even cracked a book.
 
Yet despite this, 100% of Ark Globe’s sixth form students received a university offer last year. Of those, 62% went to a ‘top third’ university and 48% to a Russell Group university. We are particularly proud of Zareen, the first Ark Globe student to be admitted to Oxbridge. She is now studying Human, Social & Political Studies at The University of Cambridge and such is her achievement that the BBC’s World at One programme is tracking her progress throughout her first year at university.
 
The percentage of Ark Globe Academy students accessing top universities is approximately three times the state school national average (23%) and is similar to that of independent or fee-paying schools (65%).
 
So, how did we achieve such impressive outcomes for our young people?
 
There is no simple answer, but importantly, we have worked hard to create a culture of aspiration and high expectations, something I have spoken about in many different forums. This is reflected in Ark Globe’s mission statement: ‘Preparing our students for university and to be leaders in their community’.
 
The fact is that being ambitious and earning strong exam results are not enough. Young people also need access to opportunities and the cultural capital required for university access and success. At Ark Globe we also work to provide some of the same opportunities for our students that pupils from more financially advantaged backgrounds get to enjoy. These include university visits, networking days and mentoring sessions.
 
We have a team of extremely knowledgeable and dedicated teachers and support staff, assisted by the Ark Pathways & Enrichment team. Their job is to reach out to organisations and institutions that can help to prepare our children in accessing the best universities or apprenticeships – anything to help even the playing field.
 
Our enrichment programme features a wide range of external speakers and cultural experiences that guarantee our students know what to expect and how to conduct themselves in our elite higher education institutions. These activities help to build their confidence, deepen their understanding of university life and ensure that nothing – or at least very little – is a surprise to them when they eventually attend university.
 
Finally, our students are encouraged to be independent and take matters into their own hands. Our sixth form students often make connections with professions and organisations in employment sectors that interest them through their very own Ark Globe networking event, through social media or via personal contacts.
 
The Ark Globe community; parents, students, staff, local residents and corporate partners are all committed to working together with the aim of ensuring our children have the same opportunities as any another child in the country, regardless of their postcode, ethnicity or wealth. Sadly, this is not the case everywhere.
 
While I am obviously proud of what we have accomplished so far at Ark Globe, I don’t think our school should be a statistical anomaly. I often speak to many other successful leaders in education doing amazing work in the toughest of circumstances. Like me, they are concerned that their students are not getting a ‘fair crack of the whip’. I wonder what we could achieve if government were to give some of that £800m directly to schools?

  • £184 million (24%) could provide funding for every state secondary school in England to employ a careers advisor and university access coordinator.
  • £80 million (10%) would let us send all secondary school students every year on a visit to a university.
  • £40 million (5%) would buy access to expert mentoring for all 16-18 year olds in sixth forms.

I do not suggest that these investments alone would be the key to unlocking the potential of all children, but these are a few examples of how schools could use the money to improve access to our most selective universities. We need the success of students at Ark Globe to be a standard, not an exception. Our current national policy on social mobility is failing, and without major reforms the divisions and inequalities in our society will widen and grow.
 
With adequate funding for the non-academic support needed to improve access to university and top professions, I believe schools are in the best place to enhance social mobility; after all, they know their children, families and community. My hope is that by properly resourcing and empowering schools and their local communities, the success of young people like Zareen will no longer be a newsworthy story, but rather just another everyday example of a student fulfilling his or her potential.

1. Time for Change, Ch.4, P.79

2. DfE: Widening Participation in Higher Education

Matt Jones started his career as a professional footballer before going into education. A graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s 'Future Leaders' programme, Matt has been Principal of Ark Globe Academy since May 2012