Sutton Trust: education is the key to boosting social mobility

The Sutton Trust has helped push social mobility to the top of the political agenda. CEO James Turner reveals how the Trust is helping young people to aim high.

When Sir Peter Lampl founded the Sutton Trust in 1997 to improve educational opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the term social mobility was relatively unfamiliar.

Yet improving social mobility is exactly what it has been working to achieve for more than 20 years. In that time, the Trust has built a strong reputation as a leading force for guiding youngsters towards academic advancement and the chance to fulfil their career potential.

Through its educational programmes, it has helped more than 30,000 youngsters to access universities, apprenticeships and professions. In addition, it has produced more than 200 pieces of research, works with government and policymakers to influence debate and provides secretarial support to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility.

“The debate has changed a lot since we started,” says Sutton Trust CEO James Turner. “Social mobility has now been catapulted up the government agenda. It’s mentioned in areas of policy and consecutive secretaries of state for education have been addressing social mobility. For employers, the debate is becoming more sophisticated, with the emphasis on looking at exactly where the problems are in their structures and finding solutions.”

This includes mentoring schemes to give those from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to climb the career ladder.

Internships should be paid

The practice of unpaid internships has come under mounting criticism, not least because it offers an unfair advantage to those from more affluent backgrounds. The trust is supportive of the Private Members Bill, sponsored by Lord Holmes of Richmond, which is currently going through parliament. It seeks to limit unpaid work experience to four weeks.

“Unpaid internships hamper social mobility and especially for those living outside London,” James says. “Someone could have all the academic credentials but, if they are from a poor background, they may not be able to afford to work for nothing and are therefore less likely to enter the professions. However, even without legislation, many firms, particularly the bigger companies, are now moving towards fairer internship policies because they see it as best practice.”

He believes that access to education is the key to unlocking social mobility and argues that, although more people from diverse backgrounds are being accepted into Oxford and Cambridge and other top universities, progress was still slow.

“The rate of admissions from those in the poorest regions is not as high as we would like it to be and there is still a big attainment gap is schools,” James explains.

The latest report from the All-Party Group on Social Mobility on Closing the Regional Attainment Gap shows there is a disparity in exam results between pupils from different backgrounds. Also disadvantaged children lag behind the average by about half a grade per subject.

“The inequalities tend to grow over time and the disadvantage can continue into the workplace,” says James. “It’s not just about being poor. We speak to parents from all sorts of backgrounds all of whom want the best for their children. But they may not have the knowledge or networks to help take the next step. By that I mean access to social capital – people and knowledge that can make a difference.”

Improving educational opportunities

Making a difference is what the Sutton Trust is all about, with the focus on combating educational inequality and giving young people the chance, they would not otherwise receive, to fully develop their talents.

Every year, the Trust runs a free summer school for 2,000 youngsters aged 16+ at top universities. They take part in workshops to find out more about university life and receive advice on applications.

“We try and make sure we have a national reach to benefit people from around the country,” James explains. “Priority is given to those who have qualified for free school meals, are from low-performing schools and would be the first in their family to go to university.”

Teachers are encouraged to get involved by spreading the word in their schools and to help identify eligible students.

Unsurprisingly, the summer school is over-subscribed, with 12,000 applications. The demand is reflected in the results – those who have attended are four-and-a-half times more likely to get a place at a leading university and, with it, the chance of securing a job.

There’s also a US university programme, with places for 200 students to find out about university life stateside. As James points out: “More and more students from affluent backgrounds are going to study in the US and we wanted the same opportunities to be available to those who come from poorer backgrounds.”

Pathways to the professions

Access to the workplace is another important strand of the Trust’s activities. Through its successful Pathways to the Professions programmes, it gives youngsters an insight into areas including medicine, law, finance and science and technology. The programmes are run in different parts of the country, often at the universities from where the professions usually recruit. Each programme is designed to give participants information on the various career options within the relevant sector and how to access them.

Many of those who have benefited from the Trust are now paying it forward by giving motivational speeches at the summer schools and acting as mentors for upcoming students.

Looking ahead, the Trust aims to focus on the potential of the non-academic sector, including apprenticeships. James explains: “There are many bright students from low income families for whom apprenticeships might be a good option. So, we want to make sure that parents and teachers are aware of those options.”

However, this doesn’t mean that the Trust will be taking its eye off the ball of university admissions. Far from it.

“While it is interesting to look back and see how the agenda has changed, all the evidence suggests that social mobility in the UK is low,” says James. “The educational system is still unequal, with those from poorer backgrounds less likely to get top grades. We will continue focusing on improving access to universities for all students, regardless of their background. Universities need to find more innovative ways to move the needle.”

On the professional front, the Trust would like to see fairer access to work experience and paid internships, with opportunities targeted at under-represented groups.  People at senior level – and those making the hiring decisions – need to buy-in to efforts for improving social mobility. Rare Recruitment is cited as providing good support to employers in recruiting candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Although there is still a long way to go, James remains confident that progress will be made, “albeit slow”.

Julie Mitchell

Julie Mitchell is a freelance journalist and writer.

Rate This: