Improving social mobility through post-16 enrichment opportunities

April 20, 2018
Pascale Rollings

Pascale Rollings

Assistant Head of Sixth Form, Holyhead School

What do we mean by social mobility?

Social mobility is a term that is currently being used in a variety of educational and political forums.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines social mobility as: “movement from one class – or more usually status group – to another.” Within education the term social mobility really refers to the improved opportunities of a young person to enhance their life chances.

There has been a lot of research on social mobility; focused on “levelling up opportunity” for our young people and emphasising that it should be the talent and ability of a young person that determines their future regardless of who they are and where they are from.

In many schools the term social mobility is ignored in favour of Progress-8, ALPS and grades, rather than supporting the development of students to achieve those aspirational expectations of the teachers.

I think it’s time we remember that as teachers our goals should be to produce young people who not only have good grades but also have the knowledge of and access to opportunities that will support them with fulfilling their potential.

So how can teachers affect social mobility?

An interesting Tes article by Nick Chambers highlights that the aspirations of disadvantaged children are often high but also “narrow and unrealistic”. This is an issue I have encountered myself as a secondary school teacher; I frequently meet young people with no idea of what potential their future holds and, more worryingly, no knowledge of how to find out more about their career options.

Often when faced with the introduction of a new “buzz word” or “teaching and learning strategy”, teachers will cite their full workload as a reason for not participating. But I believe social mobility should be a concern for every school. Research from The Equality Trust indicates a strong relationship between education and social mobility reflecting the influence that teachers could have on the social mobility of a young person.


Teachers of disadvantaged children are well versed in the impact of relationships on the achievement of their students. I think these teachers are well placed to deliver careers advice and guidance to the young people which will promote healthy aspirations and support social mobility.

What might be surprising to know is how much the external agencies and universities are willing to do to relieve the pressure on teachers in improving the social mobility of disadvantaged children.

Forging relationships with universities is the best way to support students as it gets universities into school and enables students to begin to understand the links between school and higher education.

When I first joined Holyhead School I introduced the Engineering in Education Scheme (EES). This 6-month scheme was for students to work with an engineer from a local firm and in conjunction with the University of Birmingham to solve a ‘real-life engineering problem’.

During a residential the team built their solution and then presented to a panel of experts during a celebration day. From that first team all four went on to university to study aeronautical engineering, computer science or electrical engineering.

"I believe social mobility should be a concern for every school."

Since 2013, I have supported 5 teams through the process and a pivotal moment, emphasising the need for schemes like this in the impact of social mobility, came from a student now studying engineering at Coventry University who said: “I didn’t know there would be so many other students here…and they all want to be engineers.”

I was shocked by this as I thought it would be obvious to my students that other schools were involved and that there were a lot of students with similar grades and interests competing for the same courses and jobs in the future.

What have we done?

Holyhead School is in Handsworth, Birmingham – an area of high levels of economic deprivation where very few parents have experience of education beyond GCSE level. Our young people face a huge barrier to progressing onto higher education not only due to cultural expectations but also due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of their families.

Career aspirations often come from jobs that students see on television, in films, on social media or by parental expectations which are sometimes unrealistic. A knowledge of these barriers has driven our enrichment programme within the sixth form, which focuses on the academic and wider opportunities that support the students in developing the opportunities available to them.

Four years ago, we started the competitive courses programme working with external agencies such as Social Mobility Foundation, Teach First Futures, Sutton Trust and University of Birmingham. These agencies support high performing students through the two years of sixth form by providing access to professional mentors, university mentors, university visits and support to apply to university.

Following the introduction of the competitive courses programme, the progression of students from Holyhead School into Russell Group universities has risen from 7 (2014) to 13 (2017) and the number progressing into a ‘top 30 university’ has increased from 17 (2014) to 33 (2017).


Since taking over the competitive courses programme I have researched a variety of widening participation schemes aimed at Year 12 and Year 13 students. There is so much opportunity out there and it is up to us as teachers to investigate it.

Over the past two years I have increased the competitive courses programme to include a variety of courses to support students interested in Oxbridge applications, medicine, dentistry, finance, law, psychology, humanities and STEM-related degrees.

In some instances, I have found that it is up to us, as the teachers, to influence students’ thoughts and open up their opportunities. One such example is the Cambridge Shadowing Scheme which is available for any student with the GCSE standard and A-level predictions that would support a Cambridge application.

This year I was able to refer a Year 12 boy to this scheme - a boy with all A*s at GCSE, is studying STEM subjects at A level, who claims free school meals and has no family with experience of higher education.

He travelled by himself to Cambridge, spent two days at University and, after experiencing the course, has now realised he is just as capable as the other students who were there. He has already informed me that he will be an Oxbridge candidate next year.

What can we do next?

From my work with sixth form, I have seen that there is so much opportunity out there. Universities are doing great work in reaching out to all year groups, not just sixth formers, and organisations such as Sutton Trust, Social Mobility Foundation and STEM will often provide free workshops or schemes for students to take part in.

I’d love to see social mobility being explored and pushed in all areas of our school, and in other schools across all levels in the UK because of the impact it can truly have on improving the life chances of pupils.

Pascale is a current participant on our 2017 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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