Levelling the social mobility playing field

Feb. 9, 2018
Matt Jones

Matt Jones

Principal at Ark Globe Academy

Recent media reports have highlighted that there is not a level playing field when it comes to social mobility and access to university.

Only seven percent of the population has had the privilege of having been able 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 tax payers 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 (Time for Change, Ch.4, P.79).

During the five years that I have been the Principal at Ark Globe Academy, the gap between independent school educated children and state school educated children accessing the most selective universities has actually widened (DfE: Widening Participation in Higher Education). The government provides universities with approximately £800m each year to improve access to higher education.

Clearly, this strategy is not making a difference.

Damian Hinds, the recently appointed Secretary of State for Education, has demonstrated a commitment to social mobility during his career to date and now has the ideal role and opportunity to reverse this worryingly consistent trend. 

Mr Hinds, along with Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, need to establish a coalition of university vice-chancellors and headteachers to ensure the most talented young people from all schools and from any background are able to access the best universities and career opportunities.

Ark Globe Academy is in south-east London, which is located in an area of 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 open 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 Roy-Macauley, the first Ark Globe Student to be admitted to Oxbridge. She is now studying Human, Social & Political Sciences at Cambridge University 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 and blogged 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 admin staff, who receive support from the Ark Schools Pathways and 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 has 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 providing 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, universities and schools worked much more closely together to better spend the £800m allocated annually to projects and programmes that have proven to work.

To this end, on the 20 February 2017 Ark Globe Academy, with the support of Ambition School Leadership, will be hosting our first ever ‘Fair Access Roundtable’. We have invited a number of highly successful headteachers, representatives from Britain’s elite universities and charities to identify and share the best practice in this area.

Our current national policy on social mobility is failing, and without major reform the divisions and inequalities in our society will widen and grow.

With adequate funding to provide the non-academic support needed to improve access to university and top professions, I believe schools, working directly with universities, are in the best place to enhance social mobility because 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 kid fulfilling their potential.

Matt Jones started his career as a professional footballer before going into education. A graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s 'Future Leaders' programme – he has been Principal of Ark Globe Academy since May 2012 and is Chair of Southwark Association of Secondary Headteachers (SASH).

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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