Challenging the Impossible can come in many guises. For Teach First as a whole, pushing social mobility to the top of the agenda has been a challenge that we’ve recently relished, with hundreds of Parliamentary candidates nationwide having our social mobility manifesto (very politely) shoved in their faces. For those Parliamentary candidates, challenging the impossible might have been successfully overcoming or throwing away a predicted outcome against all odds. But for Teach First North West on Saturday 10 June, it meant trying to stave off Manchester’s eternally rainy sky to host our Challenge the Impossible/BBQ jamboree.
The Scale of the Problem
Things didn’t look promising as attendees began to arrive. True to form, Manchester was a considerable (though unspecific) number of shades of grey. And the clouds were not lifted much when Access Officer, Claire Critchley, summarised the scale of the problem facing those from disadvantaged backgrounds in the North West as she traced their chances of success at different points in their lives.
Firstly, Early Years where the picture is really stark. The number of North West local authorities in the bottom 10% of the country in terms of nursey provision and development of 5 year olds is something that we simply cannot stand for, especially considering the impact we know Early Years can have on the rest of a child’s development.
You may observe that there are pockets of success here but it is worth noting that Trafford is a relatively affluent area and that Knowsley… well we’ll see what happens to Knowsley when we look at their school provision.
You’ll note Knowsley has fallen sharply off a cliff and is in the 10-20% of worst performing local authorities, which is why, along with the levels of deprivation there, it is a Teach First Area of Greatest Need. Blackpool, ironically so remote as to almost be missed from this map entirely, is not performing across both Early Years and school years, which is why it is a national ‘area of opportunity’ (as set out by the DfE) and a huge focus for Teach First, along with Oldham.
That said, there is a break in the clouds here as the provision of schooling in much of Greater Manchester and Lancashire is significantly stronger than seen for Early Years and in bits performance is much better than average.
Moving to university and career, there are similar challenges to be overcome but there are a couple of particularly salient statistics worth pointing out:
- Progression of NW disadvantaged students to University is lower than the national average by 4%
- Progression of NW disadvantaged students to Russel Group Universities is half the national average, standing at around 6%, compared to 11.5% nationally.
- A quarter of working adults earn less than the living wage (£8.45ph outside of London)
- Only 30% of jobs in the North West are managerial and professional compared to 40% in London.
The ‘impossible’ that disadvantaged people are facing in the North West is certainly one that follows them from cradle, to college, to career.
Suitably chilled by the overcast outlook of social mobility in the North West, we pushed onwards to our panel discussion where we had the pleasure of being joined by some experts from the field of Access: Stephanie Lee, Head of Widening Participation and Outreach at the University of Manchester; Leanne Adamson (’11), North Director of The Brilliant Club, an Innovation Partner supporting pupils from under-represented backgrounds to gain access to the most highly selective universities; Colette Meyer (’12) who is currently a Researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University evaluating the various student support services on offer to their disadvantaged students; and most enlighteningly, a Futures pupil from a nearby college, Edmilson, who immigrated with his family from Portugal in just 2011 and now finds himself working towards studying Accounting and Finance at the University of Manchester.
The conversation started with a discussion around the statistics we'd just seen. Edmilson told us that for many of his peers the decision is between working hard academically - where the eventual risk of failure in exams, at university, or in the career they’d go onto feels ever-present – or to work hard playing football and to try to be successful at that. It seems that the perceived ratio of risk:reward in academia cannot stop the draw of relatively quick win of being a footballer. Maybe this is driven by the pressure of achieving certain grades at school and college, the idea of being debt-addled at 21, and the abundance of footballing ‘role models’ in the public eye.
Other barriers discussed included geography and access to cultural capital. Leanne Adamson told us of an area of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, which is separated from the main town by a cliff. A Head Teacher at a school in the area said the physical geography was both a literal and metaphorical barrier to the town centre of Dewsbury – people didn’t venture out of their small locality. There are many similar examples nationally but the problems this causes are many. Firstly, it limits young people’s understanding of the variety of post-school options to them - how would they know what colleges and universities are out of their area if they haven’t left? Secondly, it limits the cultural capital they have access to which is limiting both in terms of giving them a base of knowledge upon which to build their intellect and giving them a broad set of experiences to draw on for applications. Stephanie Lee pointed to research carried out by Steven Jones from the University of Manchester’s Institute for Education which compares personal statements submitted via UCAS by pupils with the same grades but from different backgrounds. The difference in references to things like travel, choirs, music lessons, debate clubs, and so on is easily recognisable and the privilege behind access to those activities is something that the University is starting to take into consideration when reviewing applications.
Rays of light
The discussion at this point had framed the barriers to young people in accessing higher education and the view of those options is decidedly foggy for the disadvantaged. However, there were many rays of light. Edmilson lives and studies in Manchester and wants to go to university in Manchester. I asked him whether he’d felt limited to study just in Manchester, had he considered other options? His response was that he’d been to other universities (including Newcastle) and had researched the business schools at each of them and had decided that Manchester Business School was the best. I felt firmly put in my place: Edmilson’s understanding of the higher education landscape was a reminder of those who have overcome a number of barriers to make an informed choice.
We also heard Stephanie Lee, herself the first from her family to go to university, speak passionately about the steps the University of Manchester have taken to try to improve the admittance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. She cited the Manchester Access Programme, which runs at a number of colleges and schools in Greater Manchester, and (unprompted!) Teach First’s Access Toolkit which she said had a number of practical tips for teachers in school. She also spoke of the University's commitment to help schools increase attainment in the right way. Many universities are planning to sponsor academies in order to show their commitment to this, which some are calling a bit of a token gesture. The University of Manchester wants to work closely with a number schools and teachers to understand what they can do to support schools’ work and attendees and those from our Ambassador community will be feeding into that following the event.
It was this focus on solutions that was the shining light of the discussion. A number of practical solutions were suggested that all schools/teachers could easily implement. The main one being for teachers to be more open about their career paths and university experience. Leanne observed that in her work with the Brilliant Club, she asked a number of large groups of pupils if they knew someone who had been to university and on a number of occasions little to no pupils say they did, despite the fact they are taught by teachers who have surely been to university at some point. Colette Meyer also spoke of a school in Warrington that had named all of the classrooms after universities. It is this normalisation of university as an option that must come as a first step and is a quick win.
Finding Solutions Together
After a short break, we had a brief look through the Access Toolkit to show attendees how it works and the basic content before starting our collaborative Bee (Bee-yoncé) themed networking activity, first run at the South West CTI event. In the activity, ‘Queen Bees’ disclose their ask – which could be a career aim, a struggle they have in their day-to-day, ideas for more opportunities to get involved – to ‘Field Bees’ who fly around to different groups gaining as much info as possible for their Queen Bees. Topics covered included how to embed access into teacher training, how to regain the motivation they had when they started teaching, how to use own their experiences as a helpful case study for young people from similar backgrounds, and how to raise aspiration in white working class boys. Those involved really entered the spirit of the activity and were on hand with plenty of suggestions for the Queen Bees who now have a wealth of information with which to tackle their challenges with.
Afterwards, we enjoyed the BBQ which, despite our best efforts and prayers, was moved inside because of the rain. Alas, the lugubrious northern weather got the better of us.
And while the initial outlook for social mobility in the North West was similarly glum, the breaks in the clouds are there. Schools are showing signs of improvement, we are lucky to have organisations committed to improving society in our region, and those organisations and schools are powered by a community of passionate and dedicated people in education committed to changing the fortunes of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young people like Edmilson are relying on those beacons of light and it’s worth remembering that behind every statistic is an Edmilson who deserves their chance in the sun. We can’t challenge the weather but we can challenge the status quo that keeps some in the shade.