Attending university has long being considered a rite of passage for the middle classes and the ultimate symbol of social mobility. While figures last week showed that university applications were up among poorer students, the attainment gap with their wealthier counterparts remains high. Department for Education (DfE) figures revealed that independently-educated pupils are twice as likely to attend Russell Group universities and five times as likely to study at Oxbridge.
Politicians, while united in their view that social mobility needs to improve, differ in their solutions on how to accelerate it. The Labour Party has recently suggested that reducing maximum university fees by £3,000 will encourage more disadvantaged youngsters into higher education. The gap between poor and better-off students is narrowing, but there is still a long way to go.
Media focus on private school privilege and the advantage of 'old-boys' clubs has led famous entertainers and former Harrovians, Benedict Cumberbatch and James Blunt, to fight-back and claim that their boarding school education was a hindrance rather than a help to their careers. Whatever the class politics, one thing is clear - connections and having support from high skilled, inspirational individuals matters. It is not just about getting on to prestigious internship programmes, but good connections help young people benefit from relatable role models and practical careers mentoring to build confidence.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission emphasised that state school pupils need more support from universities and employers when it comes to A-level and career choices. The Russell Group, which includes Durham, Imperial College London and Exeter universities, has responded to the report by claiming the key reason too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds even apply to leading universities, is that they are not achieving the right grades in the right subjects at school. With dedicated careers advisors now in short supply in state schools, quality mentoring to advise students on subject choices is exactly what's needed to level the playing field. Indeed, broadcaster Robert Peston was inspired to set up 'Speakers4Schools' when he noticed that private schools were "falling over themselves" to invite accomplished motivational speakers to talk to their pupils, but state schools were less forthcoming. Driven by the desire to provide all young people with this benefit, he called on his extensive network which includes Bill Gates, David Cameron, Mervyn King and Carolyn McCall to deliver free talks in Britain's state schools.
We are supporting charities such as Future First that is currently recruiting City workers educated in state schools in boroughs such as Lambeth, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, to return to their old schools and share their insight into what a job in banking and law entails and how pupils can achieve a career in these areas. This sort of exposure to role models from similar backgrounds can prove inspirational and help young people from deprived backgrounds secure more promising futures.
In reaction to a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report, the Russell Group also said that a lack of confidence and misinformation led to the smaller number of poorer students applying. This barrier has to be addressed and that of course means more effort from businesses as well as politicians. Justification of the need for action is clear when considering the example of Samad Arshad, a 21 year old from Westminster. Despite being very bright, a lack of good careers advice at school and no connections with anyone attending a top university, meant he never even considered applying for the best universities. He didn't even know how to go about it. With support from Teach First, a charity that we sponsored, Samad was matched with a former Cambridge graduate mentor who helped him with the application process, his personal statements and mock interviews. This gave him the confidence he needed to apply and secure a place at Cambridge University to study engineering.
There are many more young people like Samad, and with more intervention from employers by way of quality careers advice and employability coaching, we will have the chance to promote fairer access to university, training, and ultimately the top jobs.