Making social mobility a reality: the Robertson Trust’s Journey to Success programme

The Sutton Trust, which works to combat educational inequality, has described low social mobility as the biggest social challenge of our times:

“The income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, while education opportunities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes.”

Education can make all the difference for people struggling to improve their lives. But young people from many disadvantaged areas who might see college or university as an escape route from low income employment are encountering significant barriers to education. And location can aggravate the problem. The Social Mobility Commission’s 2017 report found that just 10% of disadvantaged teenagers from Barnsley, Hastings and Eastbourne make it to university, while the figure for Kensington and Chelsea is 50%.

In Scotland, a 2015 Sutton Trust report on widening access to education found that, despite offering free tuition, the country had the worst record in the UK when it comes to getting students from poorer backgrounds into university. The report noted that:

“…despite improvements, young disadvantaged Scottish people are four times less likely to go to university than their wealthier counterparts. In England the same figure is 2.4, while in Wales and Northern Ireland, poorer students are three times more likely to do so.”

The Scottish Government claims that the situation is now improving. In March, Scotland’s higher education minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville reported a 13% increase in the number of Scots from the most deprived  communities getting places to study at a Scottish university:

“That means over 600 additional people from the most deprived communities being accepted to study at university.”

 The Robertson Trust: a journey to success

One organisation trying to overcome the barriers facing disadvantaged young people is the Robertson Trust. The trust is Scotland’s largest independent funder, awarding over £16m per year to Scottish charities. Its four main objectives are:

  • improving outcomes for individuals and communities
  • improving capacity of third sector organisations to deliver impact to their beneficiaries
  • building and using evidence to inform policy and practice
  • developing greater understanding of the trust’s role as a funder

Since 1992, the Robertson Trust has provided scholarships, bursary awards and grants to individuals, and has been working with colleges and universities to remove barriers to participation in education.

More recently, the trust has developed a dedicated training and mentoring programme called Journey to Success. The programme supports over 600 higher education students at any one time with a bursary and personal development programme.

Students are nominated by their school or university for a place on the programme, and each year around 160 students join the Journey to Success. Once accepted, students receive a bursary of £4000 a year (£2,800 if they live at home). But the bursary is just the start of a long-term support programme that includes the development of skills to support students in their future careers. This is achieved through residential weekends, university workshops, internships and mentoring.

The Journey to Success programme also supports students in undertaking volunteering placements and in providing funding for self-development awards in particular activities Recent examples include working on a hospital ship on Lake Tanzania and developing British Sign Language (BSL) signs for scientific terms.

Making social mobility work

The Journey to Success programme is living up to its name. In 2015/16, 88% of the programme’s graduates received a degree classification of 2:1 or above, and most go on to employment in a graduate job or further study.

Clearly, the programme can only support a fraction of the young people who have the ability but not the means to further their education. But its success demonstrates the benefits of giving social mobility a helping hand.

As Gordon Hunt, the Robertson Trust’s Head of Scholarship explains:

“…the aim of the Journey to Success programme “is to give students from disadvantaged backgrounds the support and guidance that will help them to overcome the barriers they face in fulfilling their potential.”


You may also be interested in reading some of our previous blog posts on the subject of social mobility:

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Five current challenges facing Further Education

As well as developing the careers of school-leavers and adults and contributing to the economy, further education (FE) also plays a crucial, but unsung role in our daily lives. As one college chief executive has observed:

“Over the past 25 years, we have quietly gone about our work producing the people that matter most to our communities – those that build our houses, fix our boilers, our computers and our cars, care for our children and our parents, ensure the planes that take us on holiday are safe and look after us when we get to our destination, cook our special meals, entertain us live and on TV, enrich our lives with their art, cut our hair and make us even more beautiful!”

But now the sector is facing key challenges that are likely to change the face of further education in the years ahead.

  1. Policy reforms

According to the Institute for Government (IfG), since the 1980s there have been:

  • 28 major pieces of legislation related to vocational, FE and skills training
  • Six different ministerial departments with overall responsibility for education
  • 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities

The FE sector has proved to be resilient and adaptable to these changes, but many believe this instability has left the sector unfit for purpose.  In 2016, the Sainsbury review of technical education recommended changes to England’s FE system to make it less complex. These were taken up by the government, which introduced a new Post-16 Skills Plan. The reforms will replace thousands of qualifications with fifteen new technical education pathways. The new ‘T-Levels’, in subjects such as construction, childcare and hairdressing, will be rolled out by 2022.

It’s too early to say what effect the reforms will have, but some already have misgivings. A senior civil servant at the Department for Education has advised deferring the start date for T-Levels, while the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner argued the changes would not make up for “years of cuts” to the FE sector.

  1. Funding pressures

The Social Market Foundation reported in 2017 that, since 2010, the adult skills budget in England has fallen in cash terms. “Alongside this reduction, the Institute for Fiscal studies (IFS) has shown that 16–18 education spending has reduced.”

Funding pressures on FE are likely to continue. In August, the Treasury instructed Whitehall departments with non-protected budgets, including FE,  to identify areas of “potential savings”. David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said “The news that the chancellor may be looking for further funding cuts from unprotected departmental budgets is very worrying for colleges. College students and staff have already taken on too much pain from the funding cuts in further education over the last decade.”

The government has announced a review of post-18 education funding, including further education. The review will be supported by an independent panel, led by Philip Augar, and is expected to conclude in early 2019.

  1. New apprenticeships

The apprenticeship levy was introduced on 6 April 2017. It requires all UK employers with a wages bill of over £3 million per year to invest 0.5% of their bill into apprenticeships.

Once they start making payments, employers can access the funds through a Digital Apprenticeship Service (DAS) account that allows them to pay for apprentice training, choose the training provider they want to provide the training, and find apprentices for their vacancies. Initially, this service is only available to those employers paying the levy. However, the government aims to extend access to all employers by 2020.

In May 2018, the Reform think tank published an assessment of the apprenticeship levy’s impact in its first year of operation. The report found that in the six months after the levy was introduced, the number of people starting an apprenticeship was 162,400 – over 40% lower than the same period in the previous year. Concerns about the levy were heightened in May 2018 with official figures revealing a 40% drop in apprentice starts across all industries in February, compared with the previous year. The statistics prompted further calls for reform of the levy. However, the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI) has argued that it is still too soon to judge the new system.

  1. Devolving FE

Central government continues to control FE funding, but local authorities and Combined Authorities are pressing for greater devolution of the adult skills budget. City mayors are also showing interest in bringing more of FE and skills under local control.

At the same time, the FE sectors in, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been experiencing their own challenges:

  • College funding in Wales has remained tight over the last few years, but a 2017 report from Colleges Wales highlighted the economic impact of FE in Wales. It reported a return of £7.90 for every £1 spent, an average annual return on investment of 24%.
  • A report by Viewforth Consulting report estimated that the FE sector generated over £524 million of output in Northern Ireland from college and student off-campus expenditure. A new further education strategy was launched in 2016, but the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has presented the FE sector with additional uncertainties.
  • Between 2012 and 2014, 25 colleges in Scotland merged to create ten new regional ‘super colleges’ under a Scottish Government programme to make the sector more efficient and ‘responsive to the needs of students and local economies’. According to the Scottish Funding Council, the merger programme cost £72m, but delivered annual savings of more than £52m. However, Audit Scotland’s 2017 review of further education in Scotland found that student numbers at Scotland’s colleges fell to the lowest level for almost a decade. Performance figures on Scotland’s colleges published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in February 2018 show that the success rate in almost two-thirds of Scottish colleges has dropped.
  1. The future

It’s clear that funding issues and policy changes will continue to affect FE in the UK. But other challenges are also looming.

The Social Market Foundation has highlighted market developments likely to present competitive threats to the FE sector. These include more employers moving in to provide training traditionally delivered by the FE sector, and the advance of educational technology, encouraging more learners to self-direct.

As for Brexit, the Association of Colleges believes the impact of the UK leaving the European Union may be less in FE than in other areas of national life,  but forecasts that Brexit has the potential to bring big changes to the demand for skills and training.


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Preventing extremism in schools…implementing the strategy

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week, Ofsted published the results of its survey of how well further education and skills providers in England have implemented the government’s ‘Prevent’ duty in the year since it was put in place in the sector. The survey, based on visits to 37 providers and findings from 46 inspections or monitoring visits carried out between November 2015 and May 2016, focused on the following key tests outlined in the Prevent guidance issued on 18 September 2015:

  • Are providers ensuring that external speakers and events are appropriately risk assessed to safeguard learners?
  • Are the partnerships between different agencies effective in identifying and reducing the spread of extremist influences?
  • Are providers assessing the risks that their learners may face, and taking effective action to reduce these risks?
  • Are learners being protected from inappropriate use of the internet and social media?
  • To what extent are staff training and pastoral welfare support contributing to learners’ safety?

What is the Prevent duty?

Updated in 2011 by then Home Secretary Theresa May, Prevent is part of the government’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. Its key aim is to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. This includes schools and other education and skills providers such as further education colleges. Schools are identified in the strategy as being particularly important in addressing risks, as they “can play a vital role in preparing young people to challenge extremism and the ideology of terrorism and effectively rebut those who are apologists for it”.

Events such as the murder of Lee Rigby and Birmingham’s ‘Trojan horse’ affair have led to further reviews of counter-terrorism work in schools. The 2013 report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism stated the intention to introduce even tougher standards from September 2014 to ensure that schools support “fundamental British values”. This was later clarified in official guidance to mean that although “pupils should understand that while different people may hold different views about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, all people living in England are subject to its law”, however “pupils must be encouraged to regard people of all faiths, races and cultures with respect and tolerance”.

Has the strategy worked?

The results of Ofsted’s survey paint a mixed picture of successful implementation across further education and skills providers. While the agency judged that 22 of the 37 providers had implemented Prevent well (with general further education and sixth form colleges the most successful), it concluded that the sector needs to do more to ensure that all learners are protected from the risks of radicalisation and extremism. Highlighting particular concerns over information sharing between partners and the vetting of external speakers coming onto premises, Ofsted stated that, from September of this year, it would “raise further its expectations of providers to implement all aspects of the ‘Prevent’ duty, and evaluate the impact this has on keeping learners safe”.

Evaluation of the strategy’s success in schools is difficult, due to the government’s unwillingness to provide information on how it evaluates this. Anecdotal information from teachers and other key stakeholders, however, indicate the lack of support for its implementation in schools. Teaching unions have reported that their members feel “scared and under pressure” to implement the duty, which has resulted in a surge of the number of people referred to the police by the education sector. There have also been allegations of “inadequate” training provision for teachers, with complex extreme political beliefs reduced to simplistic descriptions involving stereotypes, and that the use of these stereotypes coupled with overreactions has actually led to the creation of more divisions within communities, rendering the strategy counter-productive.

Rejection by teachers

In March, delegates at the National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference voted overwhelmingly to reject the Prevent strategy, on the basis that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”.  They also called on the government to “urgently conduct” an independent review of the strategy with their involvement, arguing that a failure to do so could result in a “hardening perceptions of an illiberal or Islamophobic approach, alienating those whose integration into British society is already fragile”.

At the time, the government responded to the vote with the statement that it made “no apology” for protecting children and young people from the risks of extremism through the strategy, and that it is “playing a key role in identifying children at risk of radicalisation and supporting schools to intervene.” Given that the architect of the refreshed strategy has now moved into Number 10, it seems unlikely that the government will alter their stance.

If you liked this blog, you may like our previous post on the local prevention of terrorism.

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