Blog: Why teacher encouragement matters – and how we can help

04 April 2017

Sarah Stevens, Russell Group's Head of Policy, writes about why teacher encouragement matters to social mobility and what universities are doing to help. 

Social mobility is a key priority for the Government and the recent schools green paper outlines measures intended to drive up the number of good school places.

As the consultation points out, prior attainment is the factor which has the greatest impact on access to higher education, and this is why Russell Group universities run a wide variety of outreach programmes with schools to help support attainment raising.

But attainment is only part of the picture.

We know students, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, are often not getting the right advice and encouragement to help them progress to higher education. State school students are much less likely to apply to leading universities than students at independent schools even when they have equally good grades. Our universities want to widen participation to their institutions for under-represented and disadvantaged students – but they can’t offer places if young people don’t apply.

A new study from the University of Cambridge has found that encouragement from teachers is crucial in keeping young people engaged with education after the age of 16. The effects of teacher encouragement are particularly pronounced for middle-ability students and those whose parents lack formal qualifications - an important indicator of a less advantaged background.

The difference between young people who receive teacher encouragement and those who do not persists from post-16 education choices through to university entry. For students whose parents lack formal qualifications, there is a 10 percentage point gap in university entry rates between those who received encouragement from teachers to go to university and those who did not.

Russell Group universities recognise that teachers work hard to help raise students’ aspirations but we also know they don’t always have the information they need and so our universities are working together to deliver information and advice to teachers through the Advancing Access initiative. This new online platform provides free resources to teachers and advisers to help them support their students to progress to leading universities. Topics covered include university admissions, course and university choice, and post-16 subject choice.

The resources provided by Advancing Access have been developed in collaboration with teachers, particularly those working in schools with lower levels of progression to highly selective universities. The resources also support peer to peer training – enabling teachers to pass on their learning to their colleagues.

The project will continue to develop over time. An independent evaluation is being conducted to assess its effectiveness and ensure the Advancing Access partners continue to learn about the experiences of school and college staff – and so can respond to their needs.

Access to higher education and the social mobility it can create will continue to be a focus for our universities. Russell Group universities are working with thousands of schools and teachers every year to encourage successful applications from all backgrounds. The provision of information, advice and guidance to teachers and advisers as well as to students helps to build understanding and support the raising of aspirations – and these are critical factors in ensuring that more students from backgrounds under-represented in higher education can successfully progress on to university and improve their future prospects.

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