In my 15 years working in the education sector, I have seen the introduction, removal and alteration of various different services and schemes intended to help young people get on in life.
Be it information and advice, financial support or measures actively to encourage social mobility, we all agree on the need to help students from every background achieve their goals. However, countless reports delivered by organisations like the CBI and the Sutton Trust show that even in this day and age, a student’s future can be largely determined by their parents’ pasts.
The problem none of these schemes or services has been able to overcome is the undeniable fact that if you are from a more affluent background, you are at an advantage. Not simply because your parents are wealthier or any of the other tangible advantages that go along with this privilege, but because the chances are that among your network of friends and family you are likely to know someone who can give you the anecdotal advice and guidance you need to get to where you want to be.
I’m not even talking about those young people who are given a foot-in-the-door by a friend of a friend who can get them an internship in the industry of their choice.
I am talking about having someone who has filled in a UCAS form before, or has a child who was on the same course last year, who can give a bit of their time to help with the basics.
As a former admissions tutor at the University of Cambridge, I am incredibly familiar with the application process and would happily offer advice to any of my friends’ children on how they might choose which university or course might be best for them and then make an application which will give them the best chance of success. If your parents have never been to university and don’t know anyone else who has, and if your school doesn’t regularly send the majority of students on to university, how do you know where to start?
If they do not have access to these resources, then there is a danger that these opportunities will pass some young people by purely because they don’t know how to navigate them. No online careers service can deliver the personal touch that young people respond to, but with the best will in the world no careers advisor can be expected to deliver precisely the right level of support for each of the many pupils they see in the short space of time afforded to them.
So, what can we do to ensure that these disadvantaged young people have the same access to help as their more affluent peers?
I am the chief executive of a charity called Brightside, and I think we have found a model that can make a genuine difference. We connect young people with a trained online mentor who builds a relationship with them over time and gets to understand their needs and aspirations.
This is underpinned by information and resources that range from a student calculator to help young people understand exactly how much university will cost them, through to job hunting tips and revision support.
An independent evaluation of our services by the International Centre for Guidance Studies at the University of Derby showed that the key to successful guidance was not the format of the communication (i.e. whether it was online or face-to-face), but whether it rests on a real relationship with someone you trust.
In this way, online mentoring ticks many boxes – you have all of the support of personal sessions without the physical need and expense of being face-to-face.
The elephant in the room is, as ever, funding. The fact remains though, that more needs to be done to improve the chances of young people from all walks of life in the UK. In these austere times when savings need to be made, one key area for investment has to be the future workforce. We simply cannot afford to be losing valuable talent from any background.
At the most extreme end, the proportion of young people who fall into the NEET (not in education, employment or training) category could be dramatically reduced if more were done at the outset – not only to make them aware of all of their options, but to give them the support they need to make the best choice for them.
The same is true for the millions of young people who drift into the first available job simply because it is available, not because it is what they aspire to.
It is not as simple as presenting a menu of options and leaving them to muddle through alone. They need support every step of the way, and I would urge the government to support the work of charities like Brightside, which are helping ensure that they get it. CAPTION: Looking up: Brightside Trust mentees meet their mentors at The Big Deal enterprise competition launch event at the University of York last year