Boosting your students’ social mobility


Focusing on a social mobility strategy as a school can bring about improvements in culture, ethos and attainment. Richard Gould discusses the challenge of social mobility before offering some practical guidance and ideas for schools.

Should schools help bring about an improvement in social mobility?

The short answer is: yes! They should. Since in addition to being a good cause, such a focus can bring about an improvement in the culture, ethos and attainment across a school.

Ahead of considering how schools can do this and the benefit such a strategy brings, it is worth taking a brief look at some of the evidence surrounding social mobility in the UK.

Education plays a key role in fostering social mobility. There is a close correlation between high attainment and a host of quality-of-life measures for the individual, including a rewarding career pathway, higher income, better health and improved parenting.

There are other, less tangible, benefits such as a greater opportunity to enjoy the richness of culture, together with an understanding, interest and involvement in the local community and the world at large.

At each phase of the education process those from disadvantaged backgrounds do less well than their peers. The national average attainment gap for achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE between those on free school meals (FSM) and other students is 26.2 per cent according to Department for Education statistics (Attainment Gap Between FSM Pupils and the Rest, DfE, April 2014). 

Access to university stands at 21 per cent for those on FSM compared to a national average of 39 per cent for students not in receipt of FSM according to figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Widening Participation in Higher Education, BIS, July 2014) and in excess of 80 per cent for those educated in the independent sector. 

In most cases, the higher the ranking of a university, the larger the access gap between different socio-economic groups. 

For example, students in the top 20 per cent in terms of family income are more than six times more likely to get a place at a Russell Group university than the bottom 40 per cent of the population.

In the UK today, a student’s background still determines their life prospects. Very able young people without a family tradition of higher education are not only at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to applying to leading universities, but also with regard to career progression. They are substantially under-represented in professions such as law, medicine, journalism and the senior civil service.

The possible reasons for underachievement by this group at school, university and beyond are easy to identify but complex to rectify. A major cause is lack of peer and family role-models, networking opportunities and awareness of what is needed to get to the top. 

Other influencing factors include low aspirations and motivation, poor self-esteem, and underdeveloped key learning skills. Reflecting on these factors, it is evident that school and college leaders and teachers cannot take full responsibility for addressing this issue, but they can play an important role.

Every school leader and teacher sets out to ensure that each student maximises her or his potential. There is a genuine wish to do this, but there is also the Ofsted stick of requiring a narrowing of the gap. 

A further requirement is the need to publish online what use a school makes of its Pupil Premium funding and the impact of the interventions.

Many Pupil Premium policies focus on getting disadvantaged students through the five A* to C barrier and I appreciate this is an important aim. However, it is often the most able from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the biggest gap between potential and achievement and schools should be ensuring that their C and B-grade pupils are getting the A and A* grades that they are capable of achieving.

There is an added benefit in adopting this strategy since it addresses another Ofsted concern – is the school doing enough to ensure sufficient stretch and challenge for their most able students? 

A focus on the most able cohort (irrespective of socio-economic background) can have a substantial positive impact on whole-school culture, ethos and attainment. These students should be used as a resource in their schools and colleges, working with their teachers to create a thriving learning community. This strategy will help to improve social mobility.

At Villiers Park Educational Trust, we work with pupils with high ability to tackle issues surrounding attainment, underachievement and disadvantage with the belief that what we do has an impact on all their peer group. 

Based on our expertise and past experience, including considerable involvement in the gifted and talented initiative, five years ago we launched our first Scholars Programme. This is a four-year pathway to raise attainment and aspirations. 

Having identified students at the start of year 10 from disadvantaged backgrounds with high academic potential, our aim is to overcome all barriers to success. Although success is measured in terms of attainment and university destination, we value qualitative measures relating to self-esteem, aspirations and the acquisition of soft skills which collectively increase the chances of sustained success for the young people. 

Many elements of what we do could be utilised in schools and colleges independently.

Learning mentors

On our programme, we engage learning mentors to regularly meet the students for one-to-one discussions. The starting point in year 10 is a self-audit using personal learning and thinking skills to identify areas that need the most improvement. 

The student develops a termly action plan that is monitored and discussed with the mentor. Students consider their structured sessions with an independent “critical friend” who is not a teacher, of great value. 

We use paid graduate interns in this role, obviously a cost, but not a high one. Schools could consider using teaching assistants, volunteers or members of the local business community. It does help if the mentor has had academic success and gone on to university. Our students identify this as one of the most important parts of the programme. 

Group sessions could be added, for example one for high-achieving mathematicians across year groups, allowing older students to introduce younger ones to exciting new topics. Such sessions needn’t be restricted to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 


Providing an e-mentor, a university undergraduate studying the same degree subject that the student is thinking of taking, is a great way of finding out about university study and an incentive to get the grades needed. School or college alumni would be particularly valuable to use. There is likely to be a local university willing to set this up in your school for free, and they will cover risk-assessment, monitoring and control aspects. 

University insights

University masterclasses, workshops and residential courses can prove invaluable. Outreach can provide high-quality educational activities outside the classroom which bring substantial learning benefits, including social ones. It develops interest, knowledge and motivation, together with the value of mixing with young people from different schools. Local universities will be providing such activities for free or at very low cost. 

Heads and principals must not be concerned about students missing lessons to take part – we have conclusive evidence that the positive impact of a good outreach event outweighs the loss of time in the classroom. 

Developing depth and breadth is a key motivator for able students. Senior leaders need to allay the fears of classroom teachers, who shouldn’t be concerned if content is outside the exam specification. 

Outreach works best when teachers liaise with the provider to ensure that the starting level is appropriate, and they should reflect on how to use the participants’ learning experiences back in the school. 

To be effective, outreach must be integrated into the everyday classroom. This could be through student presentations, workshop sessions or working with younger students. Classes are so much more enjoyable and valuable to all when this happens.

Online extension activities

There are many sources of online learning activities and teachers are welcome to make use of our 210 free online extension activities covering subjects across the curriculum for A level students, enabling them to explore a subject in more depth. They are standalone and do not need teacher input, thus an ideal resource for students who race through the work set.

Career opportunities

Raising awareness of career opportunities and developing employability skills is key. Schools can invite local businesses to provide an expert panel, workshop or mentoring to help students raise their career aspirations as well as learn about what qualifications and skills they will need to pursue a particular career.

Personalised bursaries

These can be used to help students buy books to further their passion for a subject or fund a place on a residential course. It is recognised as valid to use Pupil Premium funds for this.

Guidance and support for families

Families of students from disadvantaged backgrounds often need guidance on how to support their children, including applying to university, securing funding, finding accommodation and allaying their fears of moving away from home.

Staff training

Schools have so many CPD options, often to meet short-term needs. Do you have sessions that focus on provision for the most able as the best starting point in lesson preparation? You should do. 

High on the list of priorities is to ensure that each student is an active participant in each lesson. Fostering independent learning and establishing communities of enquiry are features that do much to motivate the groups that frequently underperform. It makes the classroom a more interesting place for teachers too. 

There are some straightforward techniques to enable this environment to develop, including flipped learning or front-loading homework. We use our Scholars as student ambassadors, providing them with techniques to enable them to be a valuable resource in their schools and colleges. Our advisory service also specialises in supporting schools to provide for the most able.


I hope these ideas can help you to narrow the gap, provide sufficient challenge for the more able, demonstrate effective use of Pupil Premium income, and forge outstanding learning in the everyday classroom – each of these contributes towards social mobility. 

  • Richard Gould is chief executive of the Villiers Park Educational Trust.

Further information
For more information about Villiers Park’s activities and programmes, visit or email

CAPTION: Opportunities: A Villiers Educational Trust visit to the Imperial War Museum in London (top) and a rocket-making activity (above). Photos: Villiers Park Educational Trust


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