Yesterday the UK government’s education secretary, Justine Greening, launched a new national plan to boost social mobility through education: ‘Where you start still all too often determines where you finish’. She is right it is an issue needing attention; the latest State of the Nation report argued that the UK’s social mobility problem is getting worse rather than better.
The problem of providing opportunities and choices to people from disadvantaged backgrounds is a huge and multi-faceted issue – it will take more than a New Year resolution to resolve. Indeed, it’s a far wider problem than can be tackled through education alone. Nevertheless, important work is going on, even in chemistry education, that’s worth taking notice of.
Improving access to university is one way of attacking the challenge of social mobility. Removing barriers to higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds gives more people access to previously unattainable careers. There are two important factors in improving university access for disadvantaged students: universities need to make admissions as fair as possible; and students need support to recognise and grasp the opportunities available to them.
The Sutton Trust and the Scottish Funding Council have been researching contextualised university admissions. This is where universities carefully consider wider aspects of an applicant’s situation – such as how their performance compares with their school’s average, or their family background – rather than their exam results alone. Contextualised admissions have been used by Scottish institutions since the 1990s, but this latest research reviews its impact and looks closely at the best indicators to use to assess disadvantage.
The data shows that disadvantaged students accepted with lower grades often still do as well at university as students from more privileged backgrounds, and universities could be even more ambitious with adjusted offers. It’ll be interesting to see how evidence like this changes policy and impacts representation from deprived backgrounds in higher education in future.
Changing student attitudes towards pursuing higher education opportunities is, however, an even more complicated problem – but it’s one where teachers can play a vital role. New work is shedding light on the reasons students choose not to study at university.
Through the Chemistry for All project (rsc.li/2koMYMV), researchers are building an evidence base around the factors that affect students’ choices. The results from the first year of the five-year longitudinal study are now out and they are certainly thought-provoking. To pick out just one thread, the data shows that students’ attitudes gained during primary years or from their home environment are more malleable than we previously thought.
Through the Chemistry for All project, researchers are building an evidence base around the factors that affect students’ choices. The results from the first year of the five-year longitudinal study are now out and they are certainly thought-provoking. To pick out just one thread, the data shows that students’ attitudes gained during primary years or from their home environment are more malleable than we previously thought.
The study’s authors highlight things secondary teachers can do to encourage students from all backgrounds to continue studying chemistry. For example, explicit support and encouragement to continue with science really goes a long way. Similarly, by explaining the relevance and practical applications of the science learned at school, teachers have a significant bearing on student decision-making.
Of course, access to higher education can’t be solved within chemistry alone, just as improved social mobility can’t be achieved through education alone. However, school chemistry teachers can and do make a real contribution to career opportunities and outcomes for students. So, if you needed a little extra motivation for the upcoming year, keep that in mind. No need for a New Year resolution, just keep at it.
Rowan Frame, deputy editor