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Are all sixth formers getting fair access to careers advice?

Dr Nuala Burgess

ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education, Communication & Society

29 April 2020

Research by Dr Nuala Burgess has revealed significant variations in the quality of support school sixth formers receive when considering their post-school destinations, with those applying to ‘elite’ universities helped more because of the prestige they could bring to their school. Dr Burgess is calling for a more holistic approach and is appealing to those working in schools, careers advice or policy-making to join a working group with the aim of providing high quality advice and guidance for all sixth formers.

Ask a random selection of school sixth form teachers and the chances are they will know (even if they don’t use the words) what you mean by an ‘economy of student worth’, an economy which attributes ‘value’ to students according to their academic attainment. The concept was identified by a group of King’s academics in the late 1990s, and has never been more relevant. Even in avowedly comprehensive schools, an economy of student worth can be seen in the way support is allocated for sixth formers’ decision-making, with teacher time and school resources rationed according to the perceived ‘status’ of a student’s post-school destination.

The last 10 years has seen a shift in Higher Education (HE) policy from a focus on widening participation to HE, to ‘fair access’ to ‘elite’ universities. Originally designed to give extra support to disadvantaged university applicants, ‘fair access’ camouflages many unfair practices. Not least, normalising the allocation of the lion’s share of school resources and university outreach to the relatively small percentage of high attaining, state educated sixth formers applying to ‘elite’ universities.

My work

My doctoral research and continuing work in a range of London school sixth forms over the last five years has found wildly inconsistent levels of support for students applying to university, and a lack of advice and guidance for students who are uncertain about their futures and would like to weigh up the options. In a competitive sixth form market, there appears to be little incentive for schools to invest in careers advice, other than to encourage progression to university as a passport to employment.

The situation is made worse by the fact that schools rely on students’ university destinations – especially prestigious Russell Group institutions – as marketing for the recruitment of future students. Consequently, many schools invest disproportionately higher levels of support in high attainers’ applications to ‘elite’ universities than students applying to ‘new’ (post-1992) universities. Typically, high attainers receive dedicated help from senior teachers with the drafting of their personal statements; financial help towards the cost of university visits; and only high attaining students, albeit from disadvantaged backgrounds, get cherry picked for summer schools and taster days run by ‘top’ Russell Group universities.

The current climate means many students from working class and ethnic minority families, applying to non-‘elite’ universities or who seek an apprenticeship, struggle to find teachers with the time and skills to advise them on their post-school destinations. Unable to afford the cost of university open days outside their local area, many students in my research project relied on the recommendations of friends and siblings when choosing their university and drafting their personal statements. A lucky few found out about apprenticeship schemes through a family member or friend. It was remarkable how many students from disadvantaged backgrounds and who were not high attaining, relied on a mixture of online league tables, student chat rooms, and family networks when making choices about their futures.

Ideas for improvement? Please get in touch

A more holistic student-centred approach to helping students decide their futures is needed, so that every sixth former makes an informed decision which works for them, and not – as is so often the case – for their school.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who works in school careers, university admissions, technical and vocational training, post-16 education and education unions. The aim is to form a school sixth form working group whose members will exchange knowledge and ideas for a more holistic approach towards supporting students with their decision making. Outcomes from the working group, including proposals for reform, will form the basis for an active engagement with policy makers and MPs.

You can view my King's profile below, follow me on Twitter or get in touch with me via email.

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Nuala Burgess

Nuala Burgess

Postdoctoral Research Fellow


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