Mentoring to widen access

Adam Runacres explains how listening to students can improve programmes where mentoring is designed to help them reach higher education

Adam Runacres is Impact and Policy Manager at The Access Project

Reaching the most selective universities in the country can seem impossible at times, especially for those from under-resourced backgrounds.

For the most selective providers, significant access gaps remain, with thousands of students from areas of the country with low historic participation “missing” each year.

Despite achieving the grades and having high levels of ambition, students from under-resourced backgrounds face multiple barriers to equality of opportunity, blocking their route to a top university.

At The Access Project, our recent report on Impactful Mentoring highlights how mentoring can improve access for these students and clear the path ahead.

Mentoring can effectively address risks to equality of opportunity, and there’s more that can be done to ensure rigorous yet bespoke programmes at scale – along with evolving mentoring practice to improve students’ transferable skills alongside university readiness.

There is evidence from within and outside the UK that mentoring has a positive impact on the academic, social, emotional and behavioural development of young people.

Evaluations of mentoring within widening participation have indicated how impactful mentoring can be – often encompassed within what TASO has called “Multi-intervention outreach and mentoring” programmes.

In their review of mentoring for widening participation, Robinson and Salvestrini conclude that programmes boost confidence and motivation, raise aspirations and “support students from low participation groups to progress to the most prestigious institutions”.

But while mentoring can take many forms, what makes it effective and how do we know it is working?

Building university readiness

Based on research and evidence from 15 years of delivering mentoring programmes, at The Access Project, we know that mentoring is usually most effective when there are high levels of rapport and trust between mentors and mentees – mentors are well-trained and well-supported, and mentors and mentees follow a structured programme with clear aims.

These features allow high-quality relationships to develop where mentors can create space and empower students to articulate their views and take ownership over their decision-making. We work in close partnership with schools to deliver rigorous, bespoke mentoring through a structured programme of university readiness support from Year 10 through to Year 13.

Across the journey towards higher education, mentors work with the young people on our programmes to reduce or remove barriers to equality of opportunity, addressing risks across the OfS’s Equality of Opportunity Risk Register.

Through group workshops and one-to-one meetings, mentors provide tailored, expert information, advice, and guidance (Risk 2) to build student’s knowledge and skills (Risk 1), often changing their perception of higher education (Risk 3) and exposing them to a wider range of different courses and providers (Risk 5).

Ongoing academic support via tuition mitigates the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on attainment (Risk 9), contributing to high rates of application success (Risk 4).

Finally, campus visits facilitated by university partnerships are crucial in helping students to see that university is for them and learn about the variety of support available for students from under-resourced backgrounds.

After a recent trip this past February, a Year 10 student said:

I like that we go to top universities that really shape the way I see higher education and all the opportunities I have.

Over the years, our impact evaluation consistently shows that students on The Access Project programmes are 50% more likely to place at a top university than students from statistically similar backgrounds. Despite the tumult of the past few years, our programmes have continued to deliver results for our students and partner schools.

Listening to students and adapting

The mentee voice is critical to ensuring that mentoring works, and the importance of hearing directly from students from under-resourced backgrounds ought to be a priority across widening participation and higher education.

Empowering student voice can take a variety of forms, and as a member of the Fair Education Alliance, we have been fortunate at The Access Project to learn from organisations across the sector about how best to gather student views and empower them to shape our programmes.

Each year our annual student survey and focus groups gather feedback on our mentoring and ensure that it continues to work for students. For example, this year’s survey showed that though 94 per cent of students feel more positive about their future since joining The Access Project, the workshops and one-to-ones they received improved their independence and knowledge more so than their motivation, a finding that we will investigate as part of our internal evaluation.

Alongside mentor feedback, students have continually voiced the need for us to adapt our mentoring practice as their needs change. The education landscape is very different from 15 years ago and student and school needs have shifted.

So a key focus has been developing a more inclusive and adaptable mentoring practice to best serve a more diverse range of students across different regions. This has included providing mentors with expert training in Anti-Racist and Culturally Responsive mentoring as well as dedicated training to support students with special educational needs and disabilities.

It has also meant building in-house processes for regional adaptations which maintain monitoring and evaluation rigour whilst empowering in-school mentors to adapt materials to suit the local contexts that they know best.

Listening to our school and student partners about the other ways they require support alongside university readiness matters too. Increasingly, our students and school partners have voiced a desire for more support with skills and employability.

Skills for access

Developing essential, transferable skills is linked to positive academic and employment outcomes as well as improved social and emotional learning. As the University of Bath and Social Mobility Commission state in their 2019 report:

There is evidence of an association between soft skills and intergenerational social mobility.”

But just as an access gap exists in progression to higher education, an access gap exists in opportunities to develop transferable skills.

So we are piloting a new mentoring programme co-designed with students, schools, universities, and corporate partners that creatively supports students’ development of essential skills. Our aim is to support students in building these skills as they seek to progress from school to university and into future employment.

Drawing on the SkillsBuilder Partnership framework and research from the NFER, corporate volunteers will deliver a series of structured sessions to provide expert insight into the world of work, increasing students’ understanding of and confidence in communication, organisation, critical thinking and collaboration skills.

The future of mentoring

As the barriers to accessing educational opportunities persist, it is up to practitioners across the sector to find creative ways to remove those barriers and reduce the risk that they will prevent students from achieving their ambitions.

No single organisation can do this alone. As highlighted by John Blake at Impetus’ Third Sector Forum earlier this year, working in partnership is the best way to comprehensively support students.

The only way we can do this effectively is by listening directly to students about their experience. We know through expert mentoring that tailoring, adapting, and evolving support in widening participation with student input is key to supporting students to achieve their ambitions at school, university and beyond.

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