From education to employment

Marcus Rashford’s food poverty campaign must inspire us to tackle education inequality

Rae Tooth is CEO of Villiers Park Educational Trust

Why #EndChildFoodPoverty should be a wake up call for everyone in education 

It’s both inspiring and profoundly depressing that a 22-year-old footballer has done more to raise public awareness of poverty than a generation of politicians has managed in living memory.

Step forward Marcus Rashford, whose campaign to ensure that pupils entitled to free school meals are fed outside of term time may have been flatly ignored by government, but has spurred the nation to collective action.

If the prospect of Lockdown 2.0 has left your spirits in need of lifting, a scroll down the Twitter feed of the Manchester United star will throw up countless examples of individuals, institutions and organisations dipping their hands into their pockets to help those less fortunate than themselves.

To date, over 7 million meals have been handed out.

For me, eight-year-old Stanley’s efforts in collecting food and toys for his less fortunate peers takes some beating.

But as heartening as it is that the country has stepped up to help those in need during this time of crisis, this campaign starkly illustrates the inequalities that exist – and, indeed, are growing – in the UK. And this isn’t all down to COVID-19: these fractures in our society have existed for decades. But the current economic crisis caused by the pandemic threatens to see them expand and, at worst, leave millions of young people playing catch up for the rest of their lives.

Back in June, the Education Endowment Foundation warned that school closures during lockdown were likely to have to reversed all progress made in closing the attainment gap since 2011. And while schools may not be closing during the November lockdown, the restrictions put in place across society will still have a profound impact on young people, both directly and indirectly – and especially on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Villiers Park: Making a difference

Inequalities driven by poverty manifest themselves in many ways, not least in health, career and academic outcomes. And it is in the field of education that we at Villiers Park Educational Trust are working to make a difference.

Let’s be frank: there’s a lot of work to be done. Social mobility has stagnated since 2014. Where you end up in life is still far too dependent on the socio-economic circumstances in which you were brought up.

The Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation 2018-19 report threw up some troubling statistics:

  • By age 19, only 26% of students from low income families progress to university, compared to 43% of their better-off peers.
  • Only 5% of disadvantaged students enter the most selective universities, compared to the national average of 12%.
  • Almost 9% of students from less advantaged areas drop out of university, compared to an overall drop-out rate of 6%.

The issue of educational access is something that Villiers Park is well versed in. In one form or another, we’ve been working on opening up higher education to disadvantaged young people for decades through a range of face-to-face and residential programmes.

We have a rich bank of evidence demonstrating that what we do has a significant positive impact on the educational attainment and life chances of the 2,000 young people aged 14-19 who we support across the country each year.

But we cannot escape the fact that the world has changed this year. The digital divide is one issue which has certainly come to the fore, and this is something we are determined to address. This month we launch Future Leaders, the first programme of its kind.

Gone is our focus on traditional widening participation activity delivered through in-person programmes. Instead, our mission is to help the young people we work with become a leader in their chosen field, whatever that is and however they want to get there, whether that be further education, an apprenticeship or university. And while we will eventually return to offering face-to-face coaching and residentials when we can safely do so, our offer has been designed to be delivered online for the foreseeable future in order to maximise its impact in the months ahead.

Future Leaders

Future Leaders is rooted in the ‘possible selves’ psychological theory – the idea that young people can only aim for the ambitions that they are able to imagine. The more realistic that a future seems and the more a young person understands the different pathways to get there, the stronger its influence becomes on their motivation to achieve it. 

Future Leaders acknowledges that young people already have aspirations. It aims to support them in developing self-efficacy and agency in their own futures and equip them with the skills, experiences and motivation they need to become leaders in their chosen field.

The Future Leaders coaching model draws on the latest evidence-informed approaches to working with young people. Supported by trained and experienced coaches, Future Leaders will explore their values and purpose to understand what is most important to them and what they want to achieve. It will help them assume responsibility for their own outcomes and develop their own solutions to the challenges they face.

I am extremely excited about the ground-breaking new programme we have developed, which is designed to instil young people with the curiosity, creativity and tenacity they need to succeed in life. But while I know that we can change the lives of many more students, we can only be part of the solution. Poverty-based inequality in our society is rife.

An individual’s experience of education varies enormously depending on where they grow up and the school they attend. If the government is to genuinely address its stated goal of “levelling up” the country, education has to be the starting point.

Marcus Rashford has done a stunning job of bringing the issues of poverty and inequality to the fore. It is up to each and every one of us working in education to ensure that, while we steel ourselves for the challenging weeks ahead, this message does not get forgotten.

Rae Tooth is CEO of Villiers Park Educational Trust

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