Social Mobility Summit 2021

6th July 2021

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"Let’s see this as a moment when we can do big, bold, ambitious things that would change social mobility, not just incrementally, but in a really dramatic way,” said Sir Michael Barber at Wadham’s 2021 Social Mobility Summit. 

Play Social Mobility Summit audience

“Wadham can be a catalyst for other parts of Oxford and indeed, for the university sector as a whole,” he commented, speaking in conversation with Sandra Wallace (Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and Managing Director of law firm DLA Piper), and Dr Sally McGrath (Key Stage 5 Science Coordinator, Head of Psychology, Oxbridge/Medicine/Dentistry and Raising Aspirations Co-ordinator, Biddenham School in Wadham’s link region).

Addressing the subject, ‘Promise from the pandemic - inspiring access and educational reform after Covid,’  the panellists agreed that this time of upheaval was potentially advantageous to schools, universities and employers wishing to address issues of social mobility.

Sir Michael Barber, a global authority on education reform, began by paying tribute to Wadham’s access work. ”Wadham is genuinely leading not just in Oxford but across the university sector.” Talking about Wadham’s new purpose built access centre he said: “The building is an exciting and visual representation of a huge commitment to social mobility.”

“What I like about the Wadham work is the degree of ambition, the boldness of it…when I think about the pandemic and its impact on schools and universities, we have to have that sense of doing something visionary. Let’s see this as a moment when we can do big, bold, ambitious things that would change social mobility, not just incrementally, but in a really dramatic way.”

Out of a very negative situation [there is] lots of opportunity to have outreach like we’ve never had it before.

Sandra Wallace, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission

I would like to see the whole university sector acting with the same ambition he said, arguing that the university needs to go and find the students, unlock aspiration and potential and open up the possibilities to young people who would not have considered higher education. Enabling and empowering them through funding, social health, wellbeing and academic support are essential to helping these students to flourish he added. He also highlighted the importance of the lifelong relationship with these students, helping them to become supporters to further access programmes.

Dr Sally McGrath outlined the huge impact that the pandemic has had on schools in terms of practicalities – designing one-way systems, setting up online learning, teaching students who are isolating, enhanced cleaning, adapting lessons to students working remotely, difficulties with laptops and Wi-Fi… “Each cohort has been affected so differently,” she said, charting the results fiasco last year which impacted last year’s year 13s; the teacher assessed grades for this year’s group, giving teachers a much heavier workload; the impact of deferred university places on 2021 school leavers; the impact of missed chunks of curriculum resulting from lockdowns; uncertainly about the future of the ‘centre assessed’ grading system; uncertainty over catch-up provision from the government. On top of that, “outside of the academic sphere [school students] have missed out on social contact, development, trips, work experience and all sorts,” she added.

“Employers in the pandemic switched very quickly to digital” said Sandra Wallace adding that the move highlighted disparities in workforces, with those who didn’t have the space to work or good access to digital, needing additional support. However, the move to digital has shown employers that they can access whole swathes of people in different places who could work remotely for them.  If the universities are in those places and doing the outreach, then employers should be linking up with them,” she said. “Together we can take that journey from school, to university, to the workplace” she said. “It’s a turning point for employers and their relationship with universities. Out of a very negative situation [there is] lots of opportunity to have outreach like we’ve never had it before.”

At the start of the summit, Wadham’s Warden, Ken Macdonald QC announced the launch of a substantial social mobility programme to support school and college students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds aspiring to study law and join the legal profession. The programme is a partnership between Wadham and global law firm Linklaters. 

With thanks to all our panellists and contributors and to Nik Miller (Chief Executive at the Bridge Group) who chaired the discussion and to Wadham alumni, whose support makes Wadham’s outreach and access programmes possible.

  • Clockwise from top left Nik Miller, Sir Michael Barber, Sandra Wallace and Dr Sally McGrath

    Clockwise from top left Nik Miller, Sir Michael Barber, Sandra Wallace and Dr Sally McGrath