Should degree certificates still be the ticket to opportunity?

Mar 22, 2023 | Diversity

Direct Line Group has adapted its school outreach programme to be more inclusive, explains emerging careers lead, Steph Bishop.

What if everyone had equal access to opportunity? Sadly, they don’t.

Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that fewer than half of children from disadvantaged backgrounds reached expected levels of attainment at the end of primary school, compared with nearly 70% of their better-off peers. For those leaving school with poor GCSEs, there is no clear path to opportunity leaving millions disadvantaged throughout their lifetime. And pupils eligible for free school meals are 27% less likely to achieve good GCSEs than their less disadvantaged peers.

In addition, government figures showed just 29% of free school meal students attend university, compared to 59% of the most advantaged. ONS reported at age 25, only 23% of free school meal recipients who attended school in England had recorded earnings above the annualised full-time equivalent of the Living Wage in comparison with 43.5% of those who did not.

It’s clear that social status really does limit opportunity. If you layer on other potential disadvantaging factors such as disability and neurodiversity this only compounds the issue.

Yes, things have moved on significantly over the past few years in an effort to improve social mobility, such as employers removing barriers in the recruitment process, placing less emphasis on academic achievement and more on behaviour and potential, and many amazing programmes that provide support to the people who have been left behind. But could we do more?

At Direct Line Group we believe yes.

Outreach programme for students eligible for free school meals

Last year we launched an outreach programme and have had over 2,000 engagements with Year 12 and 13 students who were in receipt of free school meals, giving them access to mentoring, insight events and work experience.

We’re a data driven business so obviously we crunched the numbers on those attending and found that the students really felt they got something from their experiences – 74% felt more confident to apply for work and 83% more able to ask someone for a connection to build their professional network.

But, what we also found is that the students we were engaging with were not the ones who needed the most support, some already had multiple employer engagements and some were even running little businesses alongside their studies.

Adapted for 2023

For 2023 we’ve adapted our approach to make sure that not only are we supporting young people who are on free school meals, but we are also going to be ruthlessly focussed on those who are facing the more complex barriers to employment.

This population is less likely to reach university and we want to ensure that our doors are open to them when they enter the job market, especially as those who’ve had the longest and most challenging journeys often have the most to offer.

To address some of the challenges for these young people, we changed our approach to graduate programmes and removed a degree certificate as the ticket to entry unless essential.

Our new programmes are now fully inclusive and open to anyone who has the right values, behaviours, drive and aptitude to develop the skills we need both now and for the future. This approach also broadens our talent pools and increases our diversity.

In addition to this, once they join us, we are looking at how students can benefit from joining one of our Ignite Programmes, where colleagues have an opportunity to learn and develop critical future skills which can further enable career progression. We believe that our colleagues are more likely to stay with us if given the right support and opportunity to grow.

My final thought is this; only by meeting the challenge of doing things differently can we support social mobility for those with the fewest opportunities. It’s worthwhile as it opens up the talent pipeline increasing diversity within the organisation, which is good for people but is great for business too!          


You may also be interested in…

Why the UK is still socially immobile and what to do about it

Three steps to driving genuine diversity

5 tips for impactful careers education in schools and colleges


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