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‘Social mobility initiatives are targeting the wrong people: I would know — I was one of them’

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Legal Cheek’s Katie King explains why they must be more selective

Over the past ten years, the legal profession has pushed for better inclusion and representation, and it has pushed hard. Social mobility programmes are now targeting children as young as 12, providing education and experience to students they believe are in some way less able to go out and get it for themselves.

These programmes include the Citizenship Foundation, whose focus is running mock trials and conferences for school children to give them a flavour of life as a lawyer. I’ve attended some of these events and they are excellent.

There’s also Big Voice London, which helps young people feel empowered through legal education. The team runs fantastic interactive sessions on, for example, law reform and criminal law advocacy. Pathways to Law, by the Sutton Trust, does a similar thing, though its scheme is more of a commitment because it runs over two years.

I did the Pathways to Law programme with the London School of Economics when I was in sixth form, and it was one of the best things I ever did. I enjoyed it so much, I worked as a mentor for the scheme while I was in the second year of my LLB at the University of Bristol.

But the Pathways to Law programme’s big sell isn’t fun, it’s social mobility. The whole premise of these schemes is to give underprivileged aspiring lawyers the tools to make it to university and, later, the profession.

There has to be a filter in place here, some sort of definition of what it means to be somehow in need of help from social mobility programmes.

The words that get bandied around a fair bit are ‘underprivileged’ (Oxford English dictionary: “not enjoying the same standard of living or rights as the majority of people in a society”) and ‘disadvantaged’ (“in unfavourable circumstances, especially with regard to financial or social opportunities”). Though we could argue all day about what these words mean in practice, in my opinion the criteria adopted by the initiatives are just so far away from the OED definitions it’s running their credibility into the ground.

Citizenship Foundation and Big Voice London first. On the social mobility side of things, all you have to do to benefit from a place on these programmes is to be from a state school — that’s it.

So first of all a big congratulations to the 90% of the country who meet that criteria, and secondly how is it possible for someone to be from a “disadvantaged background” if they’re not even below average? They’re in exactly the same situation as the vast, vast majority of all other 11-18-year-olds in the country.

It’s also worth noting ‘state school’, for these purposes, includes ‘grammar school’ too. The winners of this year’s Bar Mock Trial competition, run by the Citizenship Foundation, were from a top grammar school in Plymouth whose website claims “the vast majority of our students go on to study at university”. Few would call these girls ‘disadvantaged’. When we got in touch with the Citizenship Foundation, Ruth Dwight, programme director, said:

Our well established and popular public legal education programmes… are primarily designed to increase young people’s legal capability — i.e. their ability to recognise when they have a legal problem and to be able to deal with it if and when they have. A clear secondary outcome of these initiatives is to build social mobility within the legal profession, as they reach a wide range of young people across the UK — many of whom have had little (particularly positive) previous experience of the law — although this is not the main aim of the Citizenship Foundation.

The Pathways to Law programme is more stringent in its entry criteria.

To apply, you must attend a state school plus be either in the first generation of your family to attend university or be eligible (or have been eligible) for free school meals.

The extra hoop applicants must jump through helps, but there were still people in my cohort swimming in legal work experience offers from their barrister uncles and legal executive cousins. There were others whose parents had enrolled at university, but dropped out because they received good job offers and were now, to put it bluntly, pretty rich. ‘Disadvantaged’ — I’m really not convinced.

As I’ve stressed above, the Pathways to Law programme was absolutely excellent, I completed the full two years and had a place to study law waiting for me at the end of it all. I can’t throw my toys out of the pram too much, but there are two big concerns I have regarding these social mobility initiatives and their entry criteria.

The first is the most obvious: for every rich kid from a top performing grammar school that gets a place on the scheme, someone, and possibly someone more *lots of quote marks* disadvantaged, doesn’t.

Because there’s often grade requirements for the scheme (at Pathways it’s a minimum of 5 As at GCSE), aspiring lawyers from underperforming schools may be bumped out in favour of strong candidates from good state schools who probably would’ve got into law school without the programme’s help anyway. It takes more work to find candidates truly deserving of a place on these schemes, but if the programmes want to fulfil their mantra — getting ACTUAL, REAL disadvantaged children into good universities to study law — the work must be done.

Binda Patel, head of programmes at the Sutton Trust, realises this. She told us:

For social mobility initiatives to really make a difference, it’s crucial they get to the young people who will benefit the most. To make sure we do that with Pathways to Law, we’ve developed a set of eligibility criteria that take a number of different factors into account. Aside from academic potential, we look at things like whether an applicant comes from a particularly deprived neighbourhood, or goes to a school where not many young people go on to higher education.

Secondly, has anyone ever considered the impact on 12-year-old kids from pretty well off families being constantly referred to as “under-privileged” and “disadvantaged”? They’re not nice words — having them drummed into you just before you head off to a posh university with a large public school population can make you feel like quite an outsider.

Telling people at university you’ve benefited from a diversity initiative often leads to raised eyebrows and questions. People think there’s something weird about you, or take a disliking to you because you’ve secured your university place on a lower, contextual offer. There is the expectation of a sob story. In my case, and I’m sure most people caught by ‘the social mobility initiative net’, there never was one.

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57 Comments

Alex Shattock

Good article. I applied to my uni after an Aimhigher (RIP) open day, but it was available to everyone in my school, including the wealthier kids. Though at least the scheme existed back then.

The main problem is, universities don’t get that they have a massive responsibility in this area. Back in the good old days (when social mobility was much higher), if you went to a rubbish school you’d get a lower uni offer: it was understood that an ABB student from Knifeshed Comprehensive probably had the same academic potential as an AAA from Eton. I am baffled as to why this is no longer obvious to everyone.

It also bothers me that a lot of people who went to a grammar school or had private education in their early years market themselves as ‘state-school educated’, as if that’s the same as being straight comprehensive. It really isn’t. I doubt many universities sifting through applicants make the distinction either.

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