Supporting the supporters: how can we help teachers to provide high-quality information, advice and guidance to young people?

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Fionna McLauchlan, our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Manager, has been looking at data showing how important it is to support teachers so they can make sure young people get the guidance they need when looking at their options for post-18 choices.

We know from our work with schools that young people often turn to their teachers for information, advice and guidance (IAG) on post-18 pathways, and a recent Office for Students (2018) poll found that 68 per cent of prospective students had consulted or would consult their teachers for advice on what, and where, to study. This result was ahead of friends and peers (67 per cent) and websites (60 per cent).

But, as discussed in our roundtable with our friends at the Fair Education Alliance (FEA) on post-16 choices, teachers don’t always feel equipped to provide appropriate and up-to-date IAG to their students.

We wanted to dig a bit deeper into this issue, so we carried out some research with Teacher Tapp into how teachers feel about providing IAG to young people. The responses highlighted the imperative need to ensure that teachers feel adequately supported and trained on how to advise young people to make informed choices about post-18 pathways.

Provision of training in Higher Education (HE) information, advice and guidance

Out of the teachers surveyed, 89% had not received any training in providing Higher Education (HE) information, advice and guidance for students in the past year. This breaks down to 83% of senior leaders and 90% of classroom teachers when we look at levels of seniority. These are remarkably high figures considering the responsibility that teachers and schools have in supporting young people into post-18 pathways.

Our work with schools has shown how important it is to empower teachers to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information, advice and guidance as part of school careers and progression provision. Case studies from our Access Champions programme, where we train a lead teacher to make sustainable changes to their systems for progression to HE, demonstrate the positive impact training and support can have for teachers and schools. Access Champions was described as a “revelation” by one of our lead teachers in Bristol, and a lead teacher in Suffolk shared with us how the programme will “transform young people’s lives”.

Provision of high-quality information, advice and guidance in schools is particularly important for young people from groups historically under-represented in access to HE, as we know they are more likely to seek support from “hot” sources of information, like their teachers or their parents, rather than “cold” sources, such as information provided by websites and search engines.

Knowledge of post-18 pathways

The policy landscape for post-18 pathways can be tricky to navigate. There’s an overwhelmingly large amount of information available, with few resources on offer to collate it or understand it in the context of a young person.

We wanted to know how confident teachers felt in the provision of IAG on two key policy areas that are becoming increasingly more important for young people: contextual offers to specific Higher Education institutions and advanced and degree apprenticeships. 

Out of the teachers surveyed, 70% felt that they did not know how to support students applying for advanced and degree apprenticeships, and 50% felt that they did not know how to inform students about contextual offers to specific universities.

This highlights the current gap in knowledge that teachers have in post-18 pathways, and the inequalities that some young people may be experiencing in the quality of IAG that they receive.

It’s the quality, not quantity, of IAG, that needs to be prioritised in schools, as research suggests that disparities in school practices around progression could lead to unequal outcomes for young people. The answer too much choice is not more information, but high-quality information that’s tailored to young people’s needs.

How can we support teachers and schools to provide high-quality IAG?

We know that for many hardworking teachers, they lack the time and resources to provide the kind of IAG that they would want for their students. But, as key influencers for young people, it’s vital that we provide a way for schools to improve their provision of IAG without placing an excessive burden on teachers.

Our Access Champions programme supports senior leaders to make sustainable changes to their existing school systems for progression. With a set of indicators to diagnose problem areas and a development plan to drive changes, a lead teacher can adapt and improve current provision in a way that saves time and prioritises the changes that need to happen to achieve impact for their students.

We see CPD of this kind as a key intervention for social mobility in the UK. We need to look beyond providing interventions that only target young people by incorporating “support for the supporters”, i.e. helping the key people that influence and guide young people in the choices they make.

If we want all young people to have equal access and participation in Higher Education, then we need to ensure that all young people receive appropriate and relevant information, advice and guidance at school, and this starts with empowering teachers.


Research was carried out in December 2018 by Teacher Tapp, who surveyed 771 teachers from teachers in secondary schools with sixth forms. Results are and weighted to be respresentative of teachers in schools in England (including private schools) using population characteristics drawn from the School Workforce Census.

Expert mentoring increases offers to higher-tariff universities for POLAR quintile 1 students

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Our Monitoring, Evaluation and Research Coordinator Fionna McLauchlan has been looking at where students on our pilot mentoring programme ended up after their A-levels, and has some interesting insight on how expert mentors can improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In 2017 we started a pilot mentoring programme where expert mentors, our Progression Specialists, provided 1-to-1 support to students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes (areas with the lowest progression to Higher Education) across 12 schools in East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Mentees met with their mentors for up to five sessions to discuss and put into action their plans for what they want to do after school or college.

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Using data provided by UCAS STROBE, an evaluation of our first cohort of more than 150 mentees found that, when compared to a matched comparison group, 88% of our mentees who applied to higher-tariff universities got offers, compared to 74% from the comparison group, a finding which is statistically significant.

We’re delighted by these results, as we know the challenge to close the gap in entry rates to higher tariff institutions for students from low progression areas remains persistent.

To understand how we achieved these outcomes, we triangulated our STROBE results with qualitative data from feedback surveys and mentoring logs (the reports our Progression Specialists make after each mentoring session). This led us to four key insights into how expert mentoring can lead to increased offers to higher-tariff institutions for students from POLAR quintile 1 postcodes:

1. Expert mentors support students from low-progression areas to produce high-quality applications

We know from research carried out for our Academic Apprenticeship programme that students’ personal statements can lack the subject-focused content necessary for competitive courses and institutions.

Expert mentors provide the knowledge that students might be missing, helping them fully demonstrate their potential through high-quality, subject-focused applications.

He feels that he is struggling with his personal statement, and shared about half a page of text, which was rather unfocused and vague.  He was surprised that the personal statement needed to be so closely aligned to his chosen degree.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

2. Expert mentoring raises student expectations

The data also told us that our mentees were accepting fewer offers from lower-tariff universities than the comparison group: 40% compared with 54%, which is another statistically significant result.

Combined with evidence from our mentoring logs, we think this demonstrates that expert mentoring encourages students from low-progression areas to be ambitious with their university choices – to take the risk of applying for a selective institution alongside a realistic insurance choice.

She did very well in the end of Y12 exams, gaining AAA. In the light of these results and subsequent discussions with myself and her teaching staff, she has decided to apply for a university course based on animal science rather than veterinary nursing.
— Mentor based in Nottinghamshire.

3. Expert mentors can guide students to make pragmatic and realistic plans for the future

We spoke about him evaluating his academic and personal strengths and weaknesses, in order to focus on subject areas that might appeal to his strengths, and eliminate those that he would not consider or be comfortable studying.
— Mentor based in Derbyshire

As well as raising expectations, expert mentors help students pick courses that they are well-suited to, with admissions criteria that are ambitious but achievable.

We think that supporting students with their course choices is an important step in improving both university access and retention, particularly to higher-tariff institutions.

Students need to find courses and institutions where they’ll thrive, and our evaluation results suggest that expert mentoring is a successful intervention to support this.

4. Students value the mentee-mentor relationship

Our feedback overwhelmingly highlighted that students from low-progression areas value having a trusted and knowledgeable person to turn to for advice and guidance about their future. We think that this mentoring relationship is key to supporting students to be confident and ambitious with their plans for university.

My mentor was very friendly and easy to talk to, as well as being very relatable and knowledgeable, which led to her persuading me about university.
— Student based in Suffolk.  

Recent research by the OfS has shown that students are most likely to consult people that they’re close to, like parents or teachers, about progression. So, an expert mentor can play a key role here in building a rapport with a student to share knowledge and expertise about university access.  

Could expert mentoring be a key intervention for supporting disadvantaged students to access selective institutions?

Our evidence says yes!

We think that it’s a combination of these four aspects that has led to these promising results. Expert mentoring undoubtedly helps students produce excellent applications by imparting reliable information, advice and guidance through a friendly, trusted relationship.

It’s the relationship that’s key. By getting to know a student, a mentor can encourage them to be realistic but bold in their plans: facilitating discussions that they may previously not have had or providing the consistent encouragement that can start to chip away at ingrained beliefs about who university is for, and/or who gets to access it.

We’re encouraged by the evaluation of our pilot mentees and we look forward to seeing the results of our next cohort, whose outcomes we can evaluate in the autumn.


This information has been derived from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service STROBE analytical data service, and is used under license.