Jessica Woodsford and Rose Sellman-Leava
Despite progress being made across the sector to close the gaps in equality of opportunity in accessing higher education (HE), stark inequalities remain for underrepresented groups across the student lifecycle. For many, the impact of Covid-19 has further increased these gaps, heightening inequality for thousands of students in the UK.
Students who received free school meals while at secondary school are half as likely to enter HE as those who did not (UCAS, 2019), and young people who live in an area with the lowest rates of participation in HE are nearly six times less likely to go to a high-tariff university than those from areas with the highest (OfS, 2022). Research has shown that students of colour who apply to highly selective universities are less likely to be offered a place than a white British peer with comparable qualifications (Arday, 2022)
Once these students access higher education the inequalities continue. Students from underrepresented groups are:
- more likely to withdraw from their course
- at greater risk of suffering from poor mental health
- less likely to achieve a good degree outcome
- less likely to secure graduate level employment after completing their course (TASO, 2022)
Using the lens of ‘possible selves’ to explore access to higher education
As a sector we have looked to close these gaps through various means, recognising the structural inequalities inherent in our education system. Many of these efforts have been focused on aspiration-raising. However, bodies of research, such as Baker et al. (Baker, 2014) found that both disadvantaged and advantaged students generally had high levels of aspiration. The difference came in how achievable such aspirations felt to the individual.
In his 2018 piece Harrison sets out how the theory of ‘possible selves’ can be used to address fair access and participation in HE (Harrison, 2018). The theory of possible selves (Markus, 1986), suggests we all envisage a range of possible identities for ourselves, framed by factors both within and beyond our control. The concept of possible selves refers to our current perceptions about who we might be in the future and where our lives might lead. Harrison highlights that as the range of possible selves we have are shaped in part by our sociocultural context, individuals from underrepresented backgrounds will have a narrower view of what is possible for them in the future compared to their more advantaged counterparts.
But the work does not stop there. The possible selves we hold are important drivers of motivation and action, but only when they are well-elaborated can individuals visualise them and understand the roadmap that will lead to achieving them. How well elaborated your possible selves are will depend on how strongly you can visualise them, the frequency with which you do it, the validation you receive from those around you (from teachers, parents, friends), the role models you see, and your own experiences (Barg, 2020)
Coaching as a tool to drive change
The Association for Coaching defines coaching as a facilitated, dialogic and reflective learning process that aims to develop an individual’s awareness, responsibility and choices (thinking and behavioural). Coaching is non-directive, meaning the emphasis is on helping individuals identify their own resources and find their own answers and solutions.
As an intervention, coaching supports students to develop ‘well-elaborated’ future possible selves that they feel connected to. The non-directive element of coaching means that the coachee is the agent of change. Seeing the progress made across a series of coaching sessions increases self-efficacy and confidence: with each step forward a coachee’s connection to their future possible self becomes stronger and more achievable, which in turn increases motivation.
The impact of coaching
TASO and the Education Policy Institute have highlighted that coaching interventions have been proven to be successful in increasing confidence, self-efficacy and achieving higher rates of HE engagement . Since 2020, we have been working with university Access and Participation teams and the students they support. Our partners include a number of Uni Connects across the South of the country and a number of universities all over the UK.
Our Future Focus coaching programme uses a combination of approaches informed by coaching, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Transactional analysis to give students an opportunity to explore and connect with the futures they want based on their core values and strengths. We use coaching to help students identify and connect with their future possible selves and to devise a roadmap on how to reach this future. The data and impact we’re seeing from our first two years of coaching these students is really exciting.
In our first 2 years our coachees have reported:
- 54% increase in their connection with their future possible self
- 41% increase in their internal locus of control (feeling they are in control of what happens to them)
- 45% increase in their levels of resilience
- 36% increase in levels of self-efficacy
- 46% increase in motivation.
The skills that are learned and improved from coaching interventions form a crucial part of attainment raising for students: now at the forefront of the Office for Students’ (OfS) and UniConnect’s agenda.
If a student is connected to their future and feels in control of what happens to them, then they will be more likely to have higher expectations of themself and feel more motivated to succeed academically. Research from Public Health England (PHE, 2014) demonstrates the links between improved resilience, better mental health and academic success. Ofsted state that “children’s wellbeing and happiness in school underpin their attainment and achievement” (Bryant, 2014) And Vecchione et al (Vecchione, 2014) demonstrate that “academic motivation […] is a meaningful predictor of a variety of key educational outcomes, including student’s engagement, behavior and achievement.” We know that by supporting a student to build these skills, we are supporting them to increase their attainment. However, we believe that providing a holistic approach to attainment-raising is the key to the highest levels of success for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Arday, B. a. B., 2022. What do we know about black and minority ethnic (BAME) participation in UK higher education?. Social Policy and Society, 21(1), pp. 12-25.
Baker, W. S. P. S.-B. I. S. K. M. E. a. T. B., 2014. Aspirations, education and inequality in England: insights from the Effective Provision of Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), pp. 525-542.
Barg, K. B.-C. S. M.-Z. A., 2020. Investigating the Imagination of Possible and ‘Like-to-Avoid’ Selves among Higher Education Students from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds at a Selective English University. Social Sciences, 9(67).
Bryant, G., 2014. Evaluation article: Working with Wellbeing. [Online]
Available at: https://www.senmagonline.co.uk/index.php/component/k2/item/151326-evaluation-article-working-with-wellbeing
[Accessed 13 June 2022].
Harrison, N., 2018. Using the lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to explore access to higher education: a new conceptual model for practice, policy and research. Social Scienced MDPI, 7(10), pp. 1-21.
Markus, H. a. N. P., 1986. Possible Selves. American Psychologist , Volume 41, pp. 954-969.
OfS, 2022. Gap in participation at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups. [Online]
Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/participation-performance-measures/
[Accessed 13 June 2022].
PHE, 2014. Local action on health inequalities: Building children and young people’s resilience in schools, London: Public Health England.
TASO, 2022. What works to tackle mental health inequalities in higher education?, London: Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education.
UCAS, 2019. Equality and entry rates data explorers. [Online]
Available at: (https://www.ucas.com/data-andanalysis/ucas-undergraduate-releases/ucasundergraduate-analysis-reports/equalityand-entry-rates-data-explorers)
[Accessed January 2019].
Vecchione, M. A. G. M., 2014. Academic motivation predicts educational attainment: Does gender make a difference?. Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 32, pp. 124-131.