The power of role models on education pathways choice

Much of the recent focus in CEIAG has been on growing the evidence base (and so being able to bend the policy ear) of the benefit of employer interactions on pupil’s employment and earning outcomes. Meanwhile the other side of the CEIAG practitioner coin of inspiring pupils to transition onto successful future education pathways has been left to happen purely on its perceived value. This is often achieved through similar activities such as site visits, taster type activities, assemblies and visiting speakers so it is interesting to see the growing evidence base for what type of provision is most successful in this area as well. The Behaviour and Insights Team have now published two studies which boost the evidence base for two practices in encouraging young people to apply to high tariff Universities

  1. That letters of encouragement to Year 12s from older students from similar backgrounds increased applications and acceptances to Russell Group Universities

and a more recent publication that shows that talks and mentoring sessions from current students at high tariff Universities also encourage higher application and acceptances rates at high tariff institutions. Any CEIAG provision requiring role models is time and commitment intensive which is a step change from their previous work on arm’s length interventions.

That these types of provisions work isn’t going to be much of a surprise to a CEIAG practitioner, it’s bread and butter stuff, but I found the four-year study interesting because of the positive impact the talks and mentoring had on the applications from disadvantaged backgrounds and also the age of students with which the provision had the most impact. The study showed that the outcome impact on acceptances was much higher for students in the program who were studying at FE or Sixth Form Colleges than those in schools.

insights team1

The working paper speculates that this finding could be a result of

college environments, which typically contain more students, are less conducive to personal support for application to university and selective university in particular. Alternatively, it could be that the selection of students into these further education colleges is a relevant factor. Because colleges offer a wider variety of courses, it could be that students who select into these institutions are interested in pursuing less typical careers and may not be aware of the benefit or options for university in the absence of our intervention.

Which reminds the practitioner around the dangers of stereotyping. Leaving aside the type of educational institution the young person was attending, it’s interesting to see that in-depth provision such as offering role models can still have large impacts with this age group. Practitioners will know that by 16-18 young people can be blinkered in their belief of the possible future pathways that are suitable for them. By this age, their horizons have been defined by the family, school and societal pressures around them. As the working paper describes

the concept of ‘social norms’ can explain how, by seeking to emulate the attitudes and actions of those in their social group, students adopt the idea that academic education is ‘not for them’

and this is just one of the modifiers of future plans. The study also follows previous findings that information giving is not enough to alter student plans as

information-only interventions have proven ineffective at encouraging college application behaviour. This is convincingly demonstrated by a randomised controlled trial in which over 1 million US students were targeted with emails and letters about the financial support available to college applicants. Despite the scale of this trial, it was found to have no discernible impact on college enrollment

This may lead practitioners to speculate that horizon broadening should occur at an earlier age but by KS5, more intensive interventions are needed.

I also found the study interesting as it adds to other psychological studies which show that once formed, a person’s impression of a situation can be remarkably perseverant, even when irrefutable facts or evidence is then produced which disproves the individuals stated belief. The reasons for this psychological trait and the many concerning consequences of it are covered in this fascinating New Yorker piece, “Why Don’t Facts Change Our Minds.”

The theory of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that irrational beliefs persist because reason evolved due to our need to live in collaborative groups

Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective

This roadmap in our minds left over from evolution leads to confirmation bias (or in Mercier’s and Sperber’s terms “myside” bias) which is all to the benefit of winning arguments

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

One can easily imagine this effect leading to the “social norms” constraints mentioned in the Behaviour Insight’s paper limiting young people’s percieved realistic choices. Wishing to retain standing within their social group and not stand out results in young people building their own beliefs and arguments for not pursuing less trodden routes no matter the weight of evidence provided to them that those less traveled paths could be more beneficial to them.

That this and previous studies on mentoring interventions can overcome these inherent traits is very interesting. Introducing role models into a young persons social sphere injects new views and so shifts the framing of acceptable/not acceptable choices and how they are perceived. It alters the height of the parapet of which the young person is comfortable sticking their head above.

When dealing with perhaps even more ingrained beliefs, it is why mentoring is so central to the Prevent Strategy and the work to reintegrate those with extremist views.

I would suggest that the practical outcomes from these studies and the associated cognitive science for the CEIAG practitioner thinking about pathways provision would be:

  1. Information signposting is not enough to impact choices
  2. Provision that does (role models, mentoring) is in-depth
  3. Never stereotype your pathway focus for different groups
  4. Hold onto the contact details of successful and varied alumni so that they can become the role models and repeat the cycle






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