How online mentoring can break down boundaries to widening participation

Defining so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups is complex. In some cases it can mean living in isolated rural and coastal areas. For other young people, the barriers to success might not be geographical but cultural. White males from disadvantaged backgrounds may, for example, have little experience of higher education in their families or immediate communities. Other students may have a specific condition such as autism, or a disability.

These groups come from different circumstances, and often include the students who most need support. But in all cases it’s hard to engage them through traditional outreach work, in their local area, and in a school environment.

This is where the internet can make a difference. It can help to reach these students in a space free from physical limitations. Many young people are also ‘digital natives’. They find it more comfortable to interact in this way.

Brightside, a mentoring charity, has been providing online mentoring services since 2003. We currently work with 11,000 young people every year. We link students from disadvantaged backgrounds with volunteer mentors. Mentors might be undergraduates or people working in the professions, who can answer the students’ questions about education and career pathways.

Reaching ‘cold spots’

HEFCE’s analysis shows that schools in certain deprived or isolated areas of Hampshire, Kent and the Isle of Wight have few links to higher education. These ‘cold spots’ make life difficult for students to aspire and for universities to reach out.

So Brightside has brought its services to bear by partnering with the HEFCE-funded network for collaborative outreach, Access for Rural and Coastal Communities (ARCC), the Kent and Medway Progression Federation, the Sussex Learning Network, and the University of Portsmouth.

ARCC helps young people to get advice from inspiring role models they might otherwise never encounter. The programme is split into two strands, one for Year 9/10 and one for Year 12/13.

In the first, pupils work in teams to develop resources on post-16 options. They communicate with their mentor through Brightside’s secure website, who supports them to develop planning, team working, communications and leadership skills.

In the second, students choose an individual mentor. This is either an undergraduate or someone working in an industry they are interested in. The mentor provides insights into higher education or the world of work, and hints and tips about putting together a CV or applying to university.

In the evaluation of the first cohorts, 71 per cent of Year 9/10 and 86 per cent of Year 12/13 students said they now felt more confident about achieving their goals. And 77 per cent and 93 per cent respectively said they now feel more motivated to explore their future options. Of the Year 9/10 pupils, 45 per cent said they were more confident that they would achieve good GCSEs after mentoring.

Autistic students and disadvantaged white boys

At the other end of England, young people in Greater Manchester have a relatively large number of universities on their doorstep. Even so, certain groups are still sorely under-represented or struggle to access them.

Greater Manchester Higher use online mentoring to support students with autism, by pairing them with a mentor who has experience in this area.

In another project, white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are matched with mentors. The mentors then introduce them to the idea of university, and encourage them to consider it as an option for their future.

The needs of these two groups are clearly very different. But both benefit from access to the personalised support of one-to-one mentoring.

What works and why

Evaluations of both pilots are still in their early stages, but the evidence of their impact is already valuable. This is particularly the case for white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Recent research suggests they have been largely overlooked as a distinct group in widening participation practice. So the same body of evidence, or range of tried-and-tested interventions, does not exist for them as it does for BME or disabled students.

Knowing what works is crucial. It’s not tenable to waste the time of young people on programmes which are making no difference. Brightside is focused on making a measurable difference to the life chances of the young people we support. Across our programmes, we have identified a set of behavioural outcomes, such as the self-efficacy, growth mindset and coping skills needed for young people to make confident and informed decisions about higher education.

In order to measure these outcomes, we have adopted scales and questions developed by external organisations and academics, such as the Phillips Springer self-efficacy scale. We are also measuring the human and social capital young people need to successfully transition into higher education and work.

Over the next few months, these scales will be introduced across all of our projects. Many of our university partners have adopted them for their own programmes. This means our data is academically robust, but also that we can compare any programme which uses the same scale.

In this way, based on the lessons learned by ourselves and others, we hope to paint a more detailed picture of what works and why.