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Can we level the social sciences playing field? Reflections from CLS’s first-ever summer school

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 October 2023

Blurred figures of football players in red and yellow kit on a sunny green sports field.

Credit: Annanahabed / Adobe.

Charis Bridger Staatz.

The year 2023 marked many things: the coronation of the UK’s new King, the coinage of the term “Barbenheimer”, and, perhaps most importantly, the inaugural Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) Year 12 Summer School ‘Harnessing the power of longitudinal research for policy impact’.

Our motivations behind the summer school were twofold: to contribute to widening participation efforts in general across the higher education sector, and to support greater diversity in the social science researcher pipeline. Our experience showed the real potential of programmes that give under-represented school students the opportunity to work directly with university departments on scholarly research, especially when that is over an extended period. Such programmes can make a distinct contribution to showcasing that university is a realistic, and hopefully desirable place for young people to be. They can also be incredibly rewarding for the academics who lead them.

The challenge – diversifying the field of social research

Students without a family history of higher education are less likely to apply to and be accepted onto an undergraduate course compared to peers whose parents were university educated. This, in turn, feeds through into academia. As the Bridge Group notes, in the UK, while working class students make up 30% of undergraduate students, only 10% of academics identify as being from such a background. These stubborn gaps make the case for expanded efforts to widen access – to both university and, from there, potentially into research careers. There is a particular need to target students who may not have had the same opportunities to engage with, in this case, the social sciences, or who may not have considered the opportunities provided by a career in academia or research.

Our summer school

Over the course of seven weeks, our summer school students engaged in an extended project to create an infographic based on CLS’s research and presented their findings to the CLS team, all with the aim of learning new skills in digesting, interpreting and communicating social science research. They also visited the UK Parliament to learn how academic research is used in parliamentary debate and scrutiny. Together, this immersed students in the whole research cycle, from data analysis to influencing policy.

The world-renowned CLS datasets, comprising a number of longitudinal cohort studies tracking individuals from ‘cradle to grave’, provided the students with a rich resource through which to delve into themes ranging from health to social inequalities and families. Among the topics the students chose to look at were understanding how only children fare compared to children with siblings and how mental health differs across sexual orientation and ethnicity, as well as the very topic of who ‘First in Family’ (to attend university) young people are and the barriers they face. In presenting their  findings, the students brought their research to life by reflecting on the connections with their own life experiences. This included the role of cultural differences in families and parenting styles and how this relates to adolescent mental health, through to the lack of financial guidance available for ‘First in Family’ students.

During the trip to Parliament, we workshopped how to advocate our research to policy makers, met a member of Sir Keir Starmer’s office and observed a debate in the House of Lords. We also met Baron Kennedy of Southwark, who grew up on a council estate and rose through the ranks of politics to be appointed a Lord by Gordon Brown in 2010. The Q&A with Lord Kennedy was particularly eye opening, especially when the students discovered that he himself had not attended university.

Putting individual biographies into context

Yet, although Lord Kennedy’s life story was certainly incredibly inspiring, from social science research we know that he is among a minority of people who achieve such levels of upward social mobility without attending university. Research from the Sutton Trust highlights this fact, showing that low-income students are four times more likely to become socially mobile if they graduate from university compared to low-income students who do not.

As part of the summer school, we also collaborated with IOE colleagues involved in one of the newest longitudinal cohort studies, the COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) study that began during the pandemic. Our students participated in a focus group, sharing their own experiences of schooling during the pandemic and the impact this has had on their motivations and decisions for their academic futures. Unsurprisingly, the experiences of this small sample were reflected in the broader COSMO data. From these data we know that young people’s aspirations have changed because of the pandemic, with almost two-thirds of students changing their plans for the future in some way. In particular, it is females, disadvantaged students, and those from state comprehensive schools who are most likely to  have experienced greater uncertainty about their future. This adds fresh impetus to widening participation efforts such as our summer school.

It was a privilege to work with our summer school students, who grasped complex topics and brought out the human experience of social science research that is often reduced to numbers and figures. We hoped that the summer school would both teach these students social science research skills and encourage them to set their sights high. What we didn’t anticipate is how much they would teach us about our own data, research and the lived experience behind it.

The students reflected on the new skills they learned in a series of blog posts, which you can read on the UCL CLS website.

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