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More evidence on the power of role models

31st Jul 2017

We have written here before about the power of inspirational role models to change young people’s beliefs and behaviours when it comes to their education. We, and others, have repeatedly found that having a positive, relatable role model can have substantial impacts on young people’s interest in applying to university, and is particularly effective at encouraging those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to aim high.

We now have an additional piece of evidence to add to this growing body of literature. We have recently completed a four year study, working with Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol and Lindsey Macmillan and Catherine Dilnot at the Institute of Education at UCL, testing the impact of an inspirational talk from a role model who was a current student at Bristol. In terms of the size of the study, this is on a larger scale than our related work with the Somerset Challenge.

Over the course of the three years of the intervention, students from Bristol University went out to give a talk to pupils in local schools and college. In keeping with our previous research, we find a significant increase in the rate of young people applying for and subsequently accepting offers from a selective, Russell Group University (see the figure below). We find positive, but not statistically significant, impacts on applications and acceptances to university in general. This study has relatively low statistical power, and so the precise size of the effects is not clear.

Figure 1: Inspirational talks led to a statistically significant increase in young people accepting offers from Russell Group universities

What this study enables us to do which our previous research did not, is to look at the extent to which the effect varies between pupils in schools and pupils in colleges. As can be seen from the figures below, we find that further education and specialist sixth form colleges experience a much larger increase in our outcome measures per school-year than regular secondary schools (although both effects are positive).

Figures 2 & 3: The impact on Russell Group acceptances was bigger for students at further education and sixth form colleges (left) than those in schools (right)


Drawing on this research and our prior findings, we are excited to continue to explore the ways in which role models can help to increase access to higher education for young people.

Download working paper (PDF)


Michael Sanders

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Eliza Selley