Moving from one place to another is always stressful – whether that’s a new house, a new town, a new job, or a new educational institution. When we arrive in a new environment, especially one where we don’t know anyone, we cast around looking for clues about how to behave – our social instinct to adhere to norms of behaviour and blend-in goes into overdrive as we’re unmoored from what we knew before.
This challenge is faced by all sixth-form colleges – institutions that offer the last two years of schooling in the UK, who draw particularly from academically able, but less affluent students. Sixth forms offer a new environment, where cues about social identity – like the need to wear school uniform – are shed in favour of a more mature, collegiate atmosphere, and where students accustomed to being the oldest and most assured at their old schools find themselves the youngest.
In this kind of environment, and especially with the greater autonomy – like free periods – afforded to these young adults, it’s not surprising that students are quite likely to drop out within the first term, and that class attendance could be higher.
For the last six months, we’ve been working with the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), and with 29 colleges to put two of our ventures – Promptable and Networky – to the test in helping to overcome some of these challenges. We’ll have the Promptable results later in 2019, but the results from our Networky trial are in.
Unlike previous outings with Networky, we tested two different versions of the platform – peer buddying, where young people scheduled to start at a sixth form are buddied with someone else starting on the same day – and mentor buddying – where their buddy is someone already at the college, who knows the ropes, and can help the student acclimatise and build social capital both before and during their first term. We thought it was worth testing these variants, but if we’re honest, we were banking on peer mentoring being our winner, based on the existing research literature – so the findings came as a surprise.
Looking at the initial decision to enroll, we find no effects of either intervention – which seems to be to have to do with the short time between people being buddied and their first day of college. Interestingly, we found that peer buddying was also ineffective in the longer term, but that the mentor buddying had significant impacts – increasing attendance by about 3 percentage points, and reducing the first term dropout by 30%.
We’re going to be conducting further analysis in the next few months as more data comes in, but these results are exciting enough that we’re beginning work on the next year of the programme. We think there’s more to be done to make mentoring even more effective.