Opening doors for students in the United Kingdom

Image credit: Social Mobility Foundation, 2020.

Over 4.3 million children and young people live in poverty in the United Kingdom (UK).1 And sadly, these figures are on the rise.

“Social disadvantage in the UK is a complex combination of lack of money, family background and geography,” says Sarah Atkinson, CEO of Social Mobility Foundation. “If you have a parent who is a lawyer or a doctor, you are 10-20 times more likely to be able to go into those professions. And people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are 10 times more likely to go to university if they live in affluent areas such as Kensington or West London than in more disadvantaged areas like Hastings of Bradford.”

But the Social Mobility Foundation (SMF) is here to change this. Since 2005, it has been providing high achieving 16–17 year-old students from low socio-economic backgrounds with opportunities and support networks that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Each year around 2,000 students across the country enrol in SMF’s Aspiring Professionals Programme (APP).


Taking an equitable approach

Social disadvantage in the UK means despite how smart, talented or hard working some young people are, their background limits their opportunities in life. And, as Atkinson says, it also means businesses and the economy miss out on top talent.

To overcome the barriers of social disadvantage, the APP focuses on the things that students don’t have equal access to, yet will have the biggest impact on their future.

Students get career advice and support, developing skills for the workplace, such as networking, being a female in a male dominated workplace and being professional at work. The program also helps students make informed choices about university and offers support with applications.

It matches students up with a volunteer professional mentor, as well as hands-on work experience in fields that they’re interested in, giving them the opportunity to understand career pathways.

“Those trusted adult relationships become really central to our young people. They are truly transformational for both the students and mentors,” Atkinson says. “These simple, yet effective elements of our program build our young people’s confidence and unlock their true potential.”


A partnership for growth

Such a truly transformative program would not be possible without the support of generous donors and corporate partners, says Atkinson. Macquarie Group Foundation has been supporting SMF since 2019

“Macquarie have been just been brilliant, both in funding and through mentoring our young people,” she says.

Over the last 10 years, SMF has gone from being exclusively London-based, to a national network with key hubs in seven cities, and Macquarie’s support in the expansion was critical.

“Birmingham is the UK’s second city, but offers limited opportunities for young people from low socio-economic backgrounds. And we couldn’t have grown there the way we have without Macquarie’s support. It has also given us a template to working with other funders to support city development. So indirectly it's helped us grow right across the UK.”

Macquarie’s flexibility through the pandemic was particularly important.

“We knew Macquarie was behind us every step of the way. It gave us the flexibility and confidence to think about what we needed to do for our young people now – and to move quite quickly with redesigning the programme,” Atkinson says.

Although the programme still runs online for now, momentum hasn’t slowed for the organisation, with a 10% increase in applications for the 2021 intake.

“We’re about giving our students the ability to make informed choices and to have agency. It's really important that we keep developing our programme not just so they get in to university, but so they get on and thrive in life.”

Find out more about the Social Mobility Foundation.


  1. National Education Union, Child Poverty – the facts, 3 May 2021