The first in person meeting of the Sutton Trust COSMO Youth Panel

By Erica Holt-White on April 19th, 2023.

The Sutton Trust research team shares their experiences of engaging with the Sutton Trust COSMO Youth Panel.

The Sutton Trust’s research team has produced hundreds of research pieces over the years, with many stark statistics demonstrating the inequalities young people from the least advantaged backgrounds face in education and access to the workplace.  

But those statistics don’t tell the whole story. We often wonder – what are the individual stories behind the data?  

The Sutton Trust is a unique organisation, bringing together research work with programmes working directly with young people. Young people have influenced our work for years, from surveys of our programme students, through to work with our alumni. We’re now looking to do even more to bring young people’s voices and individual experiences into our research, including workshops with young people to explore their experiences in greater detail. This blog outlines our experience of running this type of activity for the first time.  

Our panel 

Alongside our work on the COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities (COSMO) Study, the Sutton Trust has recruited a panel of young people who are the same age as COSMO Study participants. The Sutton Trust COSMO Youth Panel, while separate from the study itself, gives us the opportunity to hear more detailed lived experiences from young people. All members of the panel are applicants to Sutton Trust programmes, who have faced disadvantages and barriers of various kinds.  

So far, the panel have written blogs on their experiences, and had the opportunity to have their experiences shared in the media, alongside COSMO research reports. It has been incredibly valuable to be able to gather a wealth of insights in this way.  

But since the panel’s inception, we have been keen to bring the panellists together to share their stories – which is what we did in the Youth Panel workshop.  

First impressions 

We met members of the panel, in person, for the first time in London in March. For us as a research team, who have worked on the impact of the pandemic for several years, it felt inspiring to actually speak to students about their experiences of the crisis directly. The panellists seemed to love meeting students from across England that had experienced similar situations to themselves.  

We included a range of activities in the day to keep the students engaged, from writing and drawing thoughts on post-its to an online quiz, we gathered a lot of information and the panel were not afraid to be honest with what they told us.  

Most of the day was spent in small groups where students felt more comfortable sharing personal experiences, firstly focusing on the pandemic’s impact on education, wellbeing and plans for after year 11. This was a useful chance to dig into findings from the COSMO Study’s first wave. For instance, 64% of COSMO participant’s education plans had changed due to the pandemic.  

After speaking to our panel, we now have some more clues on why this may be. Several students said their GCSE grades were not enough to get on their first choice A level courses, whilst others said they had more time to reflect on their A level choices so changed their minds, often to match a new career path they had chosen or based on subjects they had missed the least content for. Another student said they were unhappy with their school’s support during the pandemic so decided to choose a different sixth form– it was clear a variety of factors were at play for students.   

We also spoke to students about their plans after year 13 and current concerns for them, with a focus on the cost of living crisis. Many panellists were worried about how they would afford their studies after school. One student mentioned ‘survivalism’; right now, a lot of families are just about getting by, but cannot afford to do anything on top of daily activities. They felt they were missing out on enrichment activities to develop life skills; even driving.  

Making changes 

To end the day, students imagined they were going to interview their peers, and were asked to share their question ideas as well as their thoughts on the changes they want to see to support their generation.  

Overwhelmingly, their suggestions focused on missing out on the formative years of their life, with students wanting to know ‘what was the biggest opportunity you missed out on due to the pandemic’ and ‘what you would do differently if you went into lockdown again’. From not sitting exams to not having an end of year prom, it was clear from the group that their generation have missed on many key parts of teenage life that most of us were able to take for granted. 

The panel were also keen to get in front of policymakers, so they could feel their experiences were being listened to. Their priorities for change included: 

  • Giving all secondary school pupils their own laptop. 

  • Changing the exam specifications for GCSEs and A Levels to reflect the pandemic’s impact on learning. 

  • New mental health services in every school, such as a weekly psychiatrist.  

  • Financial support for school travel costs. 

The future  

The Youth Panel are approaching their final months at school, then many of them will be heading off to university or to an apprenticeship. Working with them will help illustrate future COSMO findings and will inform the Trust’s contributions to how COSMO is shaped in the coming years.   

In addition to qualitative research planned for COSMO, future panel workshops, blogs and media appearances will help the public to better understand the challenges faced by this generation. We hope that the panel have enjoyed working together on such important topics and that this project will continue for years to come.  

Bringing young people’s voices and lived experiences to the forefront of our work is vital, and something we hope to continue to integrate into both our research and policy work.  

Erica Holt-White is Senior Research and Policy Officer at the Sutton Trust, and is also a part of the Trust’s team working on the COSMO Study. This blog has been adapted from a blog originally posted on the Sutton Trust website.