Enhancing ‘possible selves’ through coaching – A tool for fair access and participation​

Despite progress being made across the sector to close the gaps in equality of opportunity in accessing higher education (HE), there remain stark inequalities for some underrepresented groups across the student lifecycle.

Students who received free school meals while at secondary school are half as likely to enter HE as those who did not[i], and young people who live in an area with the lowest rates of participation in HE are nearly six times less likely to go to a high-tariff university than those from areas with the highest[ii].

Once students access higher education the inequalities continue. Students from underrepresented groups are more likely to withdraw from their course, less likely to achieve a good degree outcome, and less likely to secure graduate level employment after completing their course.

Using the lens of 'possible selves' to explore access to higher education

As a sector we have looked to close these gaps through various means, recognising the structural inequalities inherent in our education system from a young age. Many of these efforts have been focused on raising aspirations. However, bodies of research, such as Baker et al. (2014), found that both disadvantaged and advantaged students generally had high levels of aspiration. The difference came in how achievable such aspirations felt to the individual.

In his 2018 piece[iii], Harrison sets out how the theory of ‘possible selves’ can be used to address fair access and participation in HE. The theory of possible selves, developed by Markus and Nurius in 1986[iv], suggests we all envisage a range of possible identities for ourselves, framed by factors both within and beyond our control. The concept of possible selves refers to our current perceptions about who we might be in the future and where our lives might lead. Harrison highlights that as the range of possible selves we have are shaped in part by our sociocultural context, individuals from underrepresented backgrounds will have a narrower view of what is possible for them in the future compared to their more advantaged counterparts. It is therefore important that we widen the pool of possible selves through activities designed to raise aspirations.

But the work does not stop there. The possible selves we hold are important drivers of motivation and action, but only when they are well-elaborated, can individuals visualise them and understand the roadmap that will lead to achieving them. How well elaborated your possible selves are will depend on how strongly you can visualise them, the frequency with which you do it, the validation you receive from those around you (from teachers, parents, friends), the role models you see, and your own experiences[v].

"If a young person regularly and intensely perceives 'university graduate' as a probable and desirable future identity, they will increase their engagement with schoolwork, resulting in higher school attainment, which in turn affects the assessment of the probability of the possible self." (Barg. et.al 2020)

For students from more advantaged backgrounds, whose parents attended and engaged with HE, with role models in high-level professional jobs, and whose peers discuss university regularly, we can understand how their possible self as ‘university graduate’ is strengthened and elaborated on a daily basis.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a very different experience. They may not be surrounded by role models who went to university, their parents may not speak of HE regularly, and HE may not feature in conversations with their peers. This is likely to result in their possible self as a ‘university graduate’ becoming less elaborated day by day, and feeling less achievable.

Coaching as a tool to drive change

The Association for Coaching defines coaching as a facilitated, dialogic and reflective learning process that aims to develop an individual’s awareness, responsibility and choices (thinking and behavioural). Coaching is non-directive, meaning the emphasis is on helping individuals identify their own resources and find their own answers and solutions.

In this way, coaching differs considerably from interventions such as mentoring. As coaches, we do not give our story, we do not share our opinions, nor do we give advice on how we or others have overcome obstacles or achieved outcomes. Coaching is based on an innate belief that our coachees are the experts on themselves and therefore already have all the answers they need. Our job is to facilitate individuals to find the answers that are right for them, drawing on the knowledge, strength and experience that they already have.

"A coach has great questions for your answers; a mentor has great answers for your questions." (Sharon Allen, CEO at Skills for Care)

As an intervention, coaching is perfectly placed to support students to develop ‘well-elaborated’ future possible selves that they feel connected to, and to devise a clear roadmap to become them. The non-directive element of coaching means that the coachee is the agent of change. Seeing the progress made across a series of coaching sessions increases self-efficacy and confidence: with each step forward a coachee’s connection to their future possible self becomes stronger and more achievable, which in turn increases motivation.

As highlighted in the recent review of evidence of the impact of interventions for widening access to HE by TASO and the Education Policy Institute, coaching interventions have been proven to be successful in increasing confidence, self-efficacy and achieving higher rates of HE engagement. The link between coaching, confidence and higher levels of HE engagement, is also evidenced in the Elitist Britain report in 2019[vi], which demonstrated that students who had access to more supportive, coaching-type schooling were more likely to enter HE and gain access to ‘elite’ jobs thereafter.

This type of support helped the students to foster “‘essential life skills’ such as confidence and motivation”. Other evidence shows that solution-focused coaching “has been shown to enhance students’ problem-solving skills, coping skills, resilience, wellbeing, study skills and learning goals achievement”[vii] and that behaviour and emotion-focused coaching, “can help build psychological resilience, enhanced performance, increased wellbeing and reduction in stress”[viii].

The work of Inclusive Futures

Inclusive Futures is a not-for-profit organisation which empowers students from underrepresented groups to explore and focus on the future that is right for them. Our targeted coaching programmes give students the space and opportunity to identify who they really are, and the future self they want to be. Our programme supports students to develop self-efficacy, resilience, and the confidence to know that anything is possible.

Our programmes are focused across four key areas of the student journey:

  • Access – working with post 16 students to decide on the best path after school/college
  • Transition – supporting students to transition to HE with confidence
  • Student success – support for those at risk of disengaging from their studies
  • Employability – helping students to prepare for life after graduation

In order to offer inclusive support, we also work with individual practitioners, teams and senior management to embed inclusive practice across the organisation. Our executive coaching services supports providers to embed a whole-provider approach to fair access and participation, and enables widening participation teams to drive change and achieve greater impact.

Our programmes with students are all shaped around four key elements:

Discover what their passions and values are, who their future possible selves may be and find the path that they want to follow for themselves
Reflect on their strengths, what they have achieved already and what they could achieve in the future based on the resources they have
Develop confidence and self-efficacy through action-based coaching, where we explore goal setting, self-motivation, claiming responsibility, purposeful planning and available tools
Review the steps they’ve already taken, what they’ve learnt about themselves and how their learning will benefit them going forward

Get in touch

These past few months have been turbulent for everyone, and particularly for those students who have missed out on their education and who may not have the support networks that their more advantaged peers have access to.

Connecting and reconnecting students to their future possible selves is more important now than ever. Our programmes support HE providers to meet the outcomes you have committed to in your Access and Participation Plans, providing additional support to those that will benefit the most.

Please get in touch for a chat about how coaching could compliment your current access and participation activities. Contact Jess Woodsford, Jess@inclusivefutures.co.uk or Rose Sellman-Leava, Rose@inclusivefutures.co.uk


[i]) UCAS, Equality and entry rates data explorers (https://www.ucas.com/data-andanalysis/ucas-undergraduate-releases/ucasundergraduate-analysis-reports/equalityand-entry-rates-data-explorers).

[ii]) OfS, Gap in participation at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups (www.officeforstudents.org.uk/about/measures-of-our-success/ participation-performance-measures/gapin-participation-at-higher-tariff-providersbetween-the-most-and-least-representedgroups/).

[iii]) Harrison, N. 2018. Using the Lens of ‘Possible Selves’ to Explore Access to Higher Education: A New Conceptual Model for Practice, Policy, and Research, Social Sciences, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 7(10), pages 1-21, October.

[iv]) Markus, Hazel, and Paula Nurius. 1986. Possible selves. American Psychologist 41: 954–69

[v]) Barg, K.; Benham-Clarke, S.; Mountford-Zimdars, A. Investigating the Imagination of Possible and ‘Like-to-Avoid’ Selves among Higher Education Students from Different Socioeconomic Backgrounds at a Selective English University. Soc. Sci. 2020, 9, 67.

[vi]) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/elitist-britain-2019

[vii]) Campbell, M. A., & Gardner, S. (2005). A pilot study to assess the effects of life coaching with Year 12 students. In M. Cavanagh, A. Grant, & T. Kemp (Eds.), Evidence-based coaching (pp. 159-169). Brisbane: Australian Academic Press.

[viii]) Palmer, S., & Szymanska, K. (2007). Cognitive behavioural coaching: an integrative approach. In: S. Palmer & A. Whybrow, The handbook of coaching psychology (pp. 86-117). Hove: Routledge.