Case study

Tackling inequalities in a social mobility ‘cold spot’

Social mobility projects aimed at transforming the lives of disadvantaged children and families in Derby have been shaped, strengthened and extended – thanks to the expertise of University of Derby researchers.

With Derby designated as an ‘Opportunity Area’ by the government, research has played a pivotal role in the drive to raise educational standards in the city and address inequalities in relation to disadvantaged children, young people, families and communities.

Research developments and recognition

In-depth studies by a University team specialising in inequality and social justice research have helped develop, evaluate and support successful funding applications for several ‘placemaking’ initiatives which have benefited thousands of disadvantaged young people. The achievements led to the University being recognised in the social and community impact category of the Guardian University Awards for 2020.

Commissioned by the Department for Education via Derby County Community Trust, the University team worked to inform practitioners across the city to close social mobility gaps through participatory and action research, addressing pressing concerns brought to the fore in 2016 when Derby was identified as a ‘cold spot’ by the Social Mobility Commission, ranking 303rd out of 324 areas.

Research impacts

Led by Professor Alexander Nunn, the team has a strong international reputation for exploring themes such as how social inequality is passed on across generations, having previously undertaken work on this topic for the UK government and the Council of Europe; the latter leading to the drafting of the Council’s Policy Guidelines on Social Mobility and Social Cohesion. Their work has had a direct impact on the organisational capacity, policies and practices of local organisations, providing them with a strong evidence-based platform to leverage further funding:

Reimagine and Creative Arts Network

Derby Theatre received Arts Council funding of £2.3m to extend Derby’s Reimagine and Creative Arts Network projects, which will engage around 2,000 young people, 190 artists, 700 participants and 23,000 audience members over three years. Research from the University helped to shape the targeting of these schemes at those sections of the community who would benefit the most and supported the Theatre in helping them introduce and sustain new monitoring and evaluation techniques.

Plus One

Derby Theatre and Derby Cultural Education Partnership (DCEP) received funding for a three-year extension to their Plus One initiative which has sparked greater interest in the arts among looked after children, care leavers and their families. Participants in the scheme also have access to a therapist, specifically hired by DCEP to address risks identified by the research in relation to the social harm of poverty and inequality.


#ThisisDerby, a partnership project to improve young people’s employability skills, resilience and emotional wellbeing through sport, arts and culture, has also been extended. Derby County Community Trust used the research to support training artists and coaches to address social mobility concerns and build essential life skills in their interactions with young people. Funding was also secured to continue the sports element of the initiative for a year, benefiting some 3,000 young people.

Roma Community Care

Roma Community Care used the research to support a successful grant application to sustain its youth club which regularly serves around 60 young people. It has also introduced new monitoring and evaluation techniques to improve its services.

The University of Derby’s research has reinforced the achievements of these schemes in equipping young people with enhanced life skills, confidence and a sense of social inclusion. Families and neighbourhoods have benefited from greater social cohesion while community facilities have been rejuvenated.



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