The following blog was written as part of our Learn Without Limits series, looking at different aspects of policy change within Further Education.
Time to target the 16-19 disadvantage gap
Written by Sam Tuckett is Senior Researcher, Post-16 and Skills, The Education Policy Institution (EPI)
Policy focus on the attainment gap between those from economically deprived backgrounds and their peers has traditionally focused on children up until the age they take their GCSEs. Funding initiatives to support this vulnerable group such as the pupil premium and the accountability framework that goes with it only extend to age 16, at which point the 16-19 funding formula takes over and allocates disadvantage funding on an area level basis.
EPI research shows that the disadvantage attainment gap persists into the 16-19 phase, and that when you consider both academic and vocational qualifications together, those from less well-off backgrounds are the equivalent of 3 grades behind on average.
Differing levels of ability as students enter this phase go some way to explaining these gaps. However, even when we account for GCSE results and other characteristics, we still find that disadvantaged students are falling the equivalent of half an A level grade behind their less economically deprived peers.
In other words, the disadvantage attainment gap that emerges through primary and secondary education continues to widen as these young people fall further behind in this critical phase.
The effect of Covid-19
The disruption to education of COVID has not been equitable either, those from poorer backgrounds are less likely to have had access to a quiet place to study, nor the same digital technology to aid the transition into effective home learning. EPI research for the Department for Education shows that at school age, disadvantaged pupils experienced greater learning loss than non-disadvantaged pupils, with many in the 16-19 phase likely to have faced similar challenges.
Early data from the qualification regulator Ofqual reinforces this point and indicates that the 16-19 disadvantage gaps seen up until 2019 are only likely to have worsened in recent years. It seems that unequal effects of learning loss will be felt in the education system for years to come.
Initiatives aimed at closing the gap from an early age remain critically important, and any progress made is likely to feed through and benefit these young people as they progress through their later years of education. However, our research shows that greater support is needed for vulnerable groups already approaching the end of their compulsory education, before moving on to higher education or an increasingly competitive job market.
Extra funding for schools and colleges, targeted towards these students and in addition to the area-based measures currently used would be a hugely positive step. Furthermore, the associated accountability and transparency requirements for sixth forms and colleges would help heighten the focus on disadvantaged students in this phase, which has long been lacking for these vulnerable young people as they progress from their GCSEs into further study. With the difficulties these students have faced through the pandemic exasperating these inequalities, it is now more than ever important that they are better supported throughout the entirety of their compulsory education, right up to and including the final few years before entering the world of work, higher education or other training.
About the Education Policy Institution
The aim of the Education Policy Institute is to raise standards in education through rigorous data analysis, research and the exchange of information and knowledge to help inform the public and hold government and decision-makers to account.
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