Catch-up: 77% of 16-18s performing below expectations

Vocational students have lost out on crucial skills development and training during Covid, says Association of Colleges

Kate Parker

Covid catch-up at colleges: 77% of 16-18s are performing below expectations, new research shows

More than three-quarters of 16- to 18-year-olds are performing below normal expectations, new research from the Association of Colleges shows. 

The research reveals that, as a result of the pandemic, 77 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds are performing below where they would normally be at this point in the academic year, with 75 per cent one to four months behind. It also shows that 69 per cent of adult students are performing below expectations and 71 per cent are one to four months behind. 

Almost half (47 per cent) of colleges said lost learning due to the pandemic had a “high” or “very high” impact on 16- to 18-year-olds. 

AoC graph
(Source: Association of Colleges)

Around 80 colleges responded to the survey – around a third of all colleges in England. 


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David Hughes, chief executive of AoC, said the data painted a “stark picture” of the pandemic’s impact on learning for young people and adults.

The impact of Covid on colleges

“While colleges have worked extremely hard to keep students engaged and motivated about their education, many students, particularly those on vocational courses and on lower-level courses, have lost out on crucial skills development and training," he said.

“The government needs to act swiftly to support existing college students, those starting this autumn and those leaving for the labour market so that they experience the least disruption to their progression as possible.

"Our recommendations give long-term solutions to the problem of lost learning, because the impact of Covid will last for some time. Flexible programmes of extended study, joined-up work opportunities and fair 16-19 funding with teaching hours that level the playing field for England’s young people are all vital to ensure nobody is left behind.” 

Lost learning by subject: which ones need targeted support?

When survey respondents were asked to identify three subjects in which students needed the greatest amount of catch-up support, more practical subjects dominated: 61 per cent of colleges said construction, 48 per cent said engineering and motor vehicle, and 42 per cent said hair and beauty. 

Similarly, basic skills were also identified as in greatest need of catch-up support, with English and ESOL (level 2 and below) at 30 per cent and maths (level 2 and below) at 34 per cent. SEND delivery was also identified as having the greatest need for catch-up support by 14 per cent of colleges. 

AoC subject
(Source: Association of Colleges)

In the report, the AoC sets out a number of policy recommendations to combat the effects of the pandemic, and says students continuing to learn in college or moving to college from schools should be:

  • Funded at the same rate as 16- and 17-year-olds. 
  • Provided with targeted support for the most disadvantaged through a 16-19 student premium.
  • Entitled to the same hours of teaching and support as their counterparts in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

While students leaving college should be: 

  • Guaranteed a fully funded extra year of study if they need it.
  • Supported to navigate the government’s new initiatives through Department for Education and Department for Work and Pensions joining up their study and employment programmes for 16- to 24-year-olds.

The Department for Education declined to comment. 

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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