Too many young people are being held back from achieving their full potential aged 16, unable to get the skills that they need to achieve what they want with their lives – a situation simply exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.
And the system continues to penalise those young people who have been faced with an interrupted education or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with a widening attainment gap between disadvantaged young people and their non-disadvantaged peers. Sadly, it remains the case that educational attainment is too often dictated by where a young person comes from.
I have spent most of my career telling young people they can "be who they want to be’". It’s time we make that statement a reality.
Meet Lisa Capper: Nacro's head of education and skills
Level 2 students: the facts
The facts are clear to see. Level 2 attainment by the age of 19 is falling – and has now done so for eight consecutive years – with one in five young people not achieving a level 2 qualification. But it gets worse, for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, outcomes are even bleaker. For example, for those eligible for free school meals, level 2 attainment by the age of 19 has fallen by over 17 per cent over the course of the last five years. This is simply unacceptable.
The story doesn’t stop there. We can’t just look at free school meals eligibility as the only indicator of disadvantage, given the multiple barriers to participation in education faced by so many – including for those young people within the "children in need" (CIN) classification as well those diagnosed with a special educational need or disability (SEND).
For both groups, attainment outcomes are considerably worse when compared to non-disadvantaged groups. For those with an identified SEN, attainment at age 19 is 30 per cent lower that those without, and for those categorised as “disadvantaged” the gap sits at a slightly lower, but still unacceptable 21 per cent.
And yet, the direction of travel in further education, under successive governments, is not geared towards pathways best supporting disadvantaged young people to achieve their potential.
There is a real risk of the government turbocharging the gap between those who attain level 2 qualifications by the age of 19 and those who haven’t, through focusing all attention on funding qualifications at level 3 and above – most notably through the new, National Skills Fund. Skills at level 3 is, of course, important for many young people and for the economy. And we should support high aspiration for all.
But to guard against increasing this gap, it is important that there are high quality choices for all young people aged between 16 and 19-years-old, irrespective of the level of the qualification. We need a renewed focus on level 2 qualifications, and we need to create pathways for learners on lower-level qualifications.
The declining availability of level 2 apprenticeships is a key marker of the issue at hand with the fall most prominent for those falling within the bottom 20 per cent of the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation.
If we don’t get this right, we may see unintended consequences of those at level 3 and above continuing to work their way through the system, with much brighter employment prospects as a result, and those working towards level 2 qualifications or below, having less choice and could be left even further behind. The government can’t ignore level 2 students anymore.
Why we need a broader education recovery package
That is why, as the government looks to the education and skills system as part of the post-Coronavirus recovery effort, attention must be focused on providing the right support for this group. A clearly defined and targeted package of measures, as part of a broader education recovery package, can go a long way towards improving the future chances of the most disadvantaged. At Nacro, we see this package as incorporating:
1. Targeted funding for the most disadvantaged
2. A clear route map to employment or further learning for those at level 2 and below
3. A digital inclusion guarantee
Funding would be provided in the form of a “Pupil Premium Plus” for 16 to 19-year-olds eligible for free school meals, diagnosed with SEND or falling within the CIN classification. This would be in combination with a maximum guaranteed bursary funding pot to ensure that learners in need can access the necessary equipment for their studies and training.
A clear route to employment or further learning would focus on ensuring the provision of a broad vocationally and/or technically focused level 2 offer, and that will lead directly to good, stable jobs and/or access and progression to higher-level skills. This is something that we see in our work at Nacro every day; we see our learners undertake valuable, worthwhile qualifications, before moving into quality jobs or into further learning at level 3 or apprenticeships they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise access..
The digital divide remains very real for many of the young people we work with. A digital inclusion guarantee includes three components – the guarantee that all young people have access to sufficient data and an appropriate learning device; all staff at training providers have the relevant digital training; and all providers have the digital infrastructure in place to ensure online learning.
One young man said that without the support of Nacro he would have remained on drugs and would have had nowhere to live. He now has an apprenticeship and his English and maths GSCE. “I had nothing to do, wasn’t good at anything, my problems were escalating. I felt worthless,” he told me. “When you leave school without your GCSEs you’re told you’re no good at anything, I didn’t just want to be sat around going mad but didn’t know what to do.”
It is time to make it truly possible to learn with limits.
Lisa Capper is the principal and director of education at Nacro