Revealed: Stark attainment gap in 16-19 education

Research published by the Education Policy Institute finds less well-off students are the equivalent of three whole A-level grades behind their peers

Kate Parker

Attainment gap in 16-19 education: revealed

Students from less well-off backgrounds are the equivalent of three whole A-level grades behind their better-off peers, research on the attainment gap among 16- to 19-year-olds has revealed. 

A report published by the Education Policy Institute today – the first of its kind to measure the education disadvantaged gap among 16-to 19-year-olds – found that across all qualification types, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds were the equivalent of three whole A level grades behind their better-off peers.

The research found the while the gap could be explained by disadvantaged students already having lower grades at GCSE, they then fall even further behind through sixth-form and college, leaving them around half an A-level grade behind better-off students with the same GCSE results. 

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'Deep-seated inequalities follow poorer teenagers' 

Sam Tuckett, senior researcher at EPI, said the findings demonstrated “very plainly that deep-seated inequalities follow poorer teenagers from school through to sixth form and college, and continue to widen further compared to otherwise similar students, as they work towards their qualifications”.

He said: “We know that to reduce disadvantage in education, policymakers need to intervene early in a child’s life, but this research underlines the need to also look at how we can tackle these gaps when students are at sixth form or college.”

“Given the enormous disruption that the pandemic has caused to learning, the need to offer more targeted support to poorer students at this important stage in their education is especially urgent.”

The research found the gap varied considerably across the country: more disadvantaged students are the equivalent of five A-level grades behind in Knowsley, North Somerset and Stockton-on-Tees, while in parts of London, there is no gap at all.

For the most deprived sixth form and college students – those classed as “persistently disadvantaged” - who were on free school meals for over 80 per cent of their time at school, the gap is even wider, equivalent to four A-level grades.

EPI said there had been no progress in closing the 16-19 attainment gap between 2017 to 2019 and this was likely to be exacerbated by the unequal impact of the pandemic on learning loss, along with the very different approaches to assessments seen in academic and vocational qualifications during 2020. 

It also said the research strengthened the case for additional funding targeted at disadvantaged 16–19-year-olds, particularly following the severe disruption to learning caused by the pandemic. 

EPI: Additional support needed for disadvantaged college students

Last week, the government announced a £102 million extension of the 16-19 Tuition Fund as part of a wider education catch-up package for England. The money, part of the £300 million in funding for catch-up tutoring originally announced by Boris Johnson in January, will extend the fund, set up to support students in English, maths and other vocational and academic subjects, for a further year.

EPI’s chief executive Natalie Perera said the research was a “very stark reminder of the high levels of educational inequality in this country.”

She said: “The vast majority of the government's funding to support Covid catch-up learning is for younger pupils in schools, but the evidence from this report shows that we need to see additional support for students in post-16 education – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who we know have taken the biggest hit from the pandemic.”

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The EPI report confirms what we all know, that growing up in poverty or disadvantage impacts on educational achievement. That’s precisely why there is a pupil premium in schools. Sadly it stops at age 16, even though the impact of disadvantage does not. This analysis backs up our plea for a higher funding rate for 16- to 19-year-olds and for an extension of the pupil premium to age 19. Young people in England’s school sixth forms and colleges have lower hours of teaching, less support and less enrichment than their peers in other countries, and less than those in private schools. That needs to change.

"Colleges work hard to deliver great education and training to over 650,000 young people, and meet the needs of twice the number of disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds in further education colleges compared to school sixth forms. Sadly, the funding is not adequate, and actually reduces further for 18-year-olds who might need a three-year programme to achieve their ambitions.  

"The government talks a lot about levelling up. Here’s a chance to show they mean it, by boosting funding for the most disadvantaged young people so that they can be supported into good jobs or progress in learning.”


Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Today’s report provides a new and welcome perspective on an old and unwelcome problem: the chronic underfunding of sixth-form education. There is now a broad consensus that young people need additional support to recover from the disruption to their education caused by Covid, but as this report illustrates, sixth forms and colleges have been helping students to recover from a range of disadvantages for many years.

"Poorer students often enter sixth form with lower grades than their more affluent peers. Sixth-form colleges do an incredible job in attempting to close this disadvantage gap, but the enormous funding pressures facing the sector make this an increasingly difficult task. The EPI is right to call for additional funding for sixth form education – the best way to close the disadvantage gap and ensure that all young people receive the high quality education they deserve is to raise the rate of core funding for sixth-form students”.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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