Pupils are missing out on the chance to gain academic qualifications because of a postcode lottery in post-16 provision, a new report suggests.
Pupils with similar GCSE grades are more likely to take A levels in the traditional academic subjects most valued by elite universities in some parts of the country than in others, according to the study from the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA).
The research suggests their choices are likely to be influenced by the type of post-16 provision available locally, which varies widely across the country.
The analysis finds that pupils in parts of the country where high proportions study at further education colleges are the least likely to take academic subjects.
And those in areas with large numbers of sixth-form colleges are less likely to study “facilitating subjects” – those often preferred by universities – than their counterparts in regions where more pupils stay on at school sixth forms after their GCSEs.
The report, Educating the “Failing” 40 Per Cent, says: “The extent to which students follow one or other educational route may to a large degree be determined by what is available to them.”
The study warns that this has “serious implications for the opportunities for those students” because it “may have the effect of limiting their higher education options”.
In some parts of the country, the report says, the majority of pupils with five GCSE C-grade passes, including English and maths, go on to attend an FE college. In other areas, the majority stay on at school until the age of 18.
The North West, North East and South West regions have higher proportions of pupils at FE colleges than in school sixth forms, but London and the East of England have higher proportions at school sixth forms.
The proportion of pupils at sixth-form colleges also varies significantly by region (see graphic, left). “In areas where they are more likely to attend FE college, they are much less likely to take three academic qualifications,” the report notes.
It adds: “While there is a benefit in having wider options of potential routes to follow within a single education provider, there is a risk that the lower uptake of academic qualifications in areas with higher provision of places at FE colleges represents the choices of the institutions rather than the choices of young people.”
The study finds that students attending sixth-form colleges are just as likely to take at least three A levels as those at school sixth forms. But those in sixth-form colleges are “noticeably less likely” to study “facilitating subjects” – the subjects most often preferred or required by elite Russell Group universities (see box, below).
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth-Form Colleges’ Association, told TES that many sixth-form colleges did not focus on facilitating subjects because this was not the best way to meet students’ needs.
“Fundamentally, we don’t think the list of facilitating subjects is terribly helpful,” he said. “It’s arbitrary, and for many students, those subjects are not right in terms of getting them where they need to be and they may not be suited to them.”
Some school sixth forms were offering an “impoverished curriculum” with as few as 10 A-level subjects to choose from, Mr Kewin said, adding: “We offer a much broader range because we think that’s the right thing to do.”
Denis Oliver, headteacher of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive, an 11-18 school in Cheshire, told TES that facilitating subjects were the most popular A levels chosen by his sixth-formers. “We’ve got a culture of high aspirations and parents are very keen for their children to aim high and go to university,” he said.
The report suggests the variation in uptake of “facilitating subjects” may result from schools that are only responsible for pupils up to the age of 16 being less inclined to make sure their students are thinking about universities’ preferences when choosing post-16 options.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “At current funding levels [£4,000 per student], colleges can only offer courses if they can attract big enough class sizes.
“They are not able to subsidise their post-16 provision from other parts of their budget in the way schools can. This can limit choice.”
The Department for Education said it was committed to ensuring all young people could “access a wide range of opportunities”.
Russell Group universities list the following A-level courses as “facilitating subjects”: biology, chemistry, English literature, geography, history, physics, modern and classical languages, maths and further maths.
The group advises pupils: “It’s a really good rule of thumb that taking two facilitating subjects will keep a wide range of degree courses open to you.”
Find out more at bit.ly/InformedChoices