Why we can’t ignore the 16-19 attainment gap

Research from the Education Policy Institute highlights the need for bold, well-targeted policies to support the most disadvantaged, argues Sam Tuckett

Sam Tuckett

Social mobility: We can't ignore the 16-19 attainment gap

Tackling the disadvantage gap in education has been a central focus for governments in recent years, sitting front and centre of pledges to improve social mobility.

But much to the frustration of those concerned with 16-19 education, research and policymaking has to date focused most of its attention on the gaps that exist at school age. When it comes to older students at college and sixth form, the level of educational inequality between those from different backgrounds has remained largely unknown.

That is, until now. For the first time, new, exploratory research from the Education Policy Institute, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has begun to fill these gaps in our knowledge.

Revealed: Stark attainment gap in 16-19 education

More: Catch-up cash for 16-19 Tuition Fund announced 

FE White Paper: What does it mean for social mobility?

Our findings indicate that disadvantaged students are, on average, the equivalent of three A-level grades behind their more affluent peers during 16-19 study. In some parts of the country, it’s as wide as five grades.

Policymakers and educators should be concerned by this gap. Differences of this size matter, having huge consequences for students’ access to higher education or employment.

What accounts for this level of inequality? A big proportion of the gap is explained by poorer students already having lower grades at the end of their GCSEs – we see very plainly that these gaps open up earlier in education.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. If we control for these GCSE results, and other factors like qualification types and student characteristics, we see that disadvantaged students still achieve the equivalent of around half an A-level grade less than otherwise similar students. In other words, when they get to 16-19 education, poorer students may then be experiencing further attainment penalties, simply because of their background.

Additional support for disadvantaged students

While one of the key tools in closing the gap post 16 will be to continue with initiatives at a younger age, this shows that an additional effort is required to support disadvantaged students through their college and sixth-form studies.

The data on which this research is based pre-dates the pandemic, but even at this point, the 16-19 disadvantage gap had showed little evidence of closing in recent years, remaining roughly the same since 2017.

This means that, today, if we are expected to limit the widening of this gap, existing catch-up funds available to colleges and schools must be better targeted towards disadvantaged students who will have fallen furthest behind during the pandemic.

Our findings also strengthen the case for changing the 16-19 funding formula, so that it takes into account levels of disadvantage at a student level, alongside the area-based measures currently used.

We know that during the pandemic, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have had access to a quiet place to study and the necessary technology, and have completed fewer hours of homeschooling. The impact of this will be felt by those already studying in colleges and sixth forms, making it likely that the 16-19 disadvantage gap will widen throughout the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the near future doesn’t look much rosier. As a large portion of the gap can be explained by students’ GCSE results, those falling further behind during secondary school will carry these gaps with them as they leave school, meaning the 16-19 disadvantage gap may also continue to widen in the years ahead.

In showing that disadvantaged students enter fewer qualifications and are more likely to complete lower-level study programme, our findings are consistent with research on “academic mismatch”, whereby high-achieving disadvantaged students enter lower-level qualifications. This shows that we also need to see much better advice and guidance given to high-attaining poorer students at the end of school.

Concerns about a widening disadvantage gap in education will continue to grow in the coming years as we begin to grasp the scale of the impact of the pandemic on the learning of the poorest.

The government must retain a strong focus on tackling these gaps early on – but what our report today also shows is that we cannot afford to disregard the 16-19 phase when it comes to major social mobility interventions.

Now more than ever, this critical stage in young people’s education demands bold, well-targeted policies to support the most disadvantaged.

Sam Tuckett is a senior researcher at the EPI

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