There is a “dearth of second chances and lifelong learning opportunities” in the UK’s education system, a new report assessing education inequalities has warned – prompting fresh calls for significant investment in FE.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has published a report on inequalities in the education system ahead of an online event this morning, in which it says that disadvantaged pupils are frequently behind their peers in a system that is not succeeding in addressing the education gap.
While the report covers the whole of the school and education system, in the further education sector the report found that for those looking to pursue vocational qualifications outside of the academic GCSE-A Level-university route the system was difficult to navigate, and information less readily available.
It cited a “proliferation” of vocational qualifications that meant there was not an obvious pathway between levels in vocational studies.
It continued that for higher level learners in universities, government-backed loans covered both tuition fees and maintenance, but further education courses typically used advanced learner loans which do not cover the maintenance element. In addition, the equivalent or lower education rule meant loans were not available for those studying an equivalent or lower level qualification than they had already, making it difficult to reskill.
It said: “Over the past decade, there has also been a significant decline in public spending on basic adult education and training, while for learners wishing to study more advanced vocational qualifications it is often a struggle to access funding.
“This combination of factors leads to a dearth of ‘second chances’ and lifelong learning opportunities in the UK’s education system, which limits the scope for existing educational gaps to be closed.”
The report found that real-terms spending on adult education in 2019/20 was nearly 50 per cent lower than 2009/10, and two thirds lower than 2003/04, while the number of adult learners has also halved in the last decade.
It added: “For adults with low levels of education, these trends have made it more difficult to access opportunities to upskill through formal education or through training – meaning that existing educational gaps among adults may not be closed and may even be widening.”
The study found that nearly half of pupils without five good GCSEs at 16 still didn’t have any by 19, and less than 15 per cent of those with fewer than five good GCSEs achieved a level 3 qualification by the age of 19.
In addition, the document reports that 16-year-olds eligible for free school meals are around 27 percent less likely to earn good GCSEs than their better-off peers, while the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened inequalities because disadvantaged children had fewer resources to learn at home.
The report recognised that the government is in the process of overhauling some parts of the system, such as the new lifelong learning entitlement, but said it was “too early to know whether these reforms will address all of the issues that exist with the financing of advanced vocational and university education”.
The report’s authors have called for policymakers to ensure the system offers “chances and viable alternatives” for those who fall behind while at school, clearer communication on learning options available and “significant investment” – particularly in the FE sector.
Professor Sandra McNally, professor at the University of Surrey, director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research and one of the report’s authors, said the options for young people who don’t secure good GCSE grades at 16 are “limited, confusing, and often not very lucrative,” and pathways to higher learning were “opaque”.
She added: “The post-compulsory system in general can lead towards narrow choices with little opportunity for second chances later on.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there was a “depressingly close alignment between family income and educational attainment,” with government policy a “rut of meaningless targets, empty rhetoric and pitiful levels of funding”.
He added: “We need to see investment in early years education, better support for schools which face the greatest challenges, funding for schools and post-16 education which matches the level of need, and a rethink of qualifications and curriculum so that they work well for all learners.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Education said: “Since 2011, we have narrowed the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at every stage of education up to the pandemic, and recent figures show that a record proportion of the most disadvantaged students are progressing to higher education.”
The spokesperson said nearly £5 billion in pandemic recovery funding had been invested, which included tutoring courses for two million pupils in need of them most.
They added: “We are also making £2.7 billion available by 2025 to support businesses of all sizes to create more apprenticeships, in addition to investing over £260 million in the last year to expand popular adult training schemes, such as skills bootcamps and free courses for jobs, which thousands of individuals have taken advantage of.”