The disadvantage gap among 16-to-19-year-old students widened further in 2021, with those on applied general qualifications faring worse than during the first year of Covid-19, an influential think tank has found.
The Education Policy Institute has today published a report assessing how Covid-19 disruption impacted disadvantaged groups of students in 2021.
The disadvantage gap for 16-to-19 students widened in both 2020 and 2021, and researchers say those taking applied general qualifications fell behind their peers studying A-levels.
The report said that for 2019/20 much of the teaching for courses was completed by March 2020, when the pandemic first hit the UK, with assessment for academic qualifications like A-levels more disrupted than applied or vocational qualifications.
But 2021 saw a greater disruption to learning with assessments across all routes “affected severely”, the EPI said.
Its study found that A-level results were around 0.6 grades higher per qualification in 2021 than on 2019, while applied generals results increased by 0.4 grades.
It reported that those completing applied generals fell 0.9 grades behind their peers doing A-levels in 2021, putting students at “a relative disadvantage when competing for higher education places”.
The EPI report said students from disadvantaged backgrounds – those who claimed free school meals in any of the six years prior to finishing key stage 4 – were on average 3.1 grades behind their non-disadvantaged classmates, compared to 2.7 grades in 2019.
For those considered “persistently disadvantaged” (those claiming free school meals for 80 per cent or more of their time in education up to 16) the gap between them and their better off peers is now more than four grades.
The report said: “Unlike in 2020, the widening of the gap in 2021 could not be explained entirely by the fact that disadvantaged students were less likely to take the qualifications with greater grade increases, such as A-levels.”
While unable to conclusively say whether this was due to changes to assessments in 2021 or whether disadvantaged students were impacted more by the loss of learning, the report said it was “likely that differential learning loss was playing a part”.
Furthermore, researchers found that “since 2019, A-level grades increased at 1.7-times the rate of applied general qualification grades”.
The study said the widening of the 16-to-19 gap “reinforces the need for more support” targeted at those students.
Emily Hunt, associate director at the EPI, said: “It’s concerning that the disadvantage gap has now grown in the 16-to-19 phase of education for the previous two years, having remained relatively stable in the two preceding years.”
She added that “unless wider social and economic policy can help halt this increase in persistent and deep poverty,” it will be tough to deliver the social mobility the government says it wants.
The EPI has called for an uplift in funding for disadvantaged students, including with the introduction of a student premium in 16-to-19 institutions akin to the school pupil premium, based on previous free school meal status.
In addition, the EPI says centrally-held data that links family income to student attainment needs to be more readily available in the national pupil database to help colleges, schools and sixth forms identify disadvantaged students and target support better.
It has also called for a child poverty strategy and further research on student absence and wellbeing.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that student poverty and disadvantage are “now at crisis levels”, warning that the AoC had “consistently highlighted the many ways that disadvantage and funding reductions have combined to widen existing achievement gaps”.
He welcomed the calls for a student premium fund, and said it was “vitally important” to increase both the overall 16-to-19 funding and targeted support to disadvantaged students.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders also called for pupil premium to be reformed to allow students up to 19.
She added: “The government must urgently address the underfunding of post-16 education, which has resulted in a reduction in student support services at a time when they’re most needed, and placed schools and colleges in an incredibly difficult position.”
A spokesperson from the Department for Education said it was investing an extra £2 billion each year for the next two years in schools, and had increased pupil premium funding for schools by £2.6 billion this year.
The spokesperson added: “To catch up we introduced our education recovery programme, with over two-million high-quality tutoring courses underway.”
The government provided additional funding for 2020/21 and 2021/22 – the 16 to 19 tuition fund – to help schools, colleges and other post-16 providers mitigate the disruption to learning from the pandemic, as well as additional funded hours.