FE is bucking the trend on the attainment gap. What could it do with more funding?

The sector is bucking the national trend on closing the attainment gap, says Sarah Waite. Now ministers should buck the trend on funding it

The sector is bucking the national trend on closing the attainment gap, says Sarah Waite. Now ministers should buck the trend on funding it

28 May 2023, 5:00

Last month, the department for education released new analysis of attainment and progress to the age of 25. Hidden in this statistical release was a good news story. The department’s analysis shows that the proportion of young people who achieve a good standard of English and maths by the age of 19 is the highest on record at 74.9 per cent.

This increase in achievement of basic skills qualifications in English and maths has been driven by the country’s post-16 sector. Progress in these subjects between the ages of 16 and 19 is now the highest on record. Two decades ago, fewer than 6 per cent of young people who had not passed GCSE English and maths at 16 had gone on to achieve them by the age of 19. Today, that figure is almost six times higher.

Progress in English and maths in post-16 education has been on an upward trajectory since 2014 when the condition of funding was introduced. Notably, the department’s analysis also shows that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are passing GCSE English and maths in 16 to 19 education than their peers. This bucks the longstanding trend for the country’s attainment gap, which emerges early and typically widens as children progress through the education system. Instead, our 16 to 19 education sector is having some success in narrowing the attainment gap in GCSE English and maths.

This is a huge testament to our further education sector. This is the part of our education system that serves a significant proportion of 16- to 19-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds and 90 per cent of young people retaking GCSE English and maths. And it is the part that typically gets on with the job with little fanfare and funding.

Real-term cuts across the FE sector stand at 8 per cent. Teachers in colleges get paid on average £7,000 a year less than their peers in schools. There was no additional funding for FE in the Autumn Statement, and notably there has never been Pupil Premium funding for 16- to 19-year-olds. Across every metric, funding to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds nose dives at 16.

The financial context makes this progress all the more impressive

This financial context makes the increase in attainment and progress in basic English and maths skills and the subsequent narrowing of the attainment gap all the more impressive. By any measure, these improvements have been achieved on nothing more than a shoestring.

Of course, there is still more progress to be made. Despite these improvements, 2 in 3 young people who miss out at school still have not achieved a Level 2 qualification in English and maths by the age of 19. Moreover, the narrowing of the gap is only slight at 3 percentage points. It could and should be closed further.

But policymakers should take note. Imagine what could be achieved in FE if the sector was properly funded. What might we expect the sector to deliver if FE teacher pay matched that of schoolteacher pay and colleges could compete for qualified staff? And how much more might we close attainment gaps if funding for disadvantaged 16- to 19-year-olds matched that of school-aged young people?

Those working in the FE sector have long known about its potential to be transformational for social mobility. Research too is catching up, with the latest studies in cognitive neuroscience suggesting there is a “window of opportunity” for learning in late adolescence and early adulthood.

This week, former minister for apprenticeships and skills, Anne Milton has written of the need for the highest levels of government to back the sector. This latest analysis from the department should be the catalyst for the new narrative she rightly calls for. There can be no stronger evidence to justify better funding than this narrowing of the attainment gap in English and maths – proof positive of the vital role colleges play for young people, the economy and society.

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