16 to 19-year-olds in England study an unusually small number of subjects compared with young people in many other countries. In this context, a British Baccalaureate, broadening the scope of young people’s education to unlock economic growth is a natural policy for Rishi Sunak to be considering.
There are few details available as to how it would work in practice, but one component that has been trailed is the continued study of English and maths in the 16-19 phase. This is a positive ambition, but there are real concerns as to whether there are anywhere near enough qualified teachers to deliver this.
It is not just a teacher supply issue either. There are stark statistics from the Department for Education showing that well over a hundred thousand students each year are obliged to continue study towards GCSE or functional English and maths qualifications, having not achieved a grade 4 or above at school.
This is a large proportion of the 16-19 population, most of whom do not improve upon their original result. Raising English and maths proficiency should be a priority, but one that may prove difficult without first addressing the inequalities that exist in earlier phases of education.
Our latest research, published today, shows that pupils from an economically disadvantaged background were more likely to be behind in English and maths during school and that this was exacerbated during the pandemic.
Those in long term poverty were struggling the most, so more targeted support to help these students prior to their GCSEs is needed to create a more level playing field when students enter post 16 education. We cannot expect increased maths and English provision in the 16-19 phase to fix deep-rooted issues that were already present several years earlier.
The next general election is a little more than two years away at most, meaning there are no guarantees that these policy proposals will come to fruition, and the debate around specifics could be purely academic. However, the need to cultivate a system that provides a suitable, stretching route through sixth form or college for all students, regardless of background, must be a priority for current and future governments. The plans for a British Baccalaureate announced so far do not provide sufficient detail to conclude that this is the case.
Our research brings into sharp focus how far away we are from this ambition.
Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds were more than three grades behind their peers across their qualifications taken during 16-19 study, rising to more than four grades when we examine the gap for those in long term poverty. These gaps are the widest they have been since 2017, when we first produced these key measures of social mobility.
2021 was no ordinary year in education, so these findings reflect the impact of school and college closures, differential learning loss and the impact of teacher assessed grades on top of gaps that already existed in 2019.
We found striking differences between students entering A levels and applied qualifications such as BTECs. Although results increased for most qualifications during the pandemic, A level grades increased the most, with students opting for applied qualifications falling almost a whole grade behind students of similar ability taking A levels, since 2019.
When A level and applied students of a similar ability were competing against each other for higher education places, the academic students would have appeared the better candidates on average. There are no two ways to look at it, this was unfair. As disadvantaged students are underrepresented among A level entrants, these differences were one of the key factors behind the widening of the disadvantage gap in 2021.
However, our research suggests that this was not the only reason that the disadvantage gap in 16-19 education widened.
Our findings show that poorer students suffered particularly in 2021, under the teacher assessed grading process and as the full impact of school and college closures was felt. When comparing to other students taking similar qualifications, those from poorer backgrounds still fell further behind.
A 16-19 Baccalaureate, introduced in the right way, could be a positive policy change, but these grand sounding announcements are not a substitute for providing sufficient support to sixth forms and colleges, especially for their most vulnerable or disadvantaged students who have fallen so far behind during the pandemic. Based on the lack of additional funding for these settings in the recent Autumn Statement, this appears to be something the government has forgotten.