Post-16 education needs consensus (and better data)

New research shows signs of success in further education, but also a lack of clarity about inequalities and a damaging cycle of policy churn

New research shows signs of success in further education, but also a lack of clarity about inequalities and a damaging cycle of policy churn

23 Feb 2024, 10:08

Politicians right across the UK have placed a high emphasis on the role that post-16 education and training can play in achieving a vast range of policy goals, from improving social mobility and productivity to increasing civic cohesion and individual well-being.

There have also been a dizzying array of policy reforms and changes over time. In a new joint EPI/SKOPE report released this week, we chart the different approaches to post-16 education and training across the four nations of the UK, and differences in educational and labour market outcomes. This article draws out the key lessons for England.

Participation is high

There are some clear positives on education participation in England. Participation in full-time education among 16- and 17-year-olds has risen from 40 per cent in the 1980s to about 84 per cent today. There are also fewer young people not in education, employment or training (so called “NEETs”), down from 7-8% in the 1990s and 2000s to about 5 per cent today. We have also seen rising levels of participation in higher education, with 37 per cent of 18-year olds in England accepted on to higher education courses in 2023 as compared with 25 per cent in 2006.

The growing level of participation in full-time education has come partly at the expense of young people doing part-time education, training or work-based learning, such as apprenticeships. In the 1990s, 12-13 per cent of young people aged 16 and 17 were enrolled in some form of work-based learning. This has fallen over time, and now stands at just 7 per cent. Indeed, only 20 per cent of apprenticeships are taken by under 19s in England today, which compares with 37 per cent in Scotland and 50 per cent in Northern Ireland.

This reflects active decisions by policymakers in Scotland and Northern Ireland to focus apprenticeship on young people. In England, apprenticeships have been more focused on adults, partly to achieve arbitrary and (now defunct) targets for so many millions of apprenticeship starts. Despite a cross-party consensus on the benefits of apprenticeships for young people in England, they have largely become a means of re-training for adults.

But inequalities persist

There are, however, many sources of concern when it comes to inequalities. Parental background still plays a disproportionate role in shaping children’s life chances in England. Around 80 per cent of young people whose parents working in professional occupations possess A level or equivalent qualifications, as compared with less than 60 per cent of young people from working-class backgrounds. This then further maps into differences in higher education participation, employment and earnings.

Of greatest concern is the difficulty in tracking inequalities across all areas of post-16 education and training. With the exception of higher education, it is surprisingly hard to examine socio-economic inequalities in post-16 education and training over time. It is even harder, if not impossible, to compare socio-economic inequalities across the four nations of the UK. This is a great shame as there is potentially much we could learn from the diverging approaches being tried across the UK.

And policy churn doesn’t help

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of post-16 education and training policy is the sheer volume of changes and reforms over time. The post-16 education sector has been in state of permanent revolution for at least the past thirty years, particularly technical and vocational education.

There are major changes almost every three years, and significant reforms are rarely left enough time to bed in or achieve their goals before they are replaced by new ones. The latest example is the creation of T Levels and their planned replacement by an Advanced British Standard even before they have been fully rolled out. Constant policy churn implies that the system is at best flawed and at worst failing. This has the potential to harm the morale of staff and students.

A political consensus is needed on the goals and ambitions that can be realised by the post-16 education and training system, well-funded institutions and structures, and a stable set of qualifications.

This may sound fanciful within the UK’s adversarial political system, but the main political parties are not actually that far apart on this issue. They all describe wanting to see a parity of esteem between academic and technical qualifications, a desire for well-funded institutions and the potential benefits from young people doing apprenticeships. The missing elements have been delivery, funding and a willingness to leave reforms to bed in.

Despite its faults, the Butler Act of 1944 was a clear example of political consensus across parties that enabled policymakers to achieve ambitious goals for schools, and it created a system that remained in place for decades. The same is needed now for further and technical education.

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