From education to employment

White working-class and black students risk losing out from focus on A-Levels instead of vocational courses

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White working-class students and black British students risk missing out if schools focus on A-Levels as the main pathway to university and professional success, a think-tank warns today.

The Social Market Foundation says that emphasis on A-Levels as the only route into university tends to mainly benefit affluent white young people, while overlooking the interests of those from working class and/or ethnic minority backgrounds who are more likely to follow other routes.

The SMF, a cross-party think-tank, said that political debates framing education policy as a choice between helping white working class or ethnic minority students are misleading. Both groups would benefit from greater support for vocational and technical qualifications including BTECs and T-levels, the SMF said.

The SMF is calling on the Government to raise national profile of vocational and apprenticeship courses by improving careers education and widening pathways to universities. Not all universities count vocational qualifications towards entry requirements, said the SMF: Oxford and Cambridge, for example, generally refuse to recognise BTECs and T-Levels.

SMF research into qualifications has shown that that over half of white working-class and black British youth use BTEC qualifications to get into higher education (HE). In the north east, 35% of white working-class students went to university solely on the basis of their BTECs; and 37% of all black British youth go to university with only BTECs. (See notes for full breakdown by ethnicity)

The SMF’s recommendations come at a time when the proportion of white working-class children going to university continues to be at their lowest compared to other ethnicity groups, according to a recent report by the Education Select Committee. The Education Committee’s report also highlighted the Department of Education’s “insistence that pursuing the same policies will somehow provide a solution”.

School-leavers interviewed by SMF last year for research on careers reported a desire for their careers advisers to share “other options besides uni” and present “each option equally”. SMF’s analysis – for the 2022 report on careers provision – showed that advice is “socially-patterned”, where affluent schools tend to push students towards university, whilst poorer schools tend to favour vocational routes.

Niamh O Regan, SMF Researcher, said:
“For education to be an effective tool to achieve social mobility, we must give equal weight to the different kinds of qualifications that help students advance their learning and careers.

“At the moment, politicians acknowledge that education can promote social mobility, but continue to favour only one type of qualification and pathway. This insistence only maintains inequality, whilst educational barriers holding back disadvantaged youth remain standing.”

“There needs to be a shift in approach to education – where all types of qualifications and post-18 routes are given equal value, whilst HE institutions also widen access by accepting all these types of qualifications. This approach has the potential to make education fairer and help everybody achieve their potential.”

James Kirkup, SMF Director, said:

“Some people in the education debate want to frame this issue as a choice between helping white working class youngsters or those from ethnic minority backgrounds. That’s a false choice because better policies giving greater support to vocational and technical routes would benefit all those who are currently under-served by the education system, as well as boosting Britain’s skill levels and economic potential.”

Steve Haines, director of youth charity Impetus:

“A third of young people won’t be joining the A-Level results celebration today. Year after year around 200,000 don’t get the chance to progress because they didn’t get the GCSEs they needed to move onto this phase of their education. They are disproportionately young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re not front page news, but they need to be at the top of the next Prime Minister’s in tray.”

On the access gap that sees fewer young people from disadvantaged areas progressing to university:

“Waiting until A-Level results day is too late to make a meaningful difference to the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers going to university. If we’re serious about tackling the access gap we need to focus on helping young people long before they sit their GCSEs by ensuring they get the GCSEs that unlock opportunities in higher education and work.”

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