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Felix Bunting, Researcher, EPI

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For the first time, new exploratory research published today by the Education Policy Institute, and funded by the Nuffield foundation, measures the disadvantage gap – the gap in attainment between poorer pupils and their peers – in 16-19 education.

Measuring the gap among sixth form and college students is not easy 

Measuring the gap among sixth form and college students is not easy. Unlike key stage 4, the 16-19 phase in England has no common qualifications. During key stage 4, the vast majority of students will take common GCSE qualifications, including in English and Maths. However, in the 16-19 phase, the qualifications taken are so broad and varied that constructing an overall measure of attainment is more complicated.

It is this issue which our new research seeks to tackle, creating a provisional measure for the attainment gap between different groups of students and investigating the drivers behind this gap.

Our findings are stark 

Our findings are stark. Even before the disruption of the pandemic, we find that disadvantaged students are the equivalent of around three A level grades behind their better off peers. In some parts of the country, this gap is as wide as five whole A level grades.

Our analysis shows that a large proportion of the attainment gap can be explained by prior attainment. In other words, the low attainment of disadvantaged students at 16-19, is largely due to the fact that they already have lower attainment before they reach this stage. This low attainment from their earlier stages of education is difficult to recover from.

Qualification type and the ability of students’ peers also explain part of the gap too. This means some of the under-attainment of disadvantaged groups relates to the qualification pathways they take (tending to be lower-level qualifications) and their cohorts (disadvantaged students tend to cluster together in the same institutions).

Some characteristics of disadvantaged students are associated with higher attainment, therefore making their disadvantage gap smaller than it would be otherwise. Having a first language other than English, for example, is linked with higher attainment, and works to shrink the gap very slightly.

Students may be facing an extra penalty on their attainment in sixth form and college simply because they are from a poor background 

However, whilst much of the gap can be explained by the characteristics of disadvantaged students, some of it looks likely to be driven by the continued effect of socio-economic disadvantage itself within this phase. In other words, students may be facing an extra penalty on their attainment in sixth form and college simply because they are from a poor background. This component of the gap is equivalent to almost half an A level grade.

Each of these drivers of low attainment for disadvantaged students has significant implications for policy. 

Firstly, with a large proportion of the gap being explained by differences in attainment at GCSE, the commitment to closing the disadvantage gap in earlier stages of education must continue. Indeed, with learning at each stage building upon that of the previous stage, every effort must be made to stop students falling further behind as they progress through school.

Secondly, with the qualification types and the ability of students’ peers making a significant contribution to the gap, more effort must be made to improve the information, advice and guidance provided to students, so that they can make the right choices on the paths they take after GCSE.

Thirdly, while intervening early is crucial, there must be concerted action to improve outcomes at this phase of education. We have proposed additional targeted funding towards disadvantaged students to address this.

Learning loss over the last year appears to have had a larger impact on disadvantaged young people

Finally, while these large gaps are of great concern, it is important to note that our research predates the pandemic. Learning loss over the last year appears to have had a larger impact on disadvantaged young people, who tend to have lower levels of access to digital devices or a quiet working space, and are less likely to be engaging in online face-to-face teaching.

The government has taken some steps with catch up funding for this academic year and next, including for 16-19 education. But it is very clear that we now need a bold and long-term plan that meets the scale of this challenge.

Addressing the many adverse effects of the pandemic will take time and resources. But beyond this, our findings today also show that we need interventions permanently built into the system that work to reduce educational inequalities not just early on in a young person’s education journey, but at the crucial 16-19 phase too.

Felix Bunting, Researcher, EPI

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