From education to employment

EPI finds stark inequalities in post-16 education outcomes across the UK

students sat working together

A new report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Oxford University Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) has revealed major differences in the provision of post-16 education and training (E&T) across the UK nations and exposed stark inequalities in outcomes for young learners.

The report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, identifies differences in E&T policy across the four devolved nations; shows how these differences impact pathways and choices for young learners; and analyses how these differences are reflected in learner outcomes and inequalities.

Key findings:

  • There has been a very high level of policy churn experienced within UK E&T and this has been detrimental. The nearconstant policy churn harms the morale of staff and stakeholders, as well as negatively shaping the aspirations of young people and their perceptions of E&T pathways.
  • There has been significant and growing divergence in education and training policy across the four nations, particularly since devolution in 1999. Our analysis of policy documents showed divergence in six key areas:
    • Understandings of the purpose of E&T.
    • Approaches to coordinating E&T.
    • Approaches to funding.
    • The relationship between Further Education and Higher Education.
    • The role of employers and qualifications.
  • Wales has the highest share of pupils ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’ (NEET).  Nearly 11 per cent of young people aged 16-18 in Wales were classified as NEET in 2022-23, compared with 8 per cent in England, 9 per cent in Scotland and 5 per cent in Northern Ireland.
  • Education and labour market outcomes are also worse for working-class young people in Wales. Young people in Wales from working-class backgrounds were the least likely to hold A-level equivalent qualifications (56 per cent in Wales, compared with 60-65 per cent for working-class young people in the rest of the UK). Young people from working-class backgrounds in Wales were also the least likely to be in employment (71 per cent) when compared with the rest of the UK (74-78 per cent).
  • Fewer apprenticeships are taken by young people in England and Wales than in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, only around 20 per cent of apprenticeships are taken by 16–18-year-olds. 16-18/19-year-olds make up a larger share of total apprenticeships in Scotland (37 per cent) and Northern Ireland (52 per cent). 
  • Young people are much more likely to attend schools rather than colleges in Scotland and Northern Ireland. About 79 per cent of young people aged 16–17-year-olds were in schools in Scotland and around 60 per cent in Northern Ireland. These figures were much lower in England (45 per cent) and Wales (35 per cent), with young people more likely to go to colleges.
  • Higher Education participation among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds is highest in England. In England, Wales and Scotland there has been an increasing share of higher education enrolments from students from the most deprived areas.
    • In England about 20 per cent of 18-year-olds in the most deprived areas attend higher education.
    • The rate is around 15-16 per cent in Scotland and Wales.
    • Over the last decade the figure for Northern Ireland has remained at around 13 per cent.  
  • Across all four nations, female school leavers are more likely to progress to Higher Education.
    • In England, about 42 per cent of 18-year-old girls went to university, compared with 30 per cent of 18-year-old boys in 2022-23
    •  In Northern Ireland, 47 per cent of 18-year-old girls went to university compared with 30 per cent of 18-year-old boys in 2022-23
    • In Scotland, 48 per cent of female school leavers went to university compared with 35 per cent of male school leavers in 2021-22.
    • In Wales, about 36 per cent of 18-year-olds girls went to higher education, and only about 24 per cent of 18-year-old Welsh boys in 2022-23.

Policy Recommendations

Based on the report’s findings, the researchers make a set of recommendations for policymakers on the overall direction of post-16 education and training systems across the four nations.

  • More active and urgent action is required in Wales. Policymakers in Wales should be taking more urgent and active steps to understand and improve post-16 educational outcomes and inequalities. 
  • A greater policy focus on inequalities is needed. Equipped with better data on inequalities between different groups of students, policymakers across the four nations should be better placed to address the inequalities in post-16 access and outcomes.
  • A new stable policy settlement is needed. This will require political consensus within each nation on goals and ambitions that can be realised, well-funded institutions and structures, and a stable set of qualifications.
  • Data and statistics should be better, more comparable and more focused on inequalities. The UK government and devolved administrations should make more effort to produce data in ways that allow for comparisons, particularly in terms of inequalities in access to different pathways and outcomes, through linked administrative data. 

Sector Response

Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said:

“Our report exposes worrying inequalities in outcomes for students, as well as significant variation in the approaches taken to the provision of post-16 education and training across the four UK nations. We observe large inequalities across all four UK nations, but the problem is most acute in Wales, where we see the lowest shares of young people with different educational qualifications, the lowest participation in higher education and larger numbers of young people not in education, employment, education or training. This is a situation which requires urgent action by policymakers in

Dr James Robson, Director of the Oxford University Centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE), said:

“This interim report highlights the important ways in which education and training policy approaches are converging and diverging across the four nations and how these shifting policy logics shape learner experiences and outcomes. It shows excessive levels of policy churn across all the UK nations which has had a damaging impact on the stability of the education and training sector.

“Our analysis highlights a need for more cross-party policy work that unpacks the challenges of different approaches to coordinating education and training, both market and systems-based thinking, and deals proactively with growing inequalities in the UK.”

Dr Emily Tanner, Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“By comparing education and training provision across the UK nations, this report highlights opportunities to better support young people to achieve positive education and employment outcomes.”

David Hughes, Chief Executive of Association of Colleges, said:

“I’m really pleased to see this wealth of useful information and analysis comparing education and training in the four nations. There’s a lot to digest and a lot more to learn from the divergence in policy, funding and systems but as we have learned in the college sector, the fundamentals of learning are the same. At AoC, we are strong advocates of learning across the four nations through our College Alliance and always encourage policy makers to share in that learning.

“The report confirms that the very high level of policy churn has been detrimental to post-16 education and training despite the broad consensus across the political parties of the need for a more coherent, effective post-16 system. We have seen some of this just last week in England, with another change in policy around English and maths funding rules, which is unfair to learners, unfeasible for colleges and implemented without discussion. Whilst stability might be too much to ask for after the general election, we would be hoping for strong engagement between politicians, policy makers and the college staff who will have to implement any changes being proposed. Co-design of a better post-16 education and training system will only come through good analysis and learning from reports like this and deep engagement between the key parties over the long term.

“The report highlights the very important need for better data so that addressing inequalities can be at the forefront of policy making in all four nations. The lack of join-up on data about children, young people and adults as they navigate their way through the education and training systems hinders good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that policy makers should be focussed on.

“Joined-up thinking and learning across the nations can only be a good thing: there is much that our four nations can learn from each other, and through The College Alliance, AoC is facilitating conversations and collaboration between college leaders and policy makers across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.”

Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at NCFE, said:

“An inability to upskill and access higher paying jobs places a great strain on those from underserved backgrounds. There needs to be further investment into ensuring access is equal, especially for vocational students to be able to fully engage in practical learning.

“We still have a system where many prospective learners face losing their benefits if they engage in certain types of training. This lack of joined-up policymaking leaves people falling between the cracks, wishing to upskill but facing a loss of income to do so.

“The lack of opportunities for apprentices aged 16-18 is a real problem that doesn’t seem to be acknowledged by policymakers. Many young people want to earn at this age and find their only option is to progress into low-paid employment. This creates a circle of inequality as a lack of training and qualifications often limits their future earning potential.”

Faiza Khan MBE, Executive Director, Corporate Affairs and Foundation, City & Guilds:

“The EPI report echoes what 5000 young people from across the UK told City and Guilds last year. Our research  found that they feel the odds are stacked against them and many do not  believe that education is preparing them to get the job they want. This was further compounded for young people who have faced additional challenges and disadvantage. For example, young carers, care and prison leavers and those who come from less affluent families.

“The current system is baking in inequality and preventing millions of people from meeting their potential and the EPI report resurfaces that this is felt across the UK. If we want to address the potential for people to thrive, productivity to rise and places to progress – skills has to be looked at as an investment in the future offering social and economic return rather than a piecemeal policy approach, as the report finds.”  

Henry Foulkes, Policy and Public Affairs Lead at Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), said:

“The comprehensive report outlines the vast inequalities in outcomes for young people when progressing into employment, education or training, which is an issue that demands immediate attention across all four nations.

“We welcome the report’s recommendation for a greater policy focus on inequalities. For too long, the stubbornly high number of young people classified as ‘NEET’ underlines the systemic failure in supporting young people in the UK.
Worryingly, these issues risk being exacerbated further if there isn’t a commitment from the government to extend the UK Shared Prosperity Fund after 2025.

“The report’s findings, coupled with the short-term funding cycles that organisations in sector operate under, emphasises the need for sustained, longer-term investment and more coordination between educational institutions, employability providers, young people themselves and employers at a local level.”

Scott Parkin FIEP, Group CEO, Institute of Employability Professionals, said:

“The report has shed light on some concerning disparities within post-16 education and training across the UK nations, and a need for cohesive action. Addressing these inequalities requires a unified approach to policy-making that prioritises the alignment of education, training, and employability initiatives; working together towards a more equitable system that better supports the diverse needs of young people and enhances their prospects for the future.”

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  1. There are differences. However, there always will be. Understanding the context in which things happen (or don’t happen) is essential.
    Differences are not the same as inequalities. A fish can swim better than a monkey and most of us would not see that as inequality.
    Not all inequalities need levelling up nor will more expenditure alone deliver the results we want.
    Life is full of trade offs.
    Access by individuals to different universities in the 4 nations is not equal in practice although would be undergraduates can apply where they wish.
    We need to be clear about equality of understanding related to terms and words. HE is not the same as University. Does it help to use levels 1 to 7 instead of the names of different qualifications.
    Poverty levels, the size and shape and nature of economic activity, history and geography, life expectancy all differ from nation to nation, area to area.

    The report is very useful but not all the recommendations should apply to all nations.