Young people from low-income backgrounds are more likely to go on to higher education after attending a further education college than a sixth form with a similar intake, new research from the Sutton Trust has found.

The research – conducted by academics from the Centre for Vocational Education Research -  tracked two cohorts of pupils who took their GCSEs in 2002/03 and 2010/11 into university and the workplace. It found that once the characteristics of the pupils who attend FE compared to sixth form are taken into account, FE colleges perform strongly for disadvantaged pupils in terms of progression to Higher Education.

The research also found that there are no differences in the earnings outcomes between those who attend FE and schools at age 16, controlling for background and attainment of the individual and the institutions’ intake. However, at both FE colleges and schools there are significant gaps in earnings outcomes between those eligible for free school meals and their more advantaged classmates.

At age 28 those who were from poorer homes who attended a sixth form school or college earn on average 11% less than their wealthier peers - but for students who attended college, this increases to 15%. This could be in part due to the nature of the subjects studied and career paths taken, as well as factors associated with networks and cultural capital.

The research also found that disadvantaged students at college are more likely to be studying for lower qualifications than wealthier students. There is little progression for those studying at low levels: the majority of those studying for a Level 1 or 2 (equivalent to GCSE level or lower) qualification at post-16 had not gained any further qualifications a decade later. Many such students become ‘stuck’, particularly those not passing GCSE maths and English.

However, given that young people who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to attend a further education college, the report emphasises the importance of FE for social mobility.

A focus on this sector is vital if we want to close the gap in educational and career outcomes:

  • The long-term underfunding of post-16 education compared to schools should be reversed in this autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review.
  • The Trust is also calling for an extension of pupil premium funding to 16-19 year-olds to ensure that disadvantaged pupils are properly supported in their studies.
  • The cohort of students currently in post-16 education have faced huge disruption and cancelled GCSE exams. There should be greater investment in education recovery funding for this group, and an extension of the National Tutoring Programme to post-16.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Disadvantage continues after the age of 16. Students from a low-income background must be supported at this crucial stage of their education.

"Further education colleges play a vital role in providing a bridge between school and university or the workplace. It’s crucial that colleges are well-funded so that they can give the best support they can, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.”

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

“The findings from the Sutton Trust reinforce what we know about further education colleges - that they do a great job supporting large numbers of young people who have struggled in school to be able to achieve and progress, but they do that with less funding than is needed. If the Government is serious about levelling up then it needs to invest more, as the Sutton Trust recommends, in those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds so that colleges can provide the extra support needed.

"Sadly, the pandemic has exacerbated the outcomes gap between wealthier students and those from poorer backgrounds. Worryingly, for disadvantaged post-16 students who have the least amount of time left in education there is an urgent need for education recovery funding to give them the best chance of succeeding. The comprehensive spending review next week is the government’s chance to begin to close those gaps, over the long term.”

The report was co-funded with the Centre for Vocational Education Research and authored by Elena Lisauskaite, Steven McIntosh, Stefan Speckesser and Héctor Espinoza.

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