The Social Mobility Commission have published research into post-16 education in the UK covering what determines the course and qualification choices people make and the consequences of them. You can access a full copy of the report here.
The report found that the choices that students make are influenced by their socio-economic background, the opportunities available where they live and their prior educational attainment (mainly because good GCSEs grades open the door to A-Level and other Level 3 qualifications). This can impact their social mobility by the time they turn 30 and is reflected in their early-career earnings.
Disadvantage, gender and geography impacts choices
Significant gaps in careers guidance for young people have resulted in two in five reporting they had not received any career guidance by the time they were 16. The report also found young people and providers felt that there is much less careers information on technical routes than academic routes.
Young people, particularly young women, from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to choose low-earning courses. About 50% of disadvantaged women and 31% of disadvantaged men take low-earning courses ranked in the bottom 25% of earnings. In comparison, the most privileged men and women are 28 percentage points (ppts) and 31 ppts more likely to take a course in the top 25% of earnings than men in their most deprived peers.
When looking at the routes young people choose, disadvantaged young people are more likely to choose technical and apprenticeship qualifications, but most of the limited number of high earning technical routes are taken by men. Within those that do choose technical qualifications, men are most likely to take higher-earning courses such as engineering, planning or construction, and women were more likely to take low-earning courses such as retail, commerce, health, care and public services.
This is backed up further with findings that show there is a strong gender divide within subjects such as engineering, IT, beauty and childcare across all qualification types, which teachers suggest replicates the gender bias within the industries.
Another driving factor of course choice found in the report was geography; the availability of courses where young people lived and the distance. Disadvantaged young people living in London are more likely to take Level 3 courses and above as there is a wide availability of school sixth forms and lower-cost transport links. This was much less likely in the North-West and North-East of England where there is the lowest availability of school sixth forms.
The report notes cost of travel and time spent travelling influence a learners choice too, particularly an apprentice who travels to both their place of study and place of work.
Other findings in the report suggest that prior attainment mostly explains course choices in terms of their earning potential, but some disadvantaged groups are still more likely to choose lowest paying routes. For example, higher achieving disadvantaged students are less likely to choose the higher-earning academic routes than more privileged peers. Disadvantaged women with mid to low level attainment are more likely to choose low-earning technical courses than their peers from privileged backgrounds with similar level attainment.
Outcomes of course choice
Disadvantaged young people are more likely to be disappointed by their choices, this is because lower achieving learners frequently find mandatory, corrective content replacing some of their choices, decreasing their enjoyment and sense of freedom. Disappointment also comes from high aspirations but low attainment for disadvantaged young people, resulting in them having to take lower earning routes.
The report found that those choosing low-earning courses that yield the bottom 50% of earnings were more likely to be those from a disadvantaged Black Caribbean background and White British women. Only 27% of women and 22% of men from disadvantaged Black Caribbean backgrounds and only 24% of disadvantaged White British women took courses in the top 50% of earnings.
A-Levels are the highest earning routes with 80% of A level courses ranked in the top 25% of earnings. This partly reflects the fact that academic courses often facilitate access to higher education. Courses combining academic and technical qualifications are relatively high-earning, with 70% of students ending up in jobs ranked in the top 50% of earnings. However, Technical qualifications are mostly associated with low earnings with 62% of classroom-based technical qualifications and 40% of apprenticeships yielding the bottom 25% of earnings.
This research by the Social Mobility Commission sheds light on why young people are making the qualifications choices they are and the impact this has on them into early adulthood. The pandemic is still re-shaping the labour market and some changes will be permanent and structural.
This report highlights that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, from ethnic minorities and young women fare worse than their peers.
The Further Education reform White Paper and the initiatives within the Plan for Jobs will go some way in supporting young people. There needs to be assurance and further measures available that supports disadvantaged young people, this support needs to be fed in to by those who need it most.