High performing but less academic students need more ways to get on

 

A comparison of 16 to 18-year-old students following A-Level or vocational and technical routes shows us that Non-A-level students need more options for progression

 

Continued education investment should be the first choice for young people showing the best performance and achievement in both A-Level and vocational and technical routes (“Non-A-Levels”) between the ages of 16 and 18. For these successful students, attending higher education yields significant returns to education investment, especially in terms of life-time earnings, as shown for example is a recent report by the IFS. However, my recent study with Mathew Bursnall and Andreina Naddeo,  based on school-level data and linked education records found large differences in patterns of progression to higher education, which are mainly resulting from the choice of A-Level and Non-A-Level routes in upper secondary education, the so called Key Stage 5 (KS5).

We followed 650,000 English secondary school leavers of the academic year 2009/10 through the education registers until 2012/13, and found very different patterns of education progression. While 56% of all A-Level students move on to higher education after Key Stage 5, only 17% of the Non-A-Level students do so. Students combining A-Levels with Non-A-Levels show similar transition patterns to those doing A-Levels only. The lowest rates were observed for students starting initially on the A-Level route before completing on Non-A-Level programmes. The gap is smaller for high-performance students (using the old-style “UCAS-Tariff”), but still about thirty percentage points (Figure 1).

 

Source: Linked education register data for England, secondary school leavers 2009/10 (650,000; 407,000 in KS5 2010/11-2011/12)

 

We also found large differences in the percentages of those starting higher education attending Top Third Universities (based on the “Complete University Guide” definition) depending on the KS5 routes chosen, again also when trying to distinguish low and high attainers in either route (Figure 2). Subjects studied also differ by KS5 routes, with some higher percentages of Non-A-Level students enrolled in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) subjects and business studies (Figure 3).

 

Source: Linked education register data for England, secondary school leavers 2009/10 (650,000; 162,000 attending university in 2012/13)

 

Source: Linked education register data for England, secondary school leavers 2009/10 (650,000; 162,000 attending university in 2012/13)

 

Options to improve education progression for Non-A-Level students

The higher market value of certain non A-level qualifications no doubt encourages some students to enter the job market early, but this does not entirely explain the gap in education progression for those with a background in vocational and technical education. And since such qualifications are more often taken by students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, this lack of progression is likely to adversely affect social mobility.

How could the situation be improved?

  • Young people need to be well informed about how KS5 choices might affect long-term outcomes. A selection into Non-A-Level routes, while likely to have higher initial labour market value, may curtail options for educational progression.
  • A disadvantaged family background remains a barrier for young people to progress to A-Levels with long-term negative effects on social mobility. Improving targeted financial support for families would be another important mechanism to increase progression to A-Levels and higher education.
  • Students with successful achievement in Non-A-Level programmes would benefit from a tailored offer of higher education, which builds on their vocational and technical education and skills, for example Level 4 and Level 5 programmes. Such “higher vocational” education shows large effects on individual wages. Their positive earnings effects also imply improved workplace productivity, so there are effects beyond the individual for firms and for society at large.
  • Finally, the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy resulted in new Apprenticeship Standards, many involving Higher Apprenticeships, which can create further opportunities for higher education at either Levels 4 and 5 or degree (or equivalent) based on employer funding. They should offer new opportunities to improve education progression for high performers in vocational and technical routes.

 

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