Access to Further Education

Author: Gary Wootton

Much attention has been paid to the plight of those in receipt of A-Levels this summer – and rightly so. The government behaved appallingly, and has willingly recreated the unequal and unjust outcomes that should be a source of national shame. But there is a bigger problem with our post-16 system, and one that is unrelated to this one-off, crisis situation. 

Of particular importance as a point at which people ‘drop out’ of education is the transition from school to post-16 education. The expectation for young people to remain in education or training to 18, resultant from the Raising of the Participation Age, is fairly recent – introduced in only 2015. It is still relatively infant as policy, and there are still people falling through the cracks. Unsurprisingly, this cuts along socioeconomic lines. The transition is important because it still functions as a good measure of how successfully someone will make the final transition into employment or Higher Education (Hodgson and Spours, 2020). Higher Education access itself is – unsurprisingly – cut along socioeconomic lines, partly because it is so tightly linked to prior attainment. Disadvantaged students are under-represented at university, more-so in the more selective and esteemed universities, and more-so again in subjects leading directly to professional occupation. (Broecke, 2015) The admissions system is so heavily linked to KS5 performance that there are still policy levers which can help the system perform better – at school, at Further Education, at Higher Education, and beyond.

The pupils who don’t progress from KS4 to KS5 are the very ones we should be worried about most. Widening access to Further Education is the one thing that would most lead to a more able and qualified local community. Roughly half of 16 year olds have historically moved onto further education or training post-16, and this has been broadly a function of their KS4 performance which, as we know, is itself a function of their backgrounds. Reaching the half who historically haven’t is the “best bet” for policy makers.

Working with Further Education providers on their admissions would be a sensible activity for a government interested in promoting the interests of all children and young people. Admissions should be contextualised. ‘Easy’ means of contextualising admissions in line with what we know to be important would be to look at something like the IDACI index, however this is too crude: most disadvantaged individuals do not live in the most disadvantaged areas – postcode judgements inadvertently help some of those who need it least, and hinder some of those who need help most (Harrison and McCaig, 2015). The actual measures which would meaningfully contextualise a learner’s exam results are length and depth of disadvantage, and birth-month. If somebody had been collating, tracking and analysing this information through a child’s educational career in a local authority, it would be readily available to be used in contextualising admissions to FE.

As well as increasing the fairness of the admissions process, the contextual data would identify learners – early – who were more likely to be on the margins of FE participation and success. If you can identify a cohort of probable ‘near misses’ in advance, you can better support them. Key transition points include:

  1. The preparation for post-16 education during KS4;
  2. The applications process;
  3. Actual post-16 education; and
  4. The transition from post-16 education into Higher Education or employment.

Depending on the size of the cohort, a centralised response to supporting transition arrangements may be appropriate, or – more likely – the response is likely best left to the education providers themselves. Regardless, there is clearly a role for local government. At their most involved, they could actually and actively be working with more vulnerable children and young people. At least, though, they should be analysing data thoroughly to identify pupils likely to be at risk of entering or completing Further Education, and supporting the providers to ensure that interventions are effective and efficient. This is about workload reduction as much as anything; schools and other providers needn’t spend countless hours devising broadly similar responses when this could be handled or co-ordinated centrally. Schools and colleges – whose financial survival is premised partly on ‘bums on seats’ - have proven keen to recruit ‘marginal’ learners, or those likely to be ‘near misses’ with regards to participation and completion, but they’ve not yet all been able to organise effective routes through the system for them (Spours, 2017). This cohort of learners, too, is more vulnerable to the continuous cuts in funding for post-16 education, because they require more support and attention (Belfield, 2017). Parallel to the proactive support offered to these learners, there should be a recognition of the social justice imperatives for fair funding of Further Education, and a commitment to parity of financial support, not just a nominal parity of esteem.

The creation of more clearly defined and accessible progression routes for potentially vulnerable learners through Further Education should be locally devised and appropriate to the specifics of any given area. Collaboration between education providers, employers and other social partners must be facilitated. The education and training system and the economic development of an area do not exist effectively if kept distinct from one another. Schools and colleges should develop specialist provision in line with the growth areas of the local area’s economy; employers should contribute more to the development of progression routes in and between certain sectors; and everyone with any stake in the performance and success of these learners and the local area should be collaborating with a view to securing economic regeneration and educational improvements (Hodgson and Spours, 2018).


Belfield C C C (2017) Long-run comparisons of spending per pupil across different stages of education. The Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Broecke S (2015) University rankings: do they matter in the UK? Education Economics.
Hodgson A and Spours K (2018) A social ecosystem model: conceptualising and connecting working, living and learning in London's New East. UCL Institute of Education.
Hodgson A and Spours K (2020) Young People and Transitions in Upper Secondary Education in England: The Influence of Policy on the "Local Opportunity Landscape" In Youth On The Move: Tendencies and Tensions in Youth Policies and Practices (pp. 127-147). Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.
Harrison N and McCaig C (2015) An ecological fallacy in higher education policy. Journal of Further and Higher Education.
Spours K H (2017) 14-19 education and training in England: the concept of an extended upper secondary education phase revisited.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Access to Further Education © Gary Wootton 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 05.10.20

education, England, Article

Gary Hammonds


Teacher and activist

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