Our CEO James Turner argues the case for extending the pupil premium to the 16-19 age group.

Today, we’ve released new research looking at the role Further Education colleges play in social mobility. Overall the message is a positive one: when you take into account the background circumstances of schools and their pupils, disadvantaged students in further education colleges are actually more likely to progress on to higher education than disadvantaged students in similar sixth forms.

However, disadvantaged students are more likely to attend FE colleges than their peers and they’re more likely to be studying lower qualifications than more advantaged students.

Given the role they play in support disadvantaged students, FE colleges are crucial vehicles for social mobility. Yet too often post-16 education – in both sixth forms and FE colleges – is an afterthought. Ahead of next week’s Spending Review, we are calling on the Chancellor to fund this sector properly. Disadvantage doesn’t end at age 16. Students from a low-income background should be supported at this crucial stage of their education. Crucially, this includes extending the pupil premium to the 16-19 age group.

Since its introduction in 2010, the pupil premium has helped sharpen the focus on improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged pupils. By recognising the stubborn link between family income and education outcomes, it has allowed schools to target additional resources at those pupils who need it most. Importantly, the premium has also focused the conversation not only on the amount of money spent on the poorest young people – but how those funds are spent too. According to our recent polling, 69% of teachers now use the Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit to help inform evidence-based practice, which includes how best to allocate pupil premium funds.

The Pupil Premium certainly has the potential to be a transformative policy in terms of boosting social mobility.  In 2015 we saw the introduction of the early years pupil premium, to recognise the additional barriers the very youngest children face in becoming ready for school. So it is even more surprising that this support does not at present extend into post-16 settings.  Not only has this sector been historically under-funded, but we also know it is crucial for determining a young person’s future education and career prospects.

The need for additional support for disadvantaged students at this stage of their education has never been greater. While all pupils have had their learning affected by the pandemic, our research has shown time and again that students from lower-income backgrounds have been hit the hardest.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, students in independent schools were twice as likely to take part in online lessons every day as those who were at state schools. And poorer families generally found it harder to engage with digital learning at home due to a lack of a quiet space to study, poor WIFI or not having access to a suitable laptop or tablet. Many schools and colleges in disadvantaged areas, struggling with fewer resources and multiple challenges, were not geared up for an immediate switch to digital learning. Understandably, it took many institutions a while to find their feet – and poorer parents meanwhile felt less confident in supporting their children’s work at home compared to their better-off peers.

Yet despite all this, students in post-16 education have been conspicuously left out of the majority of education recovery planning. These young people have experienced severe disruption in two of the most crucial years of their education. Their plight has been exacerbated by the uncertainty around exams and assessment which, according to our research, dominated student concerns throughout the pandemic.  They also reported anxieties about the future, whether that’s the likelihood of securing an apprenticeship, work experience, university place or a good job.

Despite this, most of the significant policy solutions put forward so far, including the recovery premium and the National Tutoring Programme, have focused on pupils age 5-16. This means that schools and colleges have no additional resources to provide further support to students going on to some of the most important years of their education.

There would be significant benefits to extending the pupil premium to 16-19 year-olds: colleges and sixth forms could use the funding in range of ways to best support their students, depending on their context and the communities they serve. They could invest in interventions to make help both short- and long- term catch up, including providing tailored support for students resitting English and maths GCSEs, and helping to aid transitions into careers and further study. A post-16 premium could also be used to provide high quality professional development for staff (and absolutely crucial building block of any successful system), and incentives to attract and retain specialist teachers.

This additional help would support the poorest students to get back on track for A Levels, T Levels, BTECs, and for those who need GCSE passes to progress further in their education. These young people have the least time left in secondary education before they move onto higher education, training and the labour market. It’s also one of the best ways to ensure the further education colleges, which today’s research has proven are vital for the educational infrastructure of the UK, can best support their students. It is vital that resources are invested in helping this group before they leave school and college for good. The clock really is ticking on the chance to make a difference.

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