Report Overview

The further education sector has an important role to play in social mobility. Young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to undertake further learning in the FE sector, rather than the traditional academic route of A levels and higher education. FE plays a key role between compulsory level schooling and HE, providing important vocational and technical skills needed by employers in the labour market, as well as providing a potential path to higher level study for those who have chosen not to go down the academic route.

This report, commissioned in partnership with the Centre for Vocational Education Research at the LSE and authored by Elena Lisauskaite, Steven McIntosh, Stefan Speckesser and Héctor Espinoza, examines various pieces of evidence relating to the relationship between FE participation and outcomes, such as access to well-paid employment and progression to higher education.


The proportion of post-16 students in FE colleges


The proportion of students on free school meals who attend an FE college.


The earnings gap between disadvantaged students at FE colleges and their wealthier peers.

Key Findings

Education Progression and family disadvantage in published statistics

  • Participation in full-time education by 16-18 year olds has continued to rise since 2000, increasing by 16 percentage points before the pandemic in 2019, to stand at 73%. This has been particularly at the expense of young people moving into employment.
  • Of 16-18 year olds in full-time education in 2019, around 47% are studying in schools or sixth form colleges, with around 37% at general FE or other specialist colleges. Most are studying for Level 3 qualifications (A levels or vocational), though around 30% of males and 20% of females are studying for qualifications at Level 2 or below.
  • Young people from a more disadvantaged background (eligible for Free School Meals – FSM) are less likely to attend a Sixth Form School/College than those from a more advantaged background (37% versus 56%) and more likely to attend an FE College (43% versus 32%).
  • Young people from a disadvantaged background are more likely to move into employment and less likely to move into higher education (HE) after Key Stage 5, compared to those from a more advantaged background. However, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students’ progression to HE is smaller amongst those studying in FE Colleges at KS5, compared to those studying in Sixth Forms.

Post-16 choices, differences observed in the FE sector and long-term outcomes

  • A majority of young people studying at a low level (Levels 1 or 2 in 2003/04) after GCSEs had not reached a higher level more than 10 years later. Similarly for those studying a vocational Level 3 qualification. By contrast, young people studying for academic qualifications at Level 3 (A levels) are more likely than not to have attained a degree by 2015.
  • The vast majority of students attending a Sixth Form School/College post-KS4 do so to study A levels. In contrast, students studying at FE Colleges study a wider range of qualifications at more levels. Some still take A levels, though are less likely to proceed to a degree than their peers at Sixth Forms.
  • Female post-KS4 students are more likely to be studying at Level 3, and less likely to be studying at Level 1, than their male counterparts, and are ultimately more likely to go on to attain a degree.
  •  Within FE Colleges young people from a more disadvantaged background  are more likely to be studying for lower level qualifications at Level 1 or below, relative to the non-FSM group. Higher up the qualifications framework, those from a FSM background studying for a Level 3 qualification are also less likely to ultimately reach degree level than their non-FSM peers, both at FE Colleges and Sixth Form.

Multivariate Analysis

  • When we compare FE Colleges and Sixth Form Schools, holding constant the characteristics of their intake (prior attainment, social background) and the level of qualification ultimately achieved, then there are no differences in the average earnings of their graduates at age 28.
  • However, holding constant characteristics of institutions and students, young people from a more disadvantaged background earn less in annual earnings at 28 then those who were less disadvantaged, by around 11%, amongst students whose post-KS4 education was in a Sixth Form School/College. Amongst those who attended an FE College, this earnings gap increases to 15%.
  • When FE Colleges are compared to Sixth Form Schools facing similarly challenging institutional characteristics, young people from a disadvantaged background are more likely to reach HE having attended an FE College than such similar Sixth Form Schools.
  • 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.