Education Datalab’s recent report on post-16 education has got it wrong, says James Kewin.

It is a myth that the best way to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people is to increase the number of school sixth forms.

Last month, Education Datalab produced a report – handily summarised by Schools Week – entitled Social and ethnic inequalities in post-16 choices available and choices made at age 16 on behalf of the Social Mobility Commission. Given the impeccable credentials of those producing it, it seemed certain the report would make an important contribution to improving social mobility in England. Sadly, it did not.

The report has two major flaws. First, it claims sixth-form colleges are more selective than schools. Second, that post-16 outcomes are worse in areas without school sixth forms. Both are wrong.

The authors claim that “sixth-form colleges are generally more selective in their intake than school sixth forms”, yet there is no reference to the source of this assertion.

It is not true. The response to a parliamentary question last month said that the average GCSE point score of students enrolled at a sixth-form college was lower than that of students attending a school sixth form (and our students are less likely to have achieved five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths).

The Social Mobility Commission is backing the wrong horse

We also know from another recent parliamentary question that sixth-form college students were more likely to be eligible for free school meals at the age of 15 than their peers in school sixth forms. Sixth-form colleges also receive more disadvantage funding per student, reflecting the particular needs of the young people that they educate.

So if recruiting students with lower GCSE scores, higher levels of free school meal eligibility and a greater need for disadvantage funding makes sixth-form colleges “generally more selective” than school sixth forms, we stand guilty as charged.

Regarding the second claim, the authors use a complex methodology to estimate the impact of living in an area with no school sixth forms (and where students must therefore progress to a sixth-form or FE college). Sandwiched between 40 pages of report and 36 pages of appendices, they offer a single page of analysis, which begins — unpromisingly — by telling us they “can only speculate” why post-16 outcomes are worse in areas without school sixth forms.

But the Department for Education performance tables tell a different story. There, it is sixth-form colleges that outperform school sixth forms, particularly in value-added performance. It is odd that a report from the Social Mobility Commission focuses so much on attainment and has almost nothing to say about the all-important value-added progress measure.

The report also tells us that students in schools make more “ambitious” higher education choices, concluding that schools have more success in securing “the best possible university place for their students”. This reflects the report’s focus on the take-up of ‘facilitating subjects’ and progression to Russell Group universities.

Sixth-form college students are less likely than school students to drop out of university and are more likely to secure a first or 2:1

This is a very narrow definition of success and misses the obvious point that it is progression to the right course at the right university that really matters. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (not included in the report) shows that sixth-form college students are less likely than school students to drop out of university and are more likely to secure a first or 2:1 at the end of their studies.

So why does all this matter? Because the Social Mobility Commission advises the government on matters relating to social mobility. In advocating the expansion of school sixth forms it is backing the wrong horse. There is a long tail of underperformance in school sixth forms, particularly small ones, something Ofsted identified in its latest annual report. On a range of measures, the performance of sixth-form providers declines in line with size — a fact that sits uneasily with another of the report’s unsubstantiated claims that smaller class and cohort sizes are beneficial to students.

The report also overlooks the potential role that an expanded sixth-form college sector could play in driving up social mobility.

Our sector does not have all the answers, but it has a strong track record that is simply not accurately reflected in this report.

The sector is ready and willing to do more, but it may have to overcome the stubbornly persistent myth that increasing the number of school sixth forms is the best way to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people.

 

James Kewin is deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association