Earlier this week a very clear, very useful report was released. And no, it wasn’t PISA.

Published on Monday, the ‘social and ethnic inequalities in post-16 choices’ report sounds amazingly dull. But it isn’t. It’s rather great.

The first clue it would include gems was that Education Datalab wrote it, on behalf of the Social Mobility Commission, and they’re renowned for finding things other people miss.

Second, it reveals information on a topic we seldom hear about. Although over half a million young people transition out of school each year at 16, our knowledge of how they make their choices is pretty limited.

Enter this report!

It’s densely written, so you have to weed a bit, but three killer findings each stood out to me, with some sub-findings related to each.

 

What do we know about pupils’ choices at 16?

 

1. Poorer pupils don’t make the same choices post-16 as their wealthier peers, even when they have the same grades

This knocked me for six. I’m not so stupid that I think poorer pupils don’t have different priorities in their school choices, but the data is so stark it really brought home that even if teachers make sure poorer pupils get the best grades possible, this won’t suddenly make for educational equality.

 

Why not? Well, here’s some things Datalab found:

> Non-free school meal kids choose school sixth forms over colleges, at higher rates than free school meal kids – even controlling for qualifications and differences in access due to location

> Poorer pupils are 26% less likely to attend a school sixth form, sixth form college, or independent school even controlling for background – this means that further education (or jobs) are picking up poorer kids, even when everything else is equal

> Pupils in low-income families are more likely to attend a less selective post-16 institution and one closer to home – Remember, this holds true even when their grades say they could go to a more selective school or further afield. The study can’t say why this is the case, but the logical guess would be to do with transport costs and also trying to limit risk

> Poorer pupils are less likely to study maths and science, even controlling for prior qualifications

In each case, it looks as if poorer pupils try to limit risk when they make a choice of where to study after the age of 16.

They avoid harder subjects, schools with high barriers to entry, and schools that are further away. In doing so they are less likely to go to the highest-performing institutions.

For as long as this is true, educational inequality – especially at university level – isn’t going to go away.

 

 

2. Boys and girls behave differently in their post-16 choices, even when controlling for grades

As with differences between pupils from low-income families, we also see differences between pupils when looking at their gender.

In this case, even when controlling for prior qualification and access to institutions, we find that:

> Boys are more likely to attend school sixth form or selective post-16 institutions

> Girls stay closer to home

> Boys are more likely to drop out at 16

These are mildly interesting findings, but not mind-boggling.

However, the next two seemed genuinely counter-intuitive:

  • 1. Girls are less well represented at ‘elite’ universities than would be expected given their higher grades at GCSE and A-levels
    This is interesting. One of the big concerns among education at the moment is boys’ underachievement. But what this suggests is that there is a penalty mechanism applied against girls when they apply to university, which evens up the balance a little. (Not entirely, girls still outnumber boys at top universities, but this suggests something is happening to rebalance).

ALSO,

  • 2. Girls are more likely to do a science, engineering or maths (SEM) degree than boys after controlling for grades, etc
    Turns out, girls do like science. Way more than we would expect. The report points out this is because subjects such as psychology, nursing and medicine are included as science. It’s a lovely side-note, because it made me go ‘aaaah’, as if some big thing had just been explained. Then it made me immediately embarrassed that I had just made the assumption that medicine was, somehow, not a “real science” because it involves people. Either way, it means we need to be careful when pushing the “girls don’t do science and maths” line.

 

 

3. Areas without school sixth forms have worse progress for pupils compared to areas with school sixth forms – why?

The report was able to use pupil data to show that areas where pupils go to school sixth forms have overall less good progress for pupils than areas where school sixth forms exist.

This does not mean sixth form colleges are bad. What it means is that when you look at the progress of all pupils in the area it is less good.

So what is going on?

The report gives a few ideas, largely pushing the positive of school sixth forms:

> School sixth forms are typically smaller and give fewer A-level choices. Because of this, pupils are more likely to study traditional A-levels which, the report suggests, could be more helpful for going on to university.

> School sixth forms often have smaller class sizes

> The more homogeneous intake at school sixth forms may make teaching easier and therefore better

 > Pupils in school sixth forms already have established relationships with their teachers

 

I would suggest a further reason. One of the issues may be that vulnerable learners are more likely to be kept in school sixth forms which make accomodations for them, whereas in areas with sixth form colleges they tend to go on to further education colleges. And those colleges are not always great at securing progress for them.

This isn’t always the case, and there are a raft of reasons the FE sector give for this, some of which I have time for, some of which I think reflect a cultural attitude of “what can you do with these kids” which is no longer acceptable within schools.

But I do wonder if the progress rates are a product of what is going on in FE colleges rather than being related to sixth form colleges. Admittedly, that’s a guess. More research definitely needed. Happy to revise if it shows I’m wrong.

 

So why do these findings matter?

Ultimately, the report is clever for piecing together complicated bits of information to test if things we believe about pupil behaviour actually bear out in the real world.

The report cleverly pieces together complicated information to test if things we believe about pupil behaviours bear out in the real world

Sometimes, it seems, they don’t. The science finding, in particular, is important. But so are some of the findings around difference.

Maybe it doesn’t matter that poorer pupils make different choices at 16, but if it affects how they go on to university – and it looks like it does – then we need to think through the reasons for those choices, and consider if nudges could be made to change them. Would transport access help? Are school bursaries being used to encourage good choices? Was there this difference when 16 to 18-year-olds were able to access the educational maintenance allowance that paid them to stay in school?

There is also an important lesson about the impact of selective schools. The data shows that poorer pupils do not attend selective schools at the same rate as wealthier counterparts even when their grades are the same.  This shows that even if more selective options are available, poorer pupils often won’t compete for them.

Going forwards the data collected by government as pupils pass through their education is going to start showing up all manner of important patterns. It is going to be fascinating. But only if we listen and respond. This report is a great example of how that could happen.