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The cross-roads of social mobility: post 16 education choices

As they reach the age of 16, young people make critical decisions – this is a pivotal moment that will have a lasting impact on their future prospects in life. These choices strongly influence their future educational opportunities, employment prospects and how much they’ll go on to earn. In other words, they impact social mobility.

Our new report The road not taken: the drivers of course selection, investigates why there are differences in education course choices – and their likely consequences.

Unsurprisingly, our report finds that those pursuing traditional academic qualifications (A levels followed by university) rank amongst the highest earners in later life, while those pursing technical qualifications usually rank lowest. The trouble is, from a social mobility perspective, this creates what can be deemed an ‘artificial barrier’ for young people who come from a disadvantaged background.

Even if they perform just as well as other students in their GCSEs, those from poorer backgrounds are still more likely to lose out on future career earnings because of their education choices at 16.

We also found significant gender gaps, particularly when it comes to disadvantaged white women – who are more likely to choose courses with low prospects in the labour market. This is even when we control for their prior attainment – in other words, poorer women with the potential to go into higher earning careers underestimate their own potential.

There are also sharp regional disparities. Disadvantaged women in the regions are much more likely to pick courses that lead to lower earnings, than those in London. Women in the north-east and north-west are the least likely to enrol on high-earning courses. The same pattern holds true for men, but the differences are much less pronounced.

“There is no doubt growing up in deprivation, especially for women, has an enduring impact on early career earnings. It is particularly worrying that women appear to choose subjects that lead them to a smaller wage packet than men.” Alastair Da CostaSocial Mobility Commissioner for Adult Skills and Further Education.

The ethnic groups most likely to take low-earning courses are disadvantaged Black Caribbean students and disadvantaged White British women. Only 27% of women and 22% of men from disadvantaged Black Caribbean backgrounds took courses in the top 50% of earnings. The same is true of 24% of disadvantaged White-British women (compared to 33% of disadvantaged White-British men).

This is not just a problem for social mobility, but also one for business – as an employer you may be missing out on talented individuals because of the choices they made before they even applied for a job.

So what can employers do to redress the balance? We have put together three key recommendations:

1. Work with secondary schools to provide information, advice and guidance

Our report strongly supports the idea that there is a high proportion of “lost talent” and “academic mismatch” in the education system. Namely poor, high attaining students at GCSEs who, for a variety of reasons, do not secure a place on higher-earning courses.

You can start by targeting disadvantaged students below year 10 in your outreach programmes. This could include working with partners in our directory, such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, or reaching out to local secondary schools and Multi Academy Trusts, to provide information for pupils about career options.

2. Outreach programmes aimed at tackling gender disparities should do more to showcase ‘role models’

Even with good GCSE results, young women from less advantaged backgrounds are most likely to choose post-16 technical courses that lead to lower paid jobs, such as in retail, childcare and social care. Whereas men from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to choose technical subjects which lead to higher earnings, such as engineering or IT. In interviews with young people, we found deeply ingrained gender stereotypes are still at play.

Employers can help address this by tackling gender stereotypes. One way to do this is by showcasing female role models. Rather than simply stating that these routes are ‘open to all’ and sharing the industry’s values and commitment to gender equality, young students would benefit from hearing the experiences of other women. They need to see specific examples of women from lower socio-economic backgrounds sharing their educational paths and career experiences, and recounting any obstacles they might have faced along the way.

3. Showcase your apprenticeship and technical education pathways, be clear on the skills and competencies needed to progress

Many students have not been exposed to technical education and apprenticeship options before they hit 16, and we find that FE colleges sometimes have to work hard to find a good fit for them. Employers can help young people see how non-academic routes can lead to good career prospects.

Invite people in your industry who followed non-academic routes post-16, to share their stories – talking about the skills they gained, how they were able to progress into employment and secure quality jobs.

And this has a positive knock-on effect for business. Individuals who start their careers via an apprenticeship are likely to stay longer, reducing recruitment costs. They also have unparalleled knowledge of a business from working their way up the ladder – this grass roots understanding can lead to greater efficiencies.

These are just three examples of the types of initiatives you can take as a business, to open up opportunities for everyone. Gender, ethnic and socio-economic background do not sit in silo from each other. What is clear, is that the pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities and widened those gaps further. It is vital for government and employers alike to tackle the disparities in earnings potential that happen at a young age – and have a lasting impact of young people’s futures.

Read the full report here