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16 August 2022

Inequality in English post-16 education

Over the past half-century, a great expansion in education has taken place both in England and around the world. The aim of this commentary is to describe some of the equity challenges arising from this great expansion, with a focus on what happens to young people in England after the age of 16, how it has changed over time, and how it compares internationally. I look at some reforms over the last decade, and advance some suggestions designed to inform policy development in respect of equity. This commentary is selective – I look at equity and equality in terms of socio-economic background and do not examine gender, ethnicity or other dimensions.

  • In the next section, I describe how the growth of higher education has disproportionately benefited those from advantaged backgrounds, and why, despite substantial efforts, this problem has proved so difficult to resolve. I conclude that equity will be best served by giving priority to better quality alternatives to higher education, particularly technical education. This focus guides the remainder of the commentary.
  • Then I look at the evidence on the basic skills of literacy and numeracy in the post-16 phase of education. Basic skills inequality in England appears to increase during this phase, so that, despite the great education expansion, England is one of the few developed countries where low basic skills are no less common among young adults than among their parent’s generation. While there are now more demanding requirements for mathematics and English as part of technical qualifications, raising achievement, as well as just expectations, will be challenging.
  • There follows a description of some features of the English policy environment that obstruct employer engagement and therefore damage post-16 technical education. These include a fragmented and volatile landscape of programmes and institutions, weak funding of technical pathways, and a deregulated labour market.
  • Next, I look at some of the pathways followed by those young people who do not enter higher education. I point to the limited scope for disadvantaged young people to receive training through employment, the potential of apprenticeship and how it is marred by unenforced minimum requirements on wages and training, and the varying potential of other technical education routes.
  • Finally, I draw policy conclusions for equity, noting how the COVID-19 crisis has increased inequalities. I argue first that England should follow an evolutionary path towards an integrated upper secondary system. This evolution should give more attention to pathways designed to reintegrate weaker performers, and effective articulation between apprenticeship and T levels. Secondly, the great potential of apprenticeship as an alternative to more academic forms of education will only be realised if the basic elements of apprenticeship – wages and training – are effectively regulated with minimum standards enforced. Finally, better funding for the alternatives to higher education should be a priority.

Cite this as:

Field, S. (2022), ‘Inequality in English post-16 education’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,