We’ve heard time and time again that schools with sixth forms are struggling to provide students with adequate support on careers and the options available post-secondary education, while schools without sixth forms are providing more support. Experts are concerned competition for pupils amid stagnating funding is fuelling the situation. Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the government must increase the funding rate for 16 to 18-year-old learners, which is frozen at £4,000 per pupil, so there isn’t so much pressure on sixth forms to keep their pupils.
This is one of the key findings of work done by Dr Nuala Burgess, ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Education. Her study of London school sixth forms over the last five years found wildly inconsistent levels of support for students applying to university, and a lack of advice and guidance for students who are uncertain about their futures and would like to weigh up their options. In a competitive sixth form market, there appears to be little incentive for schools to invest in careers advice, other than to encourage progression to university as a passport to employment.
The last 10 years has seen a shift in higher education policy from a focus on widening participation, to promoting ‘fairer access’ to more prestigious universities. Originally designed to give extra support to disadvantaged university applicants, we have increasingly veered towards the normalisation of practices such as limiting the bulk of school resources and university outreach to the relatively small percentage of high-attaining, state-educated sixth formers applying to these more prestigious universities.
The situation is made worse by the fact that schools rely on pupil’s university destinations – particularly prestigious Russell Group institutions – as marketing for the recruitment of future pupils. Consequently, many schools invest higher levels of support in high attainers’ applications to more prestigious universities than students applying to ‘new’ (post-1992) universities. Typically, high attainers receive dedicated help from senior teachers with the drafting of their personal statements and financial help towards the cost of university visits. In addition, only high these attaining students, albeit from disadvantaged backgrounds, get cherry picked for summer schools and taster days run by ‘top’ Russell Group universities.
This current climate means many students from working-class and ethnically diverse families, applying to non-‘elite’ universities or seeking apprenticeships, struggle to find teachers with the time and skills to advise them on their post-school ambitions. The pandemic has also impacted on the latter, with our research in Blueprint for All’s Life Chances Insights Report showing that 32% of disadvantaged young people had their training or education ended prematurely last year.
Unable to afford the cost of university open days outside their local area, many students rely on the recommendations of friends and siblings when choosing their university and drafting their personal statements. A lucky few found out about apprenticeship schemes through a family member or friend. It was important to note how many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who were not high attaining, relied on seeking a mixture of online league tables, student chat rooms, and family networks when making choices about their futures, and it was important for us to work hard provide solutions. Solutions that broaden young people’s awareness of the routes they can take after sixth-form whilst giving them early opportunities to build connections, ask questions and have confidence whilst they prepare to take these important next steps.
It’s clear we need creative solutions urgently, and we hope to set an example with our new Blueprint for All Pathway to Professions programme. Created in partnership with Barclays, the programme is designed to support sixth-form students, and consists of 10 specialised workshops for students of diverse ethnic heritage who are in years 12-13. The sessions aim to inspire them to follow their career aspirations and equip them with a full understanding of their options. Throughout the programme our team will help students understand how their current stage of education links to their professional success. Students will learn about the variety of different professional careers available and routes into these careers, and get access to inspiring and relatable professionals.
This crossroads in a young person’s life is a crucial point, and we are here to help them make informed decisions, hopefully empowering them to feel inspired, achieving whatever they put their mind to in the next phase of their lives. The programme is designed to help fill the gap in sixth form schools’ support, but we can’t do it alone and we hope the programme will help to raise awareness of where education is currently falling down.