Thursday, 24 May 2012

FE: the third way to increase social mobility

by Mark Corney

The Coalition Government believes increasing social mobility is an economic, social and moral imperative despite the double dip recession and the fiscal deficit.

This week, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, explained the progress made over to past year to improve social mobility.*

The strategy may look comprehensive at first glance, however the ultimate concern of the Coalition, and it seems the Deputy Prime Minister, is increasing the number of bright children from poor backgrounds entering higher education by age 18/19.

To be more precise, the focus is on 'bright but poor' children achieving five or more 'good' GCSEs including English and Maths who then stay-on at school -  or find a 'good' state sixth form  - to take A levels which will give them to best chance to enter full-time higher education including our elite universities.

The 'fixation' with getting bright poor children to Oxbridge contaminates the analysis of social mobility.

Policy makers lock themselves into looking at A levels delivered by state schools.

Colleges as well as schools deliver A levels. There is, of course, little difference between sixth form FE colleges and school sixth forms in the A level game as both tend to cater for bright students from middle income families.

But the greatest strides in social mobility are made by general FE colleges educating poor teenage students on A level programmes who then get to university by age 19. I for one will always be indebted to Peterborough Technical College, which help.

And yet, the social mobility debate suffers from a fixation with progression from A levels to full time higher education. Over 15% of 19 year olds have a Level 3 in the form of vocational qualifications delivered mainly by FE colleges rather than A levels. The problem is that progression into full time HE from vocational Level 3 qualifications is stuck at 50% compared to 90% for A levels.

To his credit, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is attempting to recast the debate on social mobility.** He argues that the question we must all answer is what happens to those who don't go to university?

Social mobility, says the Labour leader, must not just be about changing the odds that young people from poor backgrounds will make it to university.

Commonly, if misleadingly, the Miliband challenge is posed as what do we need to do for the other 50%?

The answer Labour has come up with is apprenticeships and the German model. Middle class parents in Germany boast about their kids on apprenticeships as they do entering university.

Labour, however, is building up expectations over apprenticeships that unless the party proposes 'big' ideas to expand them the party will be charged with promoting empty rhetoric.

Here are some sobering statistics.

A levels are Level 3 qualifications primarily for 16 to 18 year olds. Advanced apprenticeships are equivalent to these academic qualifications.

Whilst 1 in 3 of this age group are on A levels, less than 1 in 50 are on advanced apprenticeships.

And although 37% of 19 year olds have achieved 2 A levels, less than 2% have achieved a modern apprenticeship.

German parents treat apprenticeships in the same way as university because their kids can progress to apprenticeships which are equivalent degrees.

In England, undergraduate degrees are the 'gold standard' of the higher education system. Higher level apprenticeships are in their infancy.

Indeed, there are over 840,000 young people in full time higher education up to undergraduate level - Level 4 to 6 - in England but less than 2,000 on higher levels apprenticeships.

To expand Level 3 apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year olds and higher level apprenticeships for 18 to 21 year olds to anywhere near the participation rates in Germany will require bold and radical intervention.

Linking the recruitment of young apprentices to public procurement is a neccessary but insufficient step. Compulsory employer membership of employer engagement and indeed the return of statutory training levels might well be needed to achieve Labour's ambition.

In the medium-term, however, the problem with positioning apprenticeships as an alternative to university and a means to improving social mobility is the state of the labour market and rising youth unemployment.

Employers are still refusing to take on 16 to 18 advanced apprentices. Meanwhile, there seem to be fewer jobs which employers can convert into apprentice jobs.

Last month saw employers take on 3,000 extra 18 to 24 year olds. But whilst they employed an extra 30,000 who were in full time education, 27,000 in jobs but not in full time education were let go.

For this current generation of young people not on the university track, the expansion of apprenticeships might not be a realistic proposition.

Both the Coalition Government and the Labour Party should consider the potential benefits of full-time FE for 18 to 21 year olds to enhance long-term social mobility and offer an alternative to unemployment and inactivity.

On so many levels FE is the key to true social mobility. And its contribution does not stop at young people.

All too often, social mobility for adults aged 24+ is defined in terms of participation in higher education, especially part-time HE.

But with longer working lives, achieving Level 3 qualifications - vocational and academic - after age 24 is an economic necessity rather than a leisure activity. General FE colleges are central to making upskilling and social mobility for younger adults a reality for all.

Of course, achievement of Level 3 qualifications might motivate adults to apply to enter higher education especially on a part-time basis.

The introduction of '24+ advanced learning loans' for Level 3/4 would mean adults having to take out a second loan if they progress into part-time HE loans.

The Coalition Government should decide sooner rather than later that where adults progress into higher education the loan for their Level 3 qualification will be written off. In this way, loans can support upskilling, progression and social mobility in the 21st century.

Mark Corney is policy consultant to the Campaign for Learning. He writes in a personal capacity.

*Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A strategy for social mobility. Update on progress since April 2011, May 2012.

** Speech on Social Mobility to the Sutton Trust. Labour Party website.

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