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Social Justice

Working class students ‘lose out’ when universities focus on A-levels over vocational courses

The Social Market Foundation has called on universities to give equal weight to A-levels, BTECs and T-levels to help all students pursue their careers.

Working class students are being left behind because of the focus on A-levels as the main pathway to university, a think-tank has warned.

The Social Market Foundation says that emphasis on A-levels as the only route into university tends to mainly benefit affluent white young people, while overlooking the interests of those from working class and/or ethnic minority backgrounds who are more likely to take other routes such as vocational courses.

Over half of white working class and Black British teenagers use BTEC qualifications to get into higher education, SMF figures show. In the north-east, 35 per cent of white working-class students went to university solely on the basis of their BTECs and 37 per cent of all Black students go to university with only BTECs. 

But not all universities count vocational qualifications towards entry requirements, the SMF said. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, generally refuse to recognise BTECs and T-Levels.

It’s well known that UK universities suffer from a chronic lack of diversity. In 2016 only 40 Black UK applicants landed places at Cambridge University out of 2,210, and 35 out of 2,210 UK applicants at Oxford in the same year. A report from the National Education Opportunities Network in 2019 showed that in over half of all universities less than 5 per cent of their students were white and from the most deprived neighbourhoods.

The SMF is calling on universities to accept students taking vocational courses like BTECs and T-levels, as well as A-levels. Niamh O’Regan, a researcher at SMF, said: “For education to be an effective tool to achieve social mobility, we must give equal weight to the different kinds of qualifications that help students advance their learning and careers.

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“There needs to be a shift in approach to education – where all types of qualifications and post-18 routes are given equal value, whilst HE institutions also widen access by accepting all these types of qualifications. This approach has the potential to make education fairer and help everybody achieve their potential.”

The SMF is also calling on the government to raise the national profile of vocational and apprenticeship courses. A recent report by the government’s Education Select Committee into why white working class pupils underperform at school called for the government to “ensure the value of vocational training” and “incentivise schools to celebrate all their pupils’ aptitudes and create a parity of esteem” for vocational subjects alongside academic courses.

“At the moment, politicians acknowledge that education can promote social mobility, but continue to favour only one type of qualification and pathway,” O’Regan said. “This insistence only maintains inequality, whilst educational barriers holding back disadvantaged youth remain standing.”

School-leavers interviewed by SMF last year for research on careers reported a desire for their careers advisers to share “other options besides uni” and present “each option equally”. SMF’s analysis – for the 2022 report on careers provision – showed that advice is “socially-patterned”, where affluent schools tend to push students towards university, whilst poorer schools tend to favour vocational routes.

The government told the Big Issue this September there will be 16 T-levels available to young people in a range of in-demand subjects including digital, construction, health, science, accounting and engineering, with over 175 schools and further education providers across England offering them.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since 2011, we have narrowed the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at every stage of education up to the pandemic, with the gap between the most and least advantaged progressing to university narrowing to a record low this year.

“As well as introducing T-levels as the new gold standard technical qualification for young people post-16, we are also making £2.7 billion available by 2025 to support business of all sizes to create more apprenticeships and developing alternatives to a traditional three-year degree. 

“We’re also investing in careers programmes for young people at all stages and have launched the ‘Get the Jump’ campaign to promote the full range of opportunities available to young people.”

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