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English 16-19 education and training failing to reduce skills inequality

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England’s post-16 education and training system fails dismally to reduce literacy and numeracy skills inequality, according to new research from the UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Previous research studies have shown that England has very high levels of skills inequality by age 15 in comparison with other developed countries. The next phase, of 16-19 education and training, only adds to the problem, according to the new IOE research. Between the ages of 15 and 27 literacy inequality barely reduces, and social class gaps in achievement increase significantly. In numeracy the situation is even worse, with the spread of scores widening substantially and the social class gaps in achievement growing more than in any other country studied. The result is that 27 year-olds in England show a more unequal distribution of literacy and numeracy skills than any of the other 23 countries surveyed.

Raising the participation age to 18 may start to improve this situation, but the Government is not setting high enough standards to compete with Europe and East Asia, the study concludes. Professor Andy Green, director of the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES), and Dr Nicola Pensiero, compared findings from 24 OECD countries using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment(PISA) 2000 survey at age 15 and the 2011 Survey of Adult Skills (SAS) to assess changes in skills inequality during the life course. They also looked at what types of upper secondary education and training system are most successful in narrowing the gaps.

The authors explain that the high inequality in literacy and numeracy skills “is not due to the most able doing exceptionally well, but rather because of the familiar long tail of under-achievers.” Amongst 25-34 year-olds, for instance, almost a fifth (19 percent) score below level 2 in numeracy on the OECD’s six level scale. Level 2 capability is considered to be the very minimum level at which people are able to function effectively in modern societies. This is compared with 11-13 percent in German-speaking, Nordic and central and eastern European (CEE) countries, and only seven percent in East Asian countries.The study shows that England – along with the other English-speaking countries included (Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the USA) – is relatively poor at closing skills gaps after age 15. Countries, like Austria and Germany, with Dual Systems of Apprenticeship (three-year apprenticeship combining work-based training and education), and other countries with high rates of upper secondary completion, like most of the Nordic and CEE countries, appear to have better systems in place to close the skills gap.

The authors say that “the key to reducing skills inequality during the upper secondary phase is to have everyone completing two or three year programmes of study in either general or vocational education. The additional years studying mathematicsand the national language help lower achievers to narrow the skills gaps in literacy and numeracy.” Having higher participation rates and a better social mix in vocational courses, as in Germany and some Nordic countries, also seems conducive to reducing skills inequality.  The authors found that the high rate of early school leavers in England and some other English- speaking countries led to too many young people taking short, low quality vocational courses that give too little dedicated time to improving their English and mathematics skills. Having relatively high participation in higher education does not seem to compensate for the failure of upper secondary education to reduce the skills gap, they say, because the inequality is mostly due to lower achievers who do not benefit from higher education.

“The raising of the school leaving age in England to 18 in 2015 is a step forward but it still allows young people to take an ad hoc collection of short general or vocational courses (including part-time study) many of which do not lead to a useful qualification. Furthermore, 16 to 19 year-olds are only required to reach, or be working towards achieving, the equivalent of GCSE A*-C in mathematics and English, which is a lower standard than that expected for qualifying at upper secondary level in most countries”, says Professor Green. Green and Pensiero conclude that “England needs more standardised pathways through upper secondary education for all 16-19 year-olds, with higher expectations on students and mandatory dedicated classes in English and mathematics taught by specialist subject teachers as is the case in most other countries. “At present England remains a long way from establishing an upper secondary system capable of closing the inequality gap.”

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