Focusing on A Levels means we risk missing the bigger picture for social mobility

Today, tens of thousands of young people have received their A Level results.

Some will meet their offers for university admission. Others will scramble for one of the remaining places; and many of us, including Ministers watching at the HQ of the admissions service in Cheltenham, will be drawn into the drama. Meanwhile the big changes in university admissions are going unnoticed.

At one end, among those young people fairly assured of doing well, there is no suspense. Many more institutions are now making unconditional offers. There is a race among institutions to snap up high quality applicants. The next stage of the race could be to bypass UCAS – the common admissions service – entirely. Why go by the same timetable as everyone else? Private providers are already either jumping the queue or waiting to pick up students who did not make it into their first-choice institution. It may be that, in a few years’ time, the drama of A Level results day will have dissipated entirely.

The other big change is that the entry rate of young people with A Levels to university is steady; whereas the entry rate of those with other qualifications is rising.

Last year 26% of those admitted to university had BTECs – a vocational qualification – in addition to or instead of A Levels. By focusing exclusively on A Level results, we miss out seeing what is happening with this ever larger number of young people – almost 100,000 of those going to university.

The detail of what we miss is important most of all to understanding social mobility. A new report released today by the SMF, Passports to Progress, supported by Pearson, highlights a stark difference by qualification type in the extent to which area disadvantage is related to progression into higher education.

The research shows that the proportion of 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged areas who enter into higher education with A levels is much lower (10%) than the proportion of 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas who enter into higher education with A levels (36%).

While the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with A Levels going to university has increased by 19% since 2008, the numbers of those going only with BTECs has more than doubled.

In other words, it is increasingly further education colleges and schools with a broad curriculum which are providing the ladders for progression into higher education and a better career rather than grammar schools. Supporting these lesser noticed engines of social mobility, which face some of the gravest challenges in funding and teacher recruitment, is critical.

One other challenge is that many more young people without A Levels go to less selective institutions, where the returns to higher education tend to be lower. More universities should take a broader view of potential, taking into account a wider set of qualifications beyond A Level. Top universities might even boost social mobility by talent-spotting among the first years of other local institutions, giving a second chance for entry to young people who didn’t have the confidence to apply to them earlier or narrowly missed out.

It will be these small acts of noticing that improve opportunity. Focusing on today’s drama will add very little.


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