Moving on up: drivers and implications of post-16 education

By Steve Wooding
Published 07 Jul 2021

To what extent do young people’s beliefs, experiences and home circumstances influence their educational choices and future socio-economic status? AQA researchers attempted to find out.

Our research involved analysing data from the ‘Next Steps’ social survey, which follows the lives of around 16,000 young people in England born between 1 September 1989 and 31 August 1990. The data contains valuable information, which can help us understand what influences engagement with various stages of education.

The young people involved in the survey were in secondary school before it became compulsory to stay in education or training to age 18. This meant that we were able to explore what influenced their choice to continue in education or to leave school at age 16.

Staying engaged with education

We looked at the impact of ‘internal’ factors, such as how the students felt about school and how much control they believed they had over their future success. The survey attempted to gauge these feelings and experiences by asking the students to respond to a set of statements, including:

  • “On the whole I like being at school.”
  • “School is a waste of time for me.”
  • “If you work hard at something you’ll usually succeed.”
  • “I can pretty much decide what will happen in my life.”
  • “How well you get on in this world is mostly a matter of luck.”

We also analysed the impact of the young person’s external circumstances such as:

  • the qualification level reached by their parent(s)
  • their family socio-economic status up to the age of 16
  • parental involvement in and aspirations for their education.

We found that a positive experience of education in the years leading up to GCSE had the largest influence on a young person’s decision to continue their education. The second largest influence related to parent qualifications – the more highly qualified at least one of their parents was, the more likely they were to stay on. A strong belief in their ability to influence their success was another important factor. Significantly, a young person with the highest values for these three factors was around 85 times more likely to participate in post-16 education than someone with the lowest values.

We also found that there was a positive link between how well off a young person’s teenage home was and their decision to stay in education. The impact of parental involvement in an individual’s school life was less clear.

Impact on social mobility

Importantly, our research showed that participation in post-16 education had a statistically significant positive effect on social mobility regardless of background or actual attainment. This means that even young people who achieve what is considered to be a moderate level of attainment appear to have an increased likelihood of a higher socio-economic status at age 25 than those without any Key Stage 5 qualifications.

Despite this, a young person’s family socio-economic background still seems to have a meaningful effect on their social mobility at age 25, even for those who are high attainers.

How can we help to ‘close the gap’?

As these research results are based on participants who chose to remain in education beyond the age of 16, we can’t directly apply them to current students whose participation in post-16 education is compulsory. However, the findings can still inform our understanding of what motivates engagement with post-16 education.

The key takeaway message from this research is that encouraging young people to fully engage with post-16 education and to attain as well as they can will increase their chances of ‘moving up in the world’.

As an assessment and education provider, we can:

  • identify ways to ensure that a young person’s   pre-16 experience of education is as positive as possible
  • help young people to improve their   self-belief and sense of self-efficacy.

For example, through our Unlocking Potential programme, we aim to bring out the best in young people so that they can achieve their goals. We also invite feedback from our Student Advisory Group to inform our decisions about the future of assessment.

With commitment to social mobility at the heart of our charitable purpose, we have a responsibility to lead the conversation around how we can work more effectively with other stakeholders to enable all students to realise their potential. And, as researchers, that’s a challenge we’re very keen to help tackle!

Steve Wooding, a former member of AQA’s research team, was the lead researcher on this project.


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