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Tackling disadvantage in FE: reversing the narrative of failure - Dr Sam Parrett CBE

20th October 2022

Dr Sam Parrett CBE, Group Principal and CEO of London & South East Education Group

Further education undoubtedly transforms lives. It provides people of all ages and from all backgrounds with accessible pathways into fulfilling employment and careers.

Every year, colleges educate and train around 1.6 million people. Yet what is rarely recognised or captured is that many of the learners who progress into work and become economically successful have battled against disadvantage and a narrative of failure throughout their entire education.

Students in FE are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with almost half (45%) in the two most disadvantaged quintiles[1] This is a huge over-representation. Coming from diverse backgrounds – including asylum-seeking children and refugees – many of these students will have been living in poverty, facing many social and economic challenges, for most of their lives.

The effect of this level of disadvantage on FE learner profiles is stark. For example, 70 per cent of our own learners need to retake English or maths GCSE when arriving at college and over two thirds of our 6,600 students are studying at L2 or below. Similarly, more than 50 per cent of our apprentices are on intermediate courses.

These lower starting points in FE are a direct result of educational disadvantage starting much earlier in life. Even before the age of three, there are strong differences emerging - relating to income - in cognitive and socio-emotional skills[2]. This is highly predictive of later success in education and in the labour market[3].

GCSE attainment is also very much affected by background. 16-year-olds eligible for free school meals are 27 per cent less likely to get ‘good’ GCSEs than their less-disadvantaged peers.[4]

Around a third of the national GCSE cohort fail to achieve a Grade 4 in maths and English, with most of these learners then moving to college. Having to re-take key qualifications is a challenge for many young people. Some come to us with very negative experiences of these subjects and many years of perceived failure behind them, which our tutors work hard to undo in a short period of time.

The educational disadvantage these learners are likely to have faced since primary school stays with them into college – with the challenges becoming even starker in recent times.

The pandemic resulted in much lost learning at all stages of education. This negatively impacted disadvantaged students the most and the effects of this will continue to manifest for many years to come.

Post-pandemic, we are seeing an exponential rise in the cost of living. This is greatly impacting many of our students, with widespread food and digital poverty, and even homelessness, being a difficult reality for some.

If a student can’t afford the cost of travelling into college, they are unlikely to achieve their qualification. The impact of such financial issues on mental health is also extremely high; we have seen a 300 per cent increase in the number of students struggling with their mental health this year.

Last year, we supported a quarter of our students with travel and living costs via our college bursary fund. But this is not sustainable and more financial help is needed for those who are struggling.

The Covid Recovery Fund has worked well, enabling us to support our students with additional teaching in small groups, exam practice and a focus on maths and English. This “catch up” funding has been highly beneficial for some of our most vulnerable students – and this must continue.

It must also be recognised that disadvantage continues through each educational stage. A grant similar to the pupil premium should be available in FE as it is in schools – directly supporting individual learners who face disadvantage.

Progression into FE would also be improved if there was more flexibility in Lifelong Loan Entitlement. Providing disadvantaged students with maintenance support in FE (the same way as it does in HE) would have a hugely positive impact in terms of sustained engagement with learning.

Educational success and progression into fulfilling lives and jobs is fundamental to social mobility – which is economic as well as social and vertical as well as horizontal.

FE is a truly effective vehicle for genuine social mobility. Colleges can reverse lifelong educational disadvantage and help people reach their true potential by re-writing the narrative of failure into a narrative of possibility and achievement.

What makes so many FE students exceptional is their ambition and determination to do well, even when facing extreme adversity. They recognise the value and the power that education has to change lives and will strive to push beyond barriers.

As anchor institutions, colleges are so much more than qualification providers. We put our belief in people who may not believe in themselves, expand their horizons and help them to undo the negative perceptions that they and others may have built up over many years.

Going forward, this context of lifelong disadvantage must be tackled earlier on by looking holistically at the issue across education, health, welfare, young people leaving care and other vulnerable groups.

We need to consider, develop and implement solutions to improve the experiences and life chances for disadvantaged children and young people into adulthood. We also need to re-focus on what constitutes a ‘good life’ and what ‘good outcomes’ truly look like for disadvantaged children and young people.

As a sector, we are skilled at realising potential in our learners because we see at first hand that possibilities that exist when the right support, encouragement and commitment is provided.

Everyone deserves fair access to education, and this is, absolutely, key to improving lives.

[1] AOC analysis

[2] Cattan, S., Fitzsimons, E., Goodman, A., Phimister, A., Ploubidis, G. B. and Wertz, J. (2022), ‘Early childhood and inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities,

[3] Farquharson, C., McNally, S., Tahir, I., (2022), ‘Education Inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, Education inequalities | Inequality: the IFS Deaton Review

[4] Farquharson, C., McNally, S., Tahir, I., (2022), ‘Education Inequalities’, IFS Deaton Review of Inequalities, Education inequalities | Inequality: the IFS Deaton Review

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.