Targeted advice and guidance is crucial for widening participation

Especially post-Covid, pupils need a strong foundation that prepares them for future post-18 decisions

Billy Huband-Thompson's avatar
Centre for Education and Youth
6 Sep 2021
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Students need effective information, advice and guidance to make informed post-18 decisions

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The dust has settled on results day and thousands of young people will soon be heading off to their higher education destinations. While an astonishing surge in results has led to record numbers of accepted university places among disadvantaged students, it is less certain what the longer-term consequences of the pandemic might be for young people’s post-18 decision-making. Strong, place-based information, advice and guidance (IAG) will be imperative to ensure that all young people can make informed decisions about their post-18 futures.

Recent A-level results may paint an initially positive picture when it comes to widening HE participation, with teacher-assessed grades aiding a rise in grades awarded and an 8 per cent increase in students accepted to their first-choice undergraduate courses. Moreover, a record number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds have accepted university places, according to Ucas.

Grades continue to be the strongest predictor of university attendance, but young people’s decision-making is complex and there is a danger that Covid could have a longer-term, localised impact on the post-18 destinations of younger pupils from communities most affected by the pandemic.

Covid disruption has damaged educational experience but also household income, local job markets and perceptions of value for money in HE. New research suggests that these factors could have an impact on the HE attendance of future cohorts who are yet to sit their post-16/18 exams but whose attitudes to HE and other destinations are continuously shaped by peers, family and other localised networks.

In a recent qualitative study for an Aspire to HE-Uni Connect partnership based at the University of Wolverhampton, the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY) found that the pandemic has influenced the aspirations, attitudes and expectations of young people. In speaking to pupils and staff, we heard that young people (years 10-12) in the Black Country and Telford and Wrekin were concerned about the currency of their grades, future income and the uncertainty surrounding certain economic sectors.

Worryingly, these changing outlooks seemed closely related to pupils’ backgrounds and the changes that their communities had undergone during the pandemic. One teacher noted that income was a key motivation for their pupils, almost half of whom were eligible for free school meals. She explained that many pupils had suffered household poverty in the past year, which had put money at front of mind, over and above career fulfilment. Young people’s views were also shaped by the state of different economic sectors. One pupil who previously aspired to study performing arts said that the pandemic had given her a “reality check”, leading her to consider a STEM course instead.

On top of these concerns, young people’s access to IAG through outreach programmes has been severely disrupted during the pandemic. Receiving high-quality IAG is crucial, especially for pupils who have little to no family history of HE participation, so a lack of access is again likely to disproportionately impact pupils in the most deprived areas.

Further, the digital divide has often left pupils from poorer families unable to access online material, forcing many to rely on hyperlocal networks of family and friends, who may not have first-hand experience of HE. This threatens to narrow young people’s outlooks and prevent them making informed decisions based on all the options available to them.

Looking forward, it is vital that place-based IAG forms a key part of school-led “educational recovery”, giving younger pupils a strong foundation that prepares them for future post-18 decisions.

This provision should be informed by schools’ knowledge of the communities they support and the areas they live in. When making post-18 decisions, young people need information and advice about local economies: what are the local jobs for graduates in this area? What is the structure of the local labour market? The answers to these questions are continuously changing, particularly following a pandemic that has shaken up the economy, devastating certain industries but also presenting opportunities in others, most notably in tech.

Just as different parts of the country have had different experiences of the pandemic, future opportunities for young people will vary. To take a more future-minded approach to IAG, it is essential that schools leverage their understanding of the communities they serve, knowledge of local HE institutions and labour market trajectories to inform young people’s thinking.

Schools are an essential player in supporting young people with their post-18 options but they cannot do this alone. Effective partnerships with outreach organisations, employers and other local stakeholders will be crucial in raising the quality of IAG, while protecting teacher workload.

Universities are also well placed to support this provision, given their civic function: acting as hubs for local development, jobs growth and regeneration. Crucially, this collaborative approach also recognises the active role that higher education institutions can play in creating and supporting growth industries, rather than simply serving the current labour market.

CfEY’s research demonstrates that young people are concerned about their ability to make informed decisions about their futures and that place plays a key role in this process. Going forward, well-targeted, place-based IAG is essential in ensuring that all pupils, regardless of background, can make post-18 decisions that are well-evidenced and, ultimately, right for them.

Billy Huband-Thompson is a junior associate at the Centre for Education and Youth.


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