With the appointment of a new Social Mobility Commission, it is a good time to take a look at the exams and qualifications system from the perspective of social mobility. After disruption to two summer exam series, the context is clearly complex for understanding social mobility and the role of education.

Here are four key facts for the new Social Mobility Commission to think about.

Educational inequalities have widened during the pandemic

Educational inequalities have been a long-standing source of concern within the English education system, and there is compelling evidence that the education of the most disadvantaged has been most affected by Covid-19. Access to computers was not equal across income groups, exacerbating lost learning. Vulnerable children may have also suffered additionally from school closures, as safeguarding concerns may not have been raised.[1]

However, it is too soon to know whether educational inequalities owing to the pandemic will persist. For example, Daisy Christodoulou has noted that pupils might be able to bounce back – that pupils might not be facing learning ‘loss’, but rather ‘decay’ which can be repaired. Her assessment of Year 8 students showed a significant fall in assessment scores in September 2020. Since then, the scores seem to have rebounded significantly and it seem that students may have managed to recoup a lot of these losses.[2]

If these findings are true more widely, we may see students and schools proving their resilience and recovering from the impact of lockdowns and school closures. These are early days, but potentially these green shoots may bear fruit.

The meaning of grades

Educational inequalities were thrown into stark relief during the pandemic, and evidence points to the “disadvantage gap” between pupils who had been on free school meals and their peers was widening, due to variations in access to IT in the home and the impact of families self-isolating.

GCSE, AS and A-level grade outcomes have long been an important and reliable marker of attainment. Whilst exam results cannot themselves solve social inequalities, they have enabled researchers to understand educational inequalities. However, grade outcomes data for 2020 and 2021 are more complicated, and it is difficult to draw comparisons with previous years.

Results in 2021 were based on teacher-assessed grades, 2020 grades were centre/school assessed, while 2019 grades were determined through ‘normal’ exams. The way that grades were awarded and attainment measured are not directly comparable – they may reveal more about the differences in the way in which grades are allocated than anything else.

As a result, trends in national grade outcome data for 2020 and 2021 need to be treated carefully, and we cannot draw inferences from it about social mobility in the same way as in a normal year.

Vocational and Technical qualifications are undergoing huge changes

New Social Mobility Commissioners are starting their role at a time of heated debate about the future of technical qualifications. Should the government solely rely on new T Levels, or should there be a variety of vocational and technical qualifications to allow learners choice and specificity about their routes into employment?

Young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to undertake post-16 learning in the further education sector, but further and technical education has been a key conundrum for English education for some time. Ensuring that vocational and technical qualifications are fit for purpose is vital to ensuring they provide valuable routes to further study and employment for the roughly-37% of 16-18-year olds who attend FE or other specialist colleges.[3] Any vocational and technical framework needs to consider lifelong learners as well looking to upskill or retrain in a new area.

The government this week announced it was extending the phasing out of BTEC funding by a year, although opposition to the move still remains and many are calling for this to happen over four years if it is to go ahead. Achieving a system with diverse routes to success is crucial to preparing a society which enables all people, whatever their skillset and background, to achieve.

Place-based? Geography is still key for social mobility

While the meaning of grades awarded in 2020 and 2021 needs careful understanding, it is still the case that any discussion of social mobility needs to consider the issue of place. Geographical inequalities in relation to education are longstanding, and our own examination of the proportion of GCSE students achieving grades of 5+ in both English and Maths by constituency reveals the stark regional variations. There are questions of how well pupils perform in exams by region, and how they perform when socio-economic background is considered.

Areas of educational inequality have been impacted by industrial loss and economic decline over many years.[4] It is also not just in education that these regional inequalities exist, and social mobility ‘cold spots’ need to be approached in a holistic way.

The appointment of the new chair of the Social Mobility Commission is a good opportunity to take stock of the current position. There are clear challenges ahead for policymakers addressing inequality in society; AQi will be exploring these and more in the coming months.

[1] Department for Education, Pupils' progress in the 2020 to 2021 academic year - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk), 2021; House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, COVID-19: Support for children’s education, (parliament.uk), 2021.

[2] Daisy Christodoulou, ‘Writing on the rebound: a V-shaped recovery?’, The No More Marking Blog, October 2021.

[3] Sutton Trust, ‘Going Further: Further education, disadvantage and social mobility,’ 2021 https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/going-further-education-disadvantage/

[4] Sanderson, Michael, ‘Education and economic decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s’, 1999, pp74-91; Henderson, Holly, ‘Place and student subjectivities in higher education “cold spots”’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2019; Office for Students, Place matters: Inequality, employment and the role of higher education, November 2021, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/place-matters-inequality-employment-and-the-role-of-higher-education/