Opportunity, equality and agency in England's new VET landscape: a longitudinal study of post-16 transitions

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Education and Professional Studies


This 5-year study will investigate how England's vocational education and training (VET) system can better support the school-to-work transitions of the 50% of young people who do not go to university. Routes into further education, training and employment for these young people are often characterised by complexity, instability, uncertain prospects and drop-out. Around 13% of 18-24 year olds are not in any form of education, employment or training.

The research will focus on the 16-20 age group and will have a particular emphasis on engaging with the perspectives of young people themselves, including those who are marginalised and whose input is often not heard in policymaking. These young people are more likely to fall between gaps in the system and not be in education, employment or training, which is associated with a range of negative outcomes and lifetime costs.

The research will compare the opportunities for young people living in different places and the resources they are able to draw on to help them make and exercise meaningful career and employment choices. It will explore young people's values, how differently resourced young people experience their transitions and the implications for equality, policy and professional practice.

The research is guided by the principle that, to make transitions more equitable, we need to fully engage with: different dimensions of equality and the challenges of realising equality in practice; combinations of different kinds of advantages and disadvantages experienced by young people, including those often neglected in VET research, e.g. those associated with sexuality, gender identity, disability, academic attainment and place, alongside those of class, 'race' and gender; and how the range of possible opportunities interacts with young people's life experiences, values and agency.

The project will use national-level statistical analysis of student destinations and a longitudinal survey of c.17,000 young people to establish who is getting access to which opportunities and provide a large-scale mapping of young people's values, aspirations and trajectories. In-depth research consisting of 500 qualitative interviews with policymakers, practitioners, young people and their parents/carers across four contrasting local authorities will provide more detailed insights to elucidate the quantitative findings. Towards the end of the project we will convene international VET scholars to bring cross-national comparative insights to bear on our findings.

The research will be co-produced with key stakeholders. By helping policymakers develop greater insight into young people's lives and perspectives and supporting reflection on how the tensions involved in simultaneously addressing different kinds of inequality might best be managed, the research will help ensure that policy is more sensitive to the complexity of both young people's experiences and inequality; and hence more likely to be successful in creating more navigable and equitable transitions. The project will also help build capacity in the effective use of research to inform policy and practice development, help young people develop their advocacy skills and produce two major new datasets that will be of value for substantial future research by other teams.

The research addresses pressing national policy priorities as England is currently engaged in fundamental reforms to its VET system. These have been fuelled by linked concerns about equality and productivity, in particular the disparities in education and skill levels that can prevent those from disadvantaged regions, those categorised as black or minority ethnic, as well as women and disabled people from accessing high-skill employment. This project will provide new understandings of how these disparities are produced and how they might be reduced. In doing so, it will generate insights of critical relevance to the government's equality and productivity agendas.

Planned Impact

We will collaborate with 4 groups of stakeholders throughout the project to optimise policy and practice relevance:

1. Policymakers: This group includes policymakers in the Departments for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Education, and Work and Pensions, MPs, the Institute for Apprenticeships, the Careers and Enterprise Company, employers and representative organisations (e.g. the Association of Colleges, Association of Employment and Learning Providers, the CBI), Local Enterprise Partnerships, combined and local authorities and Multi Academy Trusts. A key concern for the young people and organisations involved in the co-design of the research is that interventions are often insufficiently responsive to the specificities of the barriers facing differently resourced young people or to their diverse values and aspirations. Through a range of project outputs and ongoing dialogue with policymakers, the research will help build insight into young people's lives and perspectives and the tensions of simultaneously addressing different dimensions of inequality. This, in turn, will help make policy more sensitive to the complexity both of young people's experiences and of inequality and hence more likely to facilitate more navigable and equitable transitions. Specific policy areas the findings will illuminate include T-Levels, A-Levels, careers guidance, apprenticeships and participation and support for those classified as 'NEET', particularly in disadvantaged regions, all of which are core to the UK's Industrial Strategy.

2. Practitioners and leaders working in VET and in supporting young people: The research has been designed to generate practice-oriented insights for those organising and delivering VET (teachers, trainers, careers advisers and related organisations) and for organisations who support young people's transitions (e.g. AccessUK, Disability Rights UK, National Youth Agency, Stonewall, the TUC). Through close engagement with these organisations and a series of reports and CPD materials co-produced with them, the research will contribute to: enhanced learner support in schools and colleges; improved employer practice in supporting the career development and learning of young workers; better careers guidance and transitions support for those not in formal education or, for other reasons, unlikely to engage with school or college-based advice; and building capacity in the effective use of research to inform policy and practice development.

3. Grant-making organisations: Charitable grant makers, such as Big Lottery, City Bridge, Esmée Fairbairn and Paul Hamlyn, are keen to target their investments in evidence-based ways. We will provide them with evidence on the kinds of initiatives young people experience as most effective.

4. Young people: Young people who do not go to university will be the main beneficiaries of the research through improved policy, practice and funding arrangements, in particular, those who are marginalised through their experience of intersecting inequalities and whose input is less often heard in policy making. These young people are more likely to fall between the gaps in the system and be classified as 'NEET' which is associated with a range of negative outcomes and lifetime costs. As well as these primary benefits for a wide constituency of young people, the c.17,000 young people directly involved in the research will benefit through the chance to reflect on their transitions. In addition, impact activities will be designed to reach a wider group of young people to increase their awareness of effective strategies for navigating transitions and support the development of their advocacy skills.

The research will also contribute to public understanding of the experiences and perspectives of the 50% of young people who don't go to university, the challenges of addressing disparities of access to high quality education, training and employment and potential policy solutions.


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