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Published: 18th September 2023

Social mobility – is it under threat?

For decades, social mobility has been a key benefit of education – whether through academic or more vocational means – and has been at the heart of the aspirations of one generation for the one which follows.
Rachel Roby
Strategic Apprenticeship Lead at Cogent Skills

However, against a challenging economic backdrop this could be under threat: employers across the UK’s science and technology industries have a number of serious concerns about the negative impact of changes being considered by the government could have on social mobility.

Firstly, the government’s increasing support for T Levels. The key issue centres on continued concerns from employers regarding progression opportunities, given that there is a reluctance from higher education institutions to commit publicly and market opportunities to T Levels students to allow them to understand options to move onto undergraduate courses.

Science employers continue to be concerned about the course’s industry placement element due to the pre-knowledge requirements and how practical students can be when undertaking placements in high-risk/sensitive environments.

Secondly, there are concerns about a shift of emphasis away from Level 2 apprenticeships towards Level 3 and higher, and degree apprenticeships with a 90 per cent drop in Level 2 starts since 2015/16 and more than 1,000 degree-level starts in three years. While the latter offers many learners an important entry point to higher education, the decline in Level 2 sends a negative message about starting points for people’s careers.

Regarding the overall direction of travel, there seems to be an unhelpful drive for everything to start at Level 3. In contrast, we believe the most appropriate offer to learners is a strong mix of apprenticeships at different levels to reflect the range of ways of entering a career in science and technology.

Finally, the possible significant reduction in the availability of BTECs threatens to rule out an entire cohort of learners from progressing through education and into work. Current government plans put T Levels at the heart of the ‘technical pathway’ into Level 3, meaning funding for BTECs will be withdrawn dramatically. Analysis from Pearson shows this could mean as many as 50,000 learners not entering science over a three-year period once the changes come into effect.

The impact on diversity and inclusion is significant, given that BTECs have long supported students from a wider range of backgrounds versus the traditional A-level route into higher education and employment. A National Education Opportunities Network report found these reforms could reverse the trend of widening access to higher education, setting participation for the most disadvantaged learners back to levels last seen in 2015/16.

Indeed, the impact assessment from the Department for Education itself concludes SEND learners, those from Asian ethnic groups, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and males will be disproportionately affected. We firmly believe funding for BTECs should be protected in order to maintain them as a route into further education or a career for many people who would clearly otherwise miss out.

With this year’s party conference season just around the corner, seeing what proposals emerge across the skills space will be fascinating.

Given these concerns and the continuing uncertainty over the future of the skills landscape, it’s more important than ever that we have clear leadership on these routes into careers across the science and technology industries – and learners should have greater clarity about their options at each stage in their journey.

Future Ready

Cogent Skills is sector based, working with companies from across the Science and Technology Industries embracing Life Sciences, Industrial Sciences and Nuclear.
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