News and Comment

Breaking the link between disadvantage and achievement

Tuesday 8 March 2011


The last ten years have seen significant improvements in overall achievement for 14-19 year olds, but there continues to be a strong link between disadvantage and low attainment.

Severe public sector spending cuts, combined with the replacement of the Education Maintenance Allowance, tight budgets for schools and colleges, and expected increases in university tuition fees present a challenge for the education and learning sector to find ways of protecting all students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Achieving this is central to the longer-term success of our economy.

Going the extra mile

While commissioners and providers try to reduce costs, it is essential that there is a sustained focus on raising the ambitions and capabilities of those most likely to under-achieve or drop out of mainstream settings.

All young people, regardless of their socio-economic background, should have fair access to educational, training and employment opportunities. This includes those from households characterised by multiple challenges, such as intergenerational worklessness, drug and alcohol misuse, poor mental health and low aspirations.

One way forward is to be more creative in reaching out to these young people and to engage them in learning opportunities that help them succeed. A recent publication by the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) and OPM, Improving outcomes for disadvantaged young people – Case studies of effective practice, demonstrates how a range of further education, private and voluntary sector providers are successfully supporting young people that are at risk of low attainment and disengagement to move back into education, training or employment.

In many case studies, mainstream providers are going the extra mile to engage and support students from areas characterised by high socioeconomic deprivation; in others, third sector, statutory and private providers are targeting their efforts on specific subgroups of young people who are often marginalised and suffering economic disadvantage, and require something more tailored than universal provision can offer. The publication sets out how practitioners have tackled the attainment gap, including the challenges they have faced and the lessons they have learned along the way.

Success factors

Going the extra mile, as the case studies reveal, does not always equate to spending more money. There are no straightforward answers; however, some important common success factors emerged from the case studies. These include ways of supporting students to ‘learn how to learn’, creating the right learning environment, more flexible use of space, working more effectively with other learning providers and celebrating achievements. All of these combine to help increase participation and retention rates.

The report will be a useful resource for those who work with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and who are seeking inspiration about how provide an effective service in these challenging times.

By Shelley Dorrans, OPM fellow, and Robert Pralat, OPM researcher