Back to school? The future of education

This summer, exam boards and regulators sought a return to business as usual after two years of teacher-assessed grading. As the next intake of freshers, school-starters and returners find their feet, we look ahead to what the future of secondary and higher education promises post-pandemic.

Group of elementary school kids running on the grass
This article is included in the  Autumn issue of Think Global People magazine (5831k) .Results day is an annual rite of passage for students around the world. In the UK, the calendar starts in July with the International Baccalaureate Diploma and Career-Related Programmes (IB DP/CP). It continues into August with Scottish National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers, A levels, BTEC (level 3) and T levels, ending with GCSE and Vocational and Technical Qualifications (levels 1 and 2) as the school summer holidays close out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.A look at attainment this year suggests that the current cohort of 16- and 18-year-olds – those starting their studies in 2020 mid-pandemic – have achieved again, despite the odds.In 2022, the first year of a two-year plan, regulators are seeking a glide path back to pre-pandemic trends after two years of teacher-assessed grades. A House of Commons Library research briefing published in August shows the overall A-C pass rate for Scottish Highers was 78.9%. This is up from the pre-pandemic level of 74.8% in 2019. There was a similar trend in Advanced Highers. The A-C pass rate in 2022 was 81.3%, again above 2019’s figure (79.4%).A-level attainment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2022 was also up on the last year formal exams were held. The proportion of A* grades was 14.6% in 2022, compared to 7.7% in 2019. The number of A*/A grades awarded also grew from 25.4% to 36.4% and A*-C grades from 75.9% to 82.6% over the same period. The trend was broadly the same for GCSE results, with A/A* grades at 26.3%, lower than 2021 (28.9%), but higher than 2019 (20.8%). Regional differences also widened on pre-pandemic levels.For students sitting full-content final examinations in 2023 – deemed so far to have missed out on the worst of any Covid-related disruption and now mid-way through their studies – the outlook is for grading to be at pre-pandemic levels. Details will be finalised in light of the 2022 results, said Ofqual in a statement in May.
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More competition for places ahead

This July and August, despite the anxious waits in school halls and constant screen refreshes, most students need not have worried about what government policy meant for their prospects. This includes students waiting for the results of the first-ever T level exams in August. Across the three newly introduced subject areas (rising to 13 in September) of science, construction and healthcare, there was a 92.2% T level pass rate. Distinction and Distinction* accounted for 34.6% of grades and Merits 39.8%, while 71% of candidates had been accepted onto higher education courses.Commenting on the news, Education Secretary, James Cleverly, said students should be proud of their achievements in the qualification, which is set to replace some level 3 BTECs. “Today is also a really exciting time for our pioneering T Level students, as the first ever group to take this qualification will pick up their results. I have no doubt they will be the first of many and embark on successful careers.”Earlier in the month, data from UCAS, the university admissions body, showed that on results day in Scotland a record 60.1% of students gained a place at their firm choice university. This was up from the pre-pandemic level of 57.5% in 2019. The story was the same across the rest of the United Kingdom. By 8am on A level results day, 425,830 students (54.4%) were celebrating being accepted into university or college, the second highest on record (2021) and an increase of 16,870 compared to 2019.However, for some, it meant the stress of changing their plans due to a confluence of factors relating to a demographic bulge of 18-year-olds in the general population (set to continue to the end of the decade), university admissions officers being more cautious after two years of pandemic-related ‘over recruitment’, more student deferrals and re-applications from candidates as a result of the pandemic, as well as fewer deferrals to 2023 due to changes to student finance from 2023/24.Around 164,000 (23.7%) students were free to be placed in clearing or had gone direct to clearing on A level results day. This was 9% higher than in 2021 and 24% higher than in 2020 according to the House of Commons Library research. The number of accepted 18-year-old home applicants also fell by more than 12% in higher-entry requirement universities. However, numbers increased by 5% in lower-entry and by 1% in medium-entry institutions, reflecting the more competitive environment for school leavers today as top grades remain at near-record levels.Offering congratulations to school leavers this year, UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant recognised the higher demand for places and the challenges going forward. “Throughout this year, there has been much discussion about what the return to examinations would mean for progression to higher education. Today we have seen more students progress compared to the last time students sat exams. This year has seen a growth in the number of 18-year-olds in the population, which will continue for the remainder of the decade, and creates a more competitive environment for students in the years to come.”

More inclusive access?

Despite the increased competition for places, the figures overall continue to show how UK school-leavers favour routes to higher education post-18; that higher education is playing some role in improving social mobility; and better connecting the skills needed in the workplace to education.More students (46,850) from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been accepted into universities this year: an increase of 3,770 on 2019, according to UCAS figures. The gap between the most and least advantaged continues to narrow from 2.36 in 2019 to 2.29 in 2022. The news comes as accountant PwC announced it was removing the 2.1 minimum degree requirement for all its graduate roles, internships and placements to help improve social mobility, joining other Big Four firms EY, KPMG and Deloitte in relaxing recruitment criteria."Whilst academic achievement has its place, for far too many students there are other factors that influence results," said Ian Elliott, Chief People Officer at PwC. "This move isn't primarily about attracting more applications, but opening our roles to students from a broader range of backgrounds," he added. “We know that competition for our graduate roles will be as tough as ever but we’re confident that our own aptitude and behavioural testing can assess a candidate’s potential.”International student numbers have also recovered to bring them nearer pre-pandemic levels, accounting for 12.3% of the total full-time undergraduate applicants accepted via UCAS. While the overall proportion is down from a high of 14.7% in 2019, the figures for 2022 show growth from countries such as China (+35%), India (+27%), and Nigeria (+43%).Commenting on the figures, a spokesperson for Universities UK, the collective voice of 140 universities, said: “We have seen a steady increase in the interest in UK universities from countries around the world, with growth from China, India and Nigeria in particular. UK institutions are highly regarded internationally and it is testament to this that we continue to attract students from around the world. Their presence, as part of a diverse community of students, is to be welcomed."

Choosing the right path?

Yet, with skills shortages still much in evidence and impacting national productivity and output, and employers reporting high levels of hard-to-fill vacancies, qualifications body City & Guilds again raises the question of whether higher education is always the right solution for school leavers.Its research in partnership with Lightcast, a labour market dynamics analyst, suggests while 40% of young people in the UK plan to attend university, only 29% of jobs require a graduate skill level.  For some, the decision to stay in education is being prompted by the cost-of-living crisis – particularly girls, who the research shows are also more preoccupied with future earnings. More than half (54%) are making their post-school choice based on what they believe is the best way to get a good job with a good salary, compared to just 44% of boys.David Phillips, Managing Director of City & Guilds says: “It’s reassuring to see that young people are already thinking ahead about the career options available to them. However, as the UK battles against a volatile labour market, with a potential recession on the horizon and a cost-of-living crisis, it’s more important than ever that young people make informed decisions about their futures. While university is the right path for some, it’s certainly not the only option. Our recent Great Jobs research shone a light on the essential jobs that make up 50% of all UK employment opportunities – many of which rely on vocational routes such as traineeships, apprenticeships and T Levels. As young people look to invest in their future, we encourage them to consider the full breadth of options available so they can identify which path is right for them.”This warning is particularly stark for female school-leavers planning on heading to university – but most of all their future employers. Women make up a higher proportion of university entrants and graduates. Yet data from the Institute of Student Employers published in 2020 shows not only are female graduates paid less, they are also more likely to leave graduate training schemes or graduate jobs, saddling them with higher levels of debt.A quarter of firms reported that women are more difficult to retain than men once they have completed their initial training and development programmes. Employers suggested this is influenced by the image and culture of their sector and a lack of role models. Not only do these factors play into the gender pay gap – where progress has stalled – but also into progression and career satisfaction. New figures show the number of women chief executives heading FTSE companies remains in single figures. Employers could therefore benefit from redoubling their inclusion efforts, seeking out bias and focusing on female graduate talent development to make workplaces more appealing.“Despite all of the investment and resource spent on tackling the gender gap, women are still underrepresented across the graduate employment market,” ISE Chief Executive Stephen Isherwood said. “We know that female students are less likely to apply for graduate roles and are therefore underrepresented on early careers programmes. This now tells us that they are also less likely to stay in an organisation. To tackle disparity, we must not only look at who gets in, but who gets on.”

More focus on the four Cs?

The advice on studying more vocational and technical qualifications does seem to be resonating with students, schools and parents, however. T levels, devised in conjunction with employers, have been well received and there are also calls for BTECs, which the technical qualification was set to replace, to remain. This highlights the appetite for more vocationally geared, modular studies that are accepted by universities for entrance requirements, as well as by apprenticeships and employers.But for some, the changes are not radical enough. Just ahead of GCSE results day, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change published a report, Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England. This called for an education system more geared to the age of artificial intelligence and future skills needs. It recommends A levels and GCSEs to be replaced with a modern curriculum that accents collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking, where a personalised approach to learning supported by edtech becomes the norm. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Sir Tony Blair said of the current approach is “analogue learning for a digital age” in “a paper-based system that revolves around snapshot judgments instead of assessing whether schools are preparing young people for the future they face.”One thing is for sure: the next generation of business and community leaders have difficult challenges ahead. Climate change and a less certain economic and geopolitical outlook among them. Having a diverse, well-educated and inclusive talent pool better equipped to find solutions is key.
This article is included in the  Autumn issue of Think Global People magazine (5831k) .

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