Expanding post-compulsory education: what we’ve learned

On the 5th of May, we hosted our first in-person event since March 2020, and our first in our new home in sbarc|spark. We were delighted to welcome guests and speakers to an afternoon thinking through policy interventions that could support increased participation in post-compulsory education and training, building on our recent reports on Raising the age of participation in education to 18 and Supporting the Welsh Lifelong Learning system.

The event offered a great chance to talk through some of these issues in the context of the Welsh Government’s Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill which will bring the tertiary education sector under a new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, responsible for oversight, regulation and funding of post-compulsory education in Wales. Our panellists, including report authors Professor Sue Maguire, Dr Matt Dickson and Dr Sue Pember CBE, as well as Olly Newton from the Edge Foundation and Huw Morris of Welsh Government, each offered insights and possible policy responses that could help the commission in expanding learning opportunities, particularly for younger people. Here, we outline some of the lessons we learned.

  1. We need to know what young people are doing when they are not in formal education. Since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, we have seen rising rates of economic inactivity, reduced participation in post-16 education, and higher numbers of young people without formal qualifications. Some young people are simply ‘invisible’ to the system. We can’t make effective policy to get people back into the system without understanding where these young people are, and why.
  2. Increased participation brings economic benefits, and most of this is through the lifetime value of additional qualifications which enhance learner’s earning potential as well as life chances.
  3. But, raising the age of participation is unlikely to be effective by itself. In England, the rise to 18 was intended to be part of a larger reform package, but the additional reforms were scrapped. In part due to this, England has seen only limited compliance with the policy and correspondingly limited benefits. Instead of raising the age of participation, other measures to increase participation could prove more effective —in terms of cost and outcome.
  4. Engaging with young people outside the system means reducing barriers to participation and ensuring that support is there. For some young people, this could mean a more flexible offer around other time commitments; for others, linkages with employers or financial support to study will be important. Understanding which barriers are faced by learners will help to overcome them.
  5. All of this will be most effective if interventions start early. Age 16 might be too late to change the minds of young people who might have already decided that more education isn’t for them, or who are unable to take the risk of taking time off to learn. This means making learning accessible, relevant and interesting throughout compulsory education, and ensuring that there is flexibility and a range of appropriate provision in place once these learners turn 16.

Finally, our speakers stressed the need for a clear and coherent offer across all post-16 pathways, maximising the opportunities presented by the new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research. Building a flexible, user-friendly education system that offers clear progression pathways to a broad range of opportunities will take time, but will make a real difference for Wales, and for the life chances of Wales’s young people.