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

This five-year ESRC-funded study is investigating how England’s vocational education and training (VET) system can better support the school-to-work transitions of the 50 per cent of young people who don’t 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. Currently, 13 per cent of 18-24 year olds are not in any form of formal education, employment or training.

This study is focusing on the 16-20 age group and has 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 formal 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 what young people value, how they exercise their agency, their experiences of navigating a transitions landscape in which they are differently positioned and resourced and the implications of all of this 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; and how the range of possible opportunities interacts with young people's life experiences, values and agency. 

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 young people's experiences and inequality; and hence more likely to be successful in creating more navigable and equitable transitions.

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, women, and black and minority ethnic and disabled people from accessing high-skilled employment. The project will provide new understandings of how these disparities are produced and how they might be reduced.

Aims

England is currently engaged in fundamental reforms to its VET system as a core component of the UK's Industrial Strategy. Against this background, the aim of the proposed research is to help close the gap between England's VET policies and practices and the experiences, agency and values of the 50% of young people who don’t go to university. Its more specific objectives are:
 
1. To provide a detailed mapping and analysis of the evolving VET landscape, specifically:
a) the kinds of VET and employment opportunities available to young people (aged 16-20) in different places, and how these are distributed;
b) the availability and distribution of formal and informal resources (material, cultural, social and emotional) to help young people make and exercise meaningful career and employment choices;
c) what young people value, how they exercise their agency, and their experiences of navigating a transitions landscape in which they are differently positioned and resourced; and
d) the implications of these findings for equality, and for policy and professional practice.
 
2. To theoretically enrich sociological readings of VET systems by systematically combining analytic attention to:
a) different dimensions of equality and the challenges of realising equality in practice; 
b) intersecting axes of social differentiation; and 
c) how opportunity structures interact with young people's life-worlds, values and agency.
 
3. To draw on processes of co-production with key stakeholders in order to:
a) help policymakers develop greater insight into the lives and perspectives of young people; 
b) help ensure that policy is more sensitive to the complexity both of young people's experiences and of inequality; and hence:
c) strengthen policymaking in ways that can help create more equitable and navigable transitions for young people;
d) contribute to enhanced transitions support for learners in schools and colleges, improved employer practice in supporting the learning of young workers, and the provision of better careers guidance and transitions support for those not in formal education or, for other reasons, unlikely to engage with school/college-based advice; 
e) help build capacity in the effective use of research to inform VET policy and practice development;
f) provide evidence for grant-making organisations on the kinds of initiatives young people experience as most effective; 
g) support the development of young people's individual and collective advocacy skills; and
h) increase young people's awareness of effective strategies for navigating the transitions landscape.

Methods

The project will be using 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 areas 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 is a collaboration between King’s College London and The Edge Foundation and has been co-designed, and will be co-produced, with key stakeholders.

Project status: Starting

Principal investigators

ECS_Gewirtz

Sharon Gewirtz

Professor of Education

Investigators

Meg Maguire 850px

Professor Meg Maguire

Professor of Sociology of Education

Professor Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King's Business School

Alison Wolf

Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management

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Chris Winch

Professor of Educational Philosophy and Policy

Sait Bayrakdar 2148

Sait Bayrakdar

Research Associate

Funding

  • Funding body: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Amount: £2.2 million
  • Period: October 2019 - September 2024

Contact

Please email Sharon Gewirtz if you have any queries:

Keywords

  • equality
  • vocational
  • education