Educational Choices in UK – Leaving the decision until the deadline

This research set out to test the hypothesis: given the current complexity of the post-16 educational landscape, learners can experience difficulties making fully-informed choices and navigating technical education routes in particular.

The aim was to assess how young people make educational choices post-16 and what information they use. The objectives were as follows:
• To explore which sources of information are used, and how they are used, when learners (aged 16-19) are making educational choices and how this differs by type of learner, institution, and destination.
• To understand how advice and guidance and application systems interact with these choices.
• To explore potential advantages of a centralised digital course and application system in supporting effective choices.
For each of these objectives, the research sought to identify any differences in the perceptions and experiences of learners following technical and academic routes. The findings are designed to inform government policy on improving the decision-making and application process for learners following all transition routes.

Key findings

When decisions are made:
• Although a small proportion of young people start thinking about their post-16 choices as early as primary school, it is most common for them to begin this process in earnest during Year 11.
• Grammar school pupils, learners on academic pathways, young people with a least one parent with a university education, and those with Special Educational Needs (SEN) start thinking about their post-16 options earlier than other groups. Young people typically leave the final decision until the final year of study prior to making a transition – Year 11 for those progressing into some form of FE and Year 13 for those progressing into HE. However, those on academic routes are more likely to make a final decision earlier than those on a technical pathway.

Individual sources of help

• The vast majority of young people consult with at least one individual for help and support with decision-making and, on average, consult with three sources.
• Young people most commonly turn to ‘informal sources’ including parents/carers, teachers and friends. Although more limited use is made of careers advisers and local employers, those who do consult them find them useful.
• Those who consulted staff during an open day or a direct visit to an educational institution regard them as the most useful source of help. Although learners on academic and technical routes consult similar individuals, those on technical pathways typically rate the help they receive as less useful than those on academic routes, with the exception of parents/carers and staff at open days.

Tools and resources

• There are a plethora of tools and resources available to support young people with their decision-making. Factor analysis reveals that there are five groups of resources that young people typically use: university focused; mentoring focused; vocationally focused; careers focused and STEM focused. These resources are often tailored to specific audiences, and this is broadly reflected in the groups that use them.
• On average, young people access two resources. However, a substantial minority do not use any; this is more prevalent amongst those on technical than academic routes. Learning providers’ websites are rated as the most useful of the tools and resources young people use, followed by comparison sites.

Wider resources

• Although less use is made of wider sources of Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG), those who use them find the most useful source of help with decision- making when compared with individuals and tools and resources.
• Work experience/internships and extra-curricular activities are regarded as particularly helpful. Young people from lower socio-economic groups often lack the
Defined as a disability, learning difficulty or long-term physical or mental health condition social capital and networks that help to facilitate access to these opportunities, and it is notable that use is more prominent amongst more advantaged survey respondents, such as those who attended independent schools, those whose parents are university educated and those who do not qualify for Free School Meals (FSM).

Type of information sought and ease of access

• The types of information young people seek fall into four categories: costs involved in studying; outcomes of studying; course approach; and wider knowledge of course.
• Young people most commonly seek information on the qualifications and grades they need to get on a course and information on what they will learn. Those in HE are more concerned than those in FE to obtain information about the jobs and earnings of people who have studied the course they are considering and the financial support that is available. Learners who are currently eligible or in receipt of FSM and/or the 16-19 Bursary are also more likely to seek information on financial support and course costs.
• Although the information that young people most commonly seek is easy to find, accessing information, such as what learners do and earn after the course, dropout rates and the financial support available, is perceived to be more difficult, particularly for learners with special educational needs (SEN).
• The majority of young people find it easy to decide which post-16/post-18 course to apply for. Learners on academic routes (FE and HE) are more likely to find it difficult to make a decision than learners on technical routes. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young people along with those with SEN are also more likely to find decision-making difficult. Help to choose the right course and subsequent guidance and support with applications are key.

Application systems

• Young people overall find it easy to apply for post-16/post-18 pathways. Despite the apparent ease of academic routes and the relative complexity of technical pathways, technical learners are less likely to report that they found it difficult to apply for their current course than those on academic routes. However, young people from BAME groups are more likely to find it difficult to apply than White young people.
• The reasons learners gave for finding the application process difficult include that they were ‘unsure which course or institution to apply to’ and they ‘did not know who to ask’ and/or ‘where to go’ for help with their decision-making. Others found the process complex and time consuming. Some technical learners experienced difficulties with the system or difficulties when dealing directly with the individual provider or employer.

Satisfaction with current choice

• Almost nine out of ten young people are satisfied or very satisfied with their current course choice. Aspects of course delivery and the suitability of the course are the main sources of dissatisfaction. A minority of dissatisfied young people perceive that they have been channelled down a route that others believed was suitable for them, rather than the route they themselves wanted to follow.

Preferences for IAG

• Although most young people are willing to access information online, there is strong preference for face-to-face help and support with decision-making. The findings suggest that more needs to be done to raise awareness amongst young people, particularly those with SEN, to help with their decision-making and to encourage those from lower socio-economic groups to make use of careers information, advice and guidance (IAG).

The role of a centralised system in an enhanced careers IAG offer

• Most young people are able to find the information they believe they need to make fully informed decisions about post-16 education. However, a substantial minority, particularly Academic (FE and HE) students, do not know which of the myriad of information sources they can trust. Three-fifths of respondents agree that the decision-making process would be easier if all the information about courses and how to apply was in one place. Technical (FE/HE) learners were more likely to strongly agree compared with Academic (FE and HE) learners.
• There does not appear to be a correlation between those who found it difficult to apply for their current course and those who agree they would have found it easier to make a decision if all the information had been in one place.
• Respondents during the qualitative interviews welcomed the idea of a new system which improved the quality and depth of course information available to students as well as provided information on specialist student support services, destinations, and student career trajectories.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at User insight research into post-16 choices – GOV.UK 

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