This morning the Social Mobility Commission published our research examining the choice of courses and institution made by students at age 16. We could see there were differences in the choices made by social background, ethnicity and gender of the student and wanted to measure the extent to which these arose through differences in:

  1. GCSE attainment restricting post-16 opportunities
  2. The geographical dispersion of types of provision shaping opportunities available
  3. Choices made by students who appear to have identical post-16 opportunities because they live in the same neighbourhood and have similar GCSE attainment

The chart below, for example, shows that students who were eligible for free school meals at 15 are far less likely to study in a school sixth form than non-FSM students with the same GCSE attainment. In my next blog I will talk about why this attendance at school sixth forms might afford students certain advantages. Our modelling is able to show that at least a third of these differences in choice of institution arise from students living in the same neighbourhood with similar GCSE attainment.


This is exactly the type of analysis Education Datalab loves to do. Choice at 16 have been rather under-researched because they involve matching together multiple administrative datasets, including the Individualised Learner Records of further education and work-based training which can be a little fiddly.

They often say that high-level, quantitative research raises more new questions than it answers; this study is no exception. The major question this study raises is whether we should want students from lower income, White British families to make the same sort of academic choices as everyone else. This is increasingly important in an era where returns for some who go to university will be very small (or negative). However, we are starting to reach the stage where we are able to analyse whether these types of age 16 decisions affect earnings in adult life or frequency of unemployment spells. These are outcomes that unambiguously affect lives.

If we do decide that we would prefer certain groups of students to make more ambitious, academic choices for themselves at 16 we then have two choices. We could ask the wonderful Behavioural Insights Team to find a way to ‘nudge’ them (or in this case give them a big shove) into making the course and institution choices that we want them to make. This might work where informational inequalities are important but will be more challenging if choices reflect desires to remain with friends, stay closer to home and pursue particular interests. Alternatively, government could take a more authoritarian stance and decide – as it has with the EBacc at age 14 – that it should curb the type of choices that certain students are able to make.

I have said before that I worry that we promote choice and variation in provision for students – at age 16 as much as age 14 – without enough consideration for how these choices are being made. If we reach the point where we decide to manipulate ‘choice’ to ensure students made the choice we prefer for them, is it really so much more authoritarian to simply place greater restrictions on what we ask them to study?

You can read our research report here.