Social Mobility measure ignores 62% of students

There seems to be a major flaw in the Sutton Trust Social Mobility measure which means that the university progression of 62% of disadvantaged advanced sixth formers studying in colleges has been excluded. The data is therefore only based on the progression of 38% of the relevant cohort.

The Social Mobility Index recently produced by the Sutton Trust attempts to rank all 533 constituencies in England using a basket of social mobility indicators based on national data for 2012/13. The measures include early years, Key Stage 2 and GCSE performance of disadvantaged pupils as well as their progression rate to university and to professional occupations. The Index has already got media coverage and generated comment.

This kind of measure is an interesting idea but it seems that at least one of the indicators is flawed in the current version. The data used for the progress of disadvantaged sixth form students to universities is based on that for schools only. This excludes 19,580 advanced sixth form (or KS5) disadvantaged students studying in colleges; around 62% of the total – highly significant if this measure is intended to be meaningful. The degree of distortion this causes will differ greatly from area to area as the proportion of sixth formers studying in colleges rather than school sixth forms varies considerably.

This is probably an unintentional oversight resulting from the way the drop-down menus work in the national statistical tables these data come from. However, if I am right, this error will need to be corrected for this measure to be taken seriously. If I am wrong and have missed something, I apologise for crying wolf.

I discovered this while taking a look at the base data this measure comes from: numbers of Key Stage 5 students eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and the percentage progressing to university. I only looked at the data for 7 East London boroughs, but they all confirmed the problem (see table below). The Sutton Trust data corresponds exactly to the national data for schools only. Their tables don’t give actual numbers of students, only percentages, making it that much harder to check. I have included the numbers in the table below:

Borough FSM progression rate to HE Number of FSM students
  Sutton Trust Actual Sutton Trust Actual
Barking 67% 62% 200 270
Hackney 62% 62% 130 320
Havering x 46% 10 220
Newham 82% 57% 90 620
Redbridge 70% 66% 340 390
Tower Hamlets 67% 64% 390 560
Waltham Forest 71% 56% 50 690
England 54% 45% 12,090 31,670

Given the large numbers and proportions of KS5 FSM students excluded from the data (91% in Havering, 86% in Waltham Forest and 75% in Newham) it’s understandable that there might be concern about the data being so skewed as to be meaningless.

Any further analysis or critique of the usefulness of such an Index in measuring education’s contribution to social mobility therefore needs to await a reworking of this measure. In the meantime I offer the data for Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) for the same year which shows that our college sent more disadvantaged students to university (270) than any other sixth form provider in England and had a much higher than average progression rate for our disadvantaged cohort.

  FSM progression rate to HE Number of FSM students
NewVIc 63% 420
England 45% 31,670

More on that story:  NewVIc: highest number of disadvantaged students going to university

More about where our students progress to:

Where do all our A level students go?

Vocational education: rejecting the narrative of failure.

Investing in East London’s future

College success with disadvantaged students

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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