Written evidence submitted by Professor Liz Atkins


1.0 Executive Summary



2.0 Introduction

2.1 My expertise focusses on the factors influencing low attainment at 16+, with specific reference to social class, how this impacts the lives of young people, and potential interventions which can ameliorate some aspects of educational and social disadvantage. My work has centred largely on white working-class youth, and it is that research which informs this submission. The submission draws on previous and ongoing research.

2.1 Current research projects include one with Association of Colleges investigating the benefits of Enrichment, and one with Guernsey College in which we have developed a radical new curriculum model for low achieving young people. Now in its fourth year, the project has seen a significant decline in young people becoming NEET, and significant improvements in achievement and retention. A large majority of the young people have progressed to further education or sustainable employment.

2.3 The causes of underachievement are complex and multifactorial, but it is evident that a significant majority of young people who underachieve at 16+ have backgrounds characterised by disadvantage and poverty. For a significant proportion of these young people, their achievement at 16+ is not reflective of their academic potential. There is limited research specific to this cohort post-16: much of the research in vocational education and training (VET) centres around higher, technical education.

3.0 Previous academic experience and the curriculum

3.1 Evidence shows that most low achieving young people have troubled educational biographies, with histories not only of under-achievement, but also of issues such as poor attendance, exclusion, school refusal, challenging behaviour and inability to conform with school requirements. Most lack access to valorised capitals (Atkins, 2009, see also Avis and Atkins, 2017).

3.2 Typically, low attaining young people will have entered school with limited speech, which places them at an immediate disadvantage. Extended nursery provision, such as the Sure Start initiative, which also provided support to parents, helps to address this.

3.3 Many young people find the curriculum disengaging. The national curriculum can be perceived as narrow, with little emphasis on the arts and humanities, whilst once students progress to Further Education they have no option but to engage with a limited range of low-level vocational programmes. These offer an impoverished curriculum which is only weakly work-related, and which has minimal exchange value in the labour market (Wolf, 2011; Keep & James, 2012). These programmes are criterion based, and can result in a disengaging, demotivating, ‘tick-box’ approach to gaining a qualification. This compounds existing underachievement.

4.0 Home environment

4.1 Many of the young people who under-achieve come from backgrounds which are more complex and challenging than is often recognised. Poverty is this respect is often described in terms of lack of access to a quiet place in which to study, books, and technology for example. However, it means much more than that. One young man in an ongoing study, estranged from his parents, was sleeping on a sofa at a relative’s home. Lack of sleep and broken relationships contributed to his underachievement. He is far from unusual.

4.2 Other young people are required to engage with low pay, low skill work, often in the informal economy, and make a contribution to the family finances. In some cases, they can only remain in the family home if they are able to do this (Atkins, 2009:84). Participation in paid employment – which has to be a priority for them – necessitates a lesser engagement with education and increases the chances of these young people failing to make good their previous under-achievement through engagement with further education. 

4.3 However, despite their economic difficulties, many parents have high hopes for their children and wish to support them. Unfortunately, this tends to be expressed as a general hope that the child will ‘do well’ rather than as the more structured and informed investment more educated and advantaged parents are able to invest (see para 5.1)

4.4 It is important to note that the home learning environment extends far beyond access to the resources identified in the previous paragraph but includes the parents’ ability to provide emotional and financial as well as scholastic support. The broader educational experiences which can support the acquisition of knowledge and understanding, and thus contribute to higher levels of achievement, are, in general, denied to young people whose lives are characterised by poverty and disadvantage, whilst their more advantaged peers are able to take such social and leisure activities for granted. 

4.5 Such activities (sometimes available as extra-curricular opportunities in better resourced schools, especially in the private sector, or as ‘enrichment’ in some curricula) can provide insights and understandings – and inspirations – which are not possible within the constraints of the classroom and national curriculum. Additionally, such activities promote the development of ‘soft’ or ‘employability’ skills, such as communication and teamwork. Lack of access to them compounds educational disadvantage, increases the chances of low attainment, and limits possibilities in terms of transitions from school to work. For example, one young man in the Atkins and Misselke study cited above had never been to the cinema or the theatre. Consequently, he could not conceive of a learning programme or career in the broad fields of media or leisure. Many of the same cohort had never eaten in a restaurant (for most, this also included fast food restaurants) also making hospitality an inconceivable career.

5.0 Role models

5.1 Under-achieving young people are more likely to have parents who also have low levels of educational attainment, illustrating the notion of ‘educational inheritance’ proposed by Ball et el (1999a) and confirmed in later work (e.g. Atkins, 2009). Thus, few parents from such backgrounds are able to provide specific help and/or guidance with respect to school work and careers, although most will articulate a general wish for their child to ‘do well’, reflecting the significant social class polarisations in terms of the nature of the interventions made arising from the parents’ own experience of education (e.g. see Ball et al 1999a:217; Atkins, 2009: 128). Whilst the research cited here is now somewhat dated, an ongoing study (Atkins and Misselke 2019, Atkins et al, forthcoming, 2021) implies that this situation remains unchanged.

5.2 Low parental attainment, and the limited social networks social networks associated with poverty, mean that access to positive role models who can support educational engagement and career aspirations, are lacking, and this is a compounding factor in the causes and effects of under achievement. This also impacts on the young person’s career aspirations.

5.3 Contrary to much rhetoric, evidence shows that under and low achieving young people have similar aspirations to their more advantaged peers – what they lack is role-models and a ‘road map’ of how to achieve their aspirations (e.g. see Bathmaker, 2001; Atkins 2009; Atkins, 2017). For example, a young person may aspire to be a nurse, but be unaware that this requires a university degree and specific pre-curser credentials.

5.4 There is an assumption that this information can be given and acted on by young people, but my own research demonstrates that the details are quickly forgotten and need ongoing re-inforcement in the form of Careers Education and Guidance to enable a young person to act on them (Atkins, 2009; Atkins and Misselke, 2019). Our ongoing research, which consists of a specific range of interventions with low-attaining youth, demonstrates the value not only of teachers as role models, but of employers who provide work-experience for these young people, and who can inspire them to pursue a particular occupational path, and explain the training and career structures.

6.0 Place and geography

6.1 There are a range of studies demonstrating the impact of place and geography on young peoples’ transitions from school to the labour market and higher education (e.g. Watts and Bridges, 2006). In general, research implies that low-achieving, working class youth are more significantly constrained by place and geography than more advantaged young people. It is apparent, for example, that they inhabit a much more circumscribed geographical area, and are less likely to visit neighbouring towns or districts for example (Ball et al, 1999b). This means that they will progress at 16+ to the closest FE site to their home, which will circumscribe their post-16 options to what is available at that campus – which may not relate to their career aspirations.

6.2 These issues are most significant for young people who live in rural and coastal areas, where public transport is more limited and expensive.

7.0 The effects of COVID-19 on this group

7.1 Most of the young people in this group progress into work traditionally characterized as low paid and low skilled, often after following further education programmes that we have characterised as ‘welfare VET’ (Esmond and Atkins, forthcoming 2020, see also Esmond and Atkins, forthcoming, 2021). There is a significant gender issue, in that a majority of the young people engaged in such programmes are female (Esmond and Atkins, Ibid).

7.2 Once having completed their programmes, they move into employment, with many experiencing different forms of ‘churn’ (Avis and Atkins, 2017) as they move between different forms of precarious employment, welfare dependency, and low-level education. Further, they are a group who are displaced as over-qualified graduates move into the labour market, resulting in a downward pressure on job opportunities (Guardian, 29/04/19). Evidence suggests that this group are already disproportionately affected by COVID 19 (Guardian, 19/05/20).

7.3 Many of them will form part of the ‘vulnerable’ category for whom schools have remained open throughout the crisis, but few of whom have actually attended (BBC, 22/04/20) The home circumstances described above are unlikely to be conducive to self-study, and they will be unprepared to begin post-16 education in September. Some may have become engaged with criminal activity such as drug use and gang membership.

7.4 The impact of recession will place a greater burden on families whose lives are characterised by poverty, and thus, ironically, they are likely to experience familial pressure to generate income, meaning that if work becomes available, they are likely to withdraw from education to meet immediate economic demands. Ultimately, many are likely to become unemployed, potentially for extended periods, with clear negative consequences for future work, health, and life chances.

7.5 Traditionally, government response to crises of youth unemployment has been to establish low value, low level training programmes (for example, the response to mass youth unemployment in the 1980s included Youth Training Schemes and similar programmes, various iterations of ‘employability’ qualifications). These have been successful only in terms of keeping young people off the streets, rather than in terms of adequately preparing them for meaningful and sustainable work.

7.6 The current crisis offers an opportunity to conduct a research-informed re-conceptualisation of further education with a particular focus on the needs of the lowest achieving, drawing on models such as that operated in Guernsey (Atkins and Misselke, 2019). This model has also successfully addressed local economic need by matching young people with employers who were prepared to invest some additional time in supporting them to complete necessary training.

8.0 Impacts of underachievement

8.1 The impacts of underachievement, illustrated in relation to the impact of COVID 19 in para 7.4  are lifelong for individuals in terms of the reduced life chances associated with under achievement (Parsons, 2013).

8.2 This has a wider, familial impact – like their own parents, they will lack the knowledge and skills to adequately support their own children’s education, contributing to a reproduction of class and labour and reduced life chances in subsequent generations (Parsons, Ibid). In the context of communities, this can become an aspect of identity and culture – and a perception that ‘people like us’ have few opportunities makes it less likely that young people will recognise the benefits of education, and engage with it.

9.0 Recommendations and Priorities for Government

9.1 Local place and culture have a significant impact on the effects of under achievement. Additionally, local colleges respond to local economic drivers in the programmes they offer. Therefore, locally tailored solutions can respond more effectively to these issues.

9.2 The educational response needs to be flexible and responsive to these local needs. Research shows that young people want ‘good’ (i.e. recognisable) qualifications but these need to be ‘wrapped around’ with a broader curriculum which provides the enrichment to which the most disadvantaged lack access.

9.3 This requires a re-conceptualised, flexible curriculum model for the lowest achieving students. In turn, this would require an alternative funding mechanism in which the funding was detached from qualifications and attached to an appropriate programme of study which incorporated particular strands (e.g. a vocational qualification; English and maths at a level appropriate to the young person’s prior attainment; ongoing Careers Education and Guidance; work experience and enrichment)

9.4 For all students the Vocational Curriculum requires a re-conceptualisation which facilitates the provision of clear career pathways from the lowest levels and moves away from existing criterion driven models which students find disengaging and demotivating.

9.5 Beyond education, young people need opportunities to engage in structured activities, such as sports and similar activities which can be offered by youth clubs and community groups and which support the development of ‘soft skills’ such as communication and teamwork, as well as the acquisition of social and cultural capitals.

9.6 Joined up thinking would be helpful – for example, FE Colleges are uniquely positioned to have youth clubs co-located on their premises, and to offer a wide range of enrichment activities. They also have much to offer local communities – for example, community libraries could potentially share space in some institutions, or Midwives and Health Visitors could run parent support clinics there supported by Early Years teachers. However, the current funding mechanisms preclude much of this.

9.7 Intervention in early life is more effective than amelioration: initiatives such as Sure Start should be re-visited, particularly in the most disadvantaged communities.

9.8 In order to make a real difference, policy makers must acknowledge their own privilege and realise that they cannot make assumptions about the way under achieving, working class youth will respond to particular ‘opportunities’ and learning programmes when the policy makers themselves have no meaningful understanding or insight into how the lives of these young people play out (Atkins, 2010). Addressing the problems faced by, and presented by, this group requires a fundamental change in the way they are regarded by the system, and a reconceptualization of the curriculum as outlined in this submission.


Atkins, L. (2009) Invisible Students, Impossible Dreams: Experiencing Vocational Education 14-19 Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books

Atkins, L. (2010) Opportunity and Aspiration or the Great Deception? The case of 14-19 vocational education, Power and Education, 2, 3 pp 253-265

Atkins, L. (2017) The Odyssey: School to Work Transitions, Serendipity and Position in the Field British Journal of Sociology of Education 38, 5 pp 641-655

Avis, J. and Atkins, L. (2017) Youth Transitions, VET and the ‘making’ of class: changing theorisations for changing times? Research in Post-compulsory Education 22 (2) pp165-185

Atkins, L. and Misselke, L. (2019) Pride and Prospects: The impact of the implementation of a more socially just vocational curriculum at lower levels’ in Stalder, B. E. & Nägele, C. (Eds.) (2019). Trends in vocational education and training research, Vol. II. Proceedings of the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Vocational Education and Training Network (VETNET).

Atkins, L., Misselke, L., Lambeth, S., Barker, L. and Hart, J. (2021, forthcoming)  A curriculum for social justice: promoting success for low-attaining youth London: Palgrave

Ball, S., Macrae, S. and Maguire, M. (1999a) ‘Young Lives, diverse choices and imagined futures in an education and training market’ International Journal of Inclusive Education 3, 3 195-224

Ball, S., Macrae, S. and Maguire, M. (1999b) Worlds Apart – Education Markets in the Post-16 sector of one urban locale 1995-1998 in Frank Coffield (editor) Differing Visions of a Learning Society Vol 1: Research Findings Volume 1 Bristol: The Policy Press/ESRC

Bathmaker, A-M (2001) ‘It’s a Perfect Education’: Lifelong Learning and the Experience of Foundation-level GNVQ Students’ Journal of Vocational Education and Training 53, 1 81-100

BBC (22/04/20)Tiny fraction of 'at risk' children attending schools online at

Esmond, B. and Atkins, L. (2020, in press) VET realignment and the development of technical elites: learning at work in England International Journal for Research in Vocational Education and Training (IJRVET) Accepted for publication 11th May 2020

Esmond, B. and Atkins, L. (2021, forthcoming) Educating for the hour-glass economy? Technical elites, reproduction and social justice London: Routledge

Guardian (19/05/20) Young workers most likely to have lost jobs during Covid-19 crisis

Resolution Foundation report confirms under-25s hardest hit by the economic fallout online at

Guardian (29/04/19) Third of UK graduates overqualified for their job online at

Keep, E. and James, S. (2012) A Bermuda triangle of policy? ‘Bad jobs’, skills policy and incentives to learn at the bottom end of the labour market, Journal of Education Policy, 27 (2) 211-230, DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2011.595510

Parsons, C. (2013) Challenged school – challenged society: stacking the odds against the poor, Educational Review, 65 (3), 267-283, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2013.772127

Watts, M. and Bridges, D. (2006) The Value of Non-participation in Higher Education, Journal of Education Policy, 21(3), 267-290.

Wolf, A. (2011) Review of Vocational Education – The Wolf Report. publications/review-of-vocational-education-the-wolf-report



June 2020

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