The Sutton Trust’s recent longitudinal study entitled Social Mobility: The Next Generation- Lost Potential at Age 16 (June 2023) highlights what many of us working with children and young people already know – the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners is already wide (or – “baked in”) from an early age and widens significantly by secondary education. The report focusses on the period of time between the end of primary school and GCSE exams, taking as its main indicator of disadvantage eligibility for free school meals and its baseline for potential (where a disadvantaged but academically capable child has the most potential for achievement) the final year of primary school.

The measure of academic achievement used in the report is GCSE English and Maths results. Learners who are identified as academically capable in Year 6 are tracked through to their GCSEs. The study overwhelming shows that disadvantaged learners perform less favourably than their non-disadvantaged peers for a range of reasons including ethnicity, poverty, levels of parental involvement, young carer responsibilities, school demographics and admissions policies, and access to technology among other reasons.

The study is hugely valuable and points to the complex mix of barriers to full potential experienced by disadvantaged children and young people, as well as the terrible cultural, socio-economic and wellbeing impacts of lost potential for these learner as well as the rest of society. The report also makes sensible recommendations for how schools and the government might help to close the attainment gaps it identifies.

However, the research conducted did get me wondering about how we might measure lost potential in ways that didn’t rely on GCSE results as a measure of achievement or “success”. How, for example, could we look at the same sort of statistics for learners who show potential at Year 6 and who go on to realise that potential in ways not so easily measured or understood as successful?

In the report, levels of Special Educational Needs are identified as “one of the biggest differentiators between the high attainer [cohort] and other disadvantaged groups”. The percentage of the disadvantaged high attainer cohort identified as having SEN in year 11 was just 9% compared to a national average of 60%, with the most common reason given as “social emotional and mental health”. While this suggests that the number of potential high attainers with SEN is much lower than those without, it is still the case that many learners with high potential find themselves unable to continue in mainstream education after Year 6. Often this will be for reasons related to trauma and mental health difficulties rather than difficulties with learning and cognition or physical and sensory SEN.

For children and young people who find themselves without a school placement or in alternative provision or other non-mainstream settings offering something other than GCSEs – how could a similar journey be tracked from academic potential in Year 6 to outcomes by Year 11? Does the metric chosen by the study (tracking a cohort through to GCSEs) demonstrate the understandable problem of gathering data on the potential of a cohort of learners in non-mainstream education – a group more invisible to statistics in terms of its own (equally important) achievements?

The answer is yes. Tracking attainment for children and young people who find themselves in alternative settings or without formal education is almost impossible at the scale demonstrated by The Sutton Trust’s important research. However, as leaders and educators we owe it to these children and young people to design ways of tracking their progress, whether through qualifications other than GCSEs or other metrics designed to assess them from their individual starting points and up to and including the GCSE achievements of their peers.

Part of supporting children and young people to understand the value of their own contributions to society is helping them recognise themselves as learners with the capacity to contribute- to be “socially mobile”. Viewing success only through the lens of the National Curriculum (and by implications GCSE qualifications) is deeply problematic for the cohort who will inevitably view themselves as failing by this measure. 

More importantly, recognising and valuing achievement more widely is a key factor in building the sort of self-worth that helps children and young people to have the confidence to go into the world and make that contribution. With the lifetime costs of NEET for children between 16-18 estimated to be somewhere between £12 billion and £32.5 billion there is an economic argument for finding ways to foster innovation in progress tracking in education and support settings. The onus is on us as professionals to innovate  so that all children and young people can socially navigate to appropriate successes depending on their own individual starting points.

In my own work in Alternative Provision and in designing educational technologies, I have recently been very focussed on how to build a full and rich picture of attainment for those whose successes can look pretty different to GCSE results but for whom the success in no less of an achievement. This has been based on a strong belief the the first step in social mobility for this cohort must be the recognition of its possibility.

The Sutton Trust’s study has certainly given me food for thought, as well as a few ideas about how to build this into future research and design of my own using both qualitative and quantitative data. I am so excited to begin sharing the new progress tracking options within LearnTrek over the next few months – hopefully, this will be a small but important step towards helping evidence potential (as well as the challenges in realising it) for other equally important  cohorts of disadvantaged students.