7th November 2019

Further education pathways: Securing a successful and healthy life after education


A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the Health Foundation, examines the life outcomes of students studying vocational qualifications.

The research considers the majority of young people who do not pursue a ‘traditional’ A level-Bachelor’s degree route after completing secondary school.  

An increasing proportion of young people now opt for vocational equivalents to A levels, continued GCSE study, and apprenticeships. Despite this, these students are often overlooked in public debates.

This detailed study assesses the opportunities, skills and outcomes of this majority student group, before considering how the provision of vocational qualifications can be improved, in order to enhance life chances.

You can download the full report here.

Key findings

Around half of school leavers follow vocational routes, yet many face employment challenges

  • An increasing proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds follow vocational pathways, as an alternative to A levels. This is driven by a rise (11% since 1994) in those taking vocational equivalents to A levels, and an increase in those retaking their GCSEs at this age.
  • Young people following these pathways face a challenging labour market: since the 2008 recession, when entering work, non-graduate students have become much more likely to undertake zero hours contracts, or involuntary temporary or part-time work.

Students in vocational education are more likely to have poor health outcomes

  • Young people on vocational pathways are more likely to experience worse health outcomes than those in academic routes. This is due to lower levels of educational attainment, completing education at a lower level, and worse employment outcomes.
  • In the UK, at the age of 30, those who left with the lowest education levels have a life expectancy four years lower than those educated to the highest levels. Students on vocational routes are disproportionately represented among this lower-educated group.

Vocational students struggle to progress in education and lack important life skills

  • Young people in vocational education often fail to move to higher levels: while 79% of A level students progress to a higher level in education by the age of 25, just 42% of vocational students do. 
  • The government’s new T levels could play an important role in increasing progression, but the requirement of passing GCSE English and maths could prove too great a hurdle for some. 
  • While students face labour market challenges, there is growing employer demand for skills gained through intermediate level vocational qualifications (the same level as A level). Those topping up qualifications after age 19 are likely to benefit, and would see substantial salary returns later in life. However, the cost of further study at this level is often cited as a barrier.
  • The numeracy and literacy skills of vocational students in England are low by international standards. Digital skills are also lacking, and policy-makers should explore how they can boost ‘soft skills’, such as communication, leadership and teamwork.

Careers guidance for young people in vocational routes still has a long way to go

  • With qualification routes far more complex than academic routes, good careers guidance is critical for young people taking vocational qualifications.
  • The government’s Careers Strategy, which sets out standards for schools and colleges, is a step in the right direction – yet it is uncertain whether schools and colleges are sufficiently resourced to meet new minimum standards for careers guidance.

The funding gap between further and higher education is large, and growing

  • Funding per student in further education (FE) colleges fell by 9% in real terms between 2012/13 and 2018/19, from £5,870 to £5,320.
  • Over the long-term, the funding gap between FE and higher education has grown considerably. In 2005/06, funding rates for further education were 12% below rates for higher education – in 2017/18, they were 39% below.
  • In September, the government committed an additional £400m for 16-19-education (colleges and sixth forms), which included a strong focus on students taking vocational and technical qualifications. However, this is a one-year commitment, and only repairs a quarter of real terms funding cuts for 16-19 education since 2010-11.

Policy recommendations

  • To boost low literacy and numeracy skills, the government should, for the moment, retain the ambition of all young people passing English and maths GCSE by age 19 – but it must monitor how this is improving young people’s employment prospects, and ensure repeated GCSE resits do not adversely affect young people’s wellbeing.
  • Given employer demand and the high returns for young people, the government should offer maintenance loans to those over age 19 pursuing intermediate vocational qualifications.  
  • The government should ensure that colleges have the resources to meet their new responsibilities for careers advice.
  • The government should provide the further education sector with a more enduring financial settlement to sustain quality provision in the long term. 


EPI was commissioned by the Health Foundation as part of a two-year Young people’s future health inquiry. The inquiry is a first-of-its-kind research and engagement project that aims to build an understanding of the influences affecting the future health of young people.

The Health Foundation selected expert organisations across seven key policy areas to provide a deep dive into the building blocks of health for young people. The below reports and policy recommendations will be published:

  • Private rental housing – Chartered Institute of Housing
  • The impact of schools on wellbeing – The Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and the Centre for Mental Health
  • The impact of transport on young people’s lives – Sustrans and the University of the West of England
  • The quality of work on offer to young people – Institute for Employment Studies
  • Post-16 education and training outside of the path to university – Education Policy Institute
  • Youth provision – Centre for Youth Impact
  • Living with or without a financial safety net – The Resolution Foundation

For more information on the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry visit www.health.org.uk/FutureHealthInquiry