The inequalities in Post-16 education and work for young disabled people

By Stella Chatzitheochari (University of Warwick) & Sanne Velthuis (University of Warwick & University of Manchester) 

Official figures reveal that disabled young people lag behind in GCSE attainment. Yet, we know very little about what they do after the end of Year 11. We addressed this question in our recent working paper, as part of an ongoing project exploring the educational trajectories of disabled young people. 

Analysing data from a unique longitudinal dataset called Next Steps, we found that there are important differences in the post-16 pathways of disabled young people compared to those of their non-disabled peers. Although many disabled young people continue in education at 16 or enter employment, they are more at risk of becoming NEET than their non-disabled peers, and less likely to enter university. In early adulthood, their employment and occupational status tends to be lower than that of non-disabled young people, suggestive of more difficult transitions into (high-quality) employment. 

Where is the research data from? 

We examined longitudinal data from about 16,000 young people in English schools, born in 1989/1990. We compared disabled and non-disabled students to highlight persisting disability inequalities. Our data capture those with SEN and those with chronic physical and mental conditions. Unfortunately, we are not able to provide analyses by specific type of SEN/condition.

Disability Inequalities in Post-16 Education

We found a pronounced disability gap in post-16 education participation. Seventy per cent of disabled young people remain in education a few months after the end of Year 11, as opposed to 80% of non-disabled peers. 

We also found that disabled young people are more likely to leave education half-way through the academic year and move into unemployment. This underscores the need to ensure that disabled young people not only make a transition to post-16 education, but that they are also supported to remain in education for the full academic year. 

Moreover, there are disparities in the type of education provider young people enter after their GCSEs. Disabled young people are more likely to go to general Further Education colleges than their non-disabled peers (39% as opposed to 24%). Likewise, they are much less likely to stay in school or go to sixth forms (39% as opposed to 63%). Differences in GCSE attainment between the two groups are likely to be an important explanation for this contrast. We have previously discussed the importance of better understanding the whole range of factors that contribute to lower attainment among disabled young people. Among other things, these may include lack of adequate SEN provision within school and bullying victimization. 

"Disabled young people were much less likely to attend a school sixth-form or sixth form college compared to their non-disabled peers."

From Velthuis, Sanne & Chatzitheochari, S. (2021) Adolescent Disability, Post-16 Destinations and Early Socioeconomic Attainment: Initial Evidence from Next Steps. SocArxiv

Disability Inequalities in Economic Activity and Work 

During the three years after Year 11, disabled young people are already more likely to experience spells of unemployment than non-disabled young people. And at age 25, disability gaps in economic activity become even more pronounced. Eighty-two per cent of non-disabled young people are in employment as opposed to only 64% of disabled young people, and a far higher percentage of disabled young people are unemployed or economically inactive at this stage. 

For those in paid work, there are also disability inequalities in the type of occupation. Disabled young people are much more likely to find themselves in semi-routine and routine jobs with low occupational status. These findings illustrate how disabled young people, through being routed into different education and training pathways, as well as through facing employment-related barriers, often end up in positions of socio-economic disadvantage in early adulthood. 

Our results additionally showed that disabled young people from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background are disproportionally affected, with substantially worse educational and occupational outcomes. 

What's needed now? 

Further research is needed to better understand the findings presented in our research report. For example, we need to establish whether inequalities in employment levels are due to differences in educational attainment, discrimination in hiring practices or lack of reasonable adjustments and support in the workplace. Likewise, better data are necessary to document inequalities by different types of SEN/condition. This will allow us to understand whether different disabilities/learning difficulties are subject to the same barriers, which is key for developing better policies to enable disabled young people to succeed in post-16 education and move into good jobs. 

This blog post discusses findings from Velthuis, Sanne & Chatzitheochari, S. (2021) Adolescent Disability, Post-16 Destinations and Early Socioeconomic Attainment: Initial Evidence from Next Steps. SocArxiv.

Call for Research Participants 

Our research project seeks to better understand the factors that link adolescent disability with social disadvantage. As part of this, we are conducting a longitudinal study of disabled young people. Our aim to give a voice to disabled young people’s themselves and understand the barriers they experience in realizing their educational and work expectations. We are thus looking for Year 11 students with dyslexia / autism / cerebral palsy from mainstream schools in England. Should you want to take part and/or discuss more, please get in touch with Dr Angharad Butler-Rees at

About the authors

Stella Chatzitheochari 

Stella Chatzitheochari
Stella Chatzitheochari

I am Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. I am currently Principal Investigator of the Educational Pathways and Work Outcomes of Disabled Young People in England project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. 

Sanne Velthuis

Sanne Velthuis
Sanne Velthuis

I am a Research Assistant on the project, analyzing the educational trajectories of disabled young people using Next Steps. I am also Research Associate at the Work and Equalities Institute at the University of Manchester, working on a project on progression from low pay.  

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Stella Chatzitheochari, University of Warwick
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