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Turbulence on the glide path: A-level results 2022

Blog Editor18 August 2022

Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

This year sees A-level (or equivalent) results for the cohort of pupils who were on the cusp of sitting their GCSEs in 2020 when exams were first cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now exams are back, much to the dismay of many who believe that teacher-assessed grades should become the new norm. Here at CEPEO, we’ve regularly made the case for externally set and externally marked exams, based on academic evidence that teacher assessment leads to biases against certain groups. But what has the return of exams meant for results?

The implementation of a “glide path” has been successful – generally speaking, the results are pretty much halfway between those from 2019 and 2021. While the headlines are all focused on grades being down on last year, they are, if anything, slightly more generous than might have been predicted given the intention to deal with half of the grade inflation from teacher assessment seen in 2020 and 2021. This will be driven by the fact that these weren’t strictly exams in the 2019 sense – leniency in marking was encouraged and pupils had extra information in advance of exams, which may also have had other consequences that we’ll come back to shortly.

They don’t mean that learning loss for these students is no longer a problem – since the overall level of grades was decided by that “glide path”. As such, we do not know if this group of students would have achieved as good grades as their peers in 2019 despite the disruption. This is particularly the case given some remaining incomparability with 2019 around leniency in marking and advance notice of exam content. Ongoing concerns about learning loss, its consequences, and support for catching up need to be informed by other evidence, not allayed by these results.

Regional differences present a worrying picture for inequalities – the gap in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above at A level has increased between regions, from 7.3ppts in 2019 to 8.2ppts in 2022. So, London and the South East are continuing to pull away from other areas while the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber are particularly being left behind. This trend of Southern regions pulling ahead was also evident in the Key Stage 2 data released last month, and will provide a big headache for a government that has put ‘levelling up’ at the heart of what they plan to achieve.

Distribution of grades in 2019 and 2022 by English region

Source: JCQ

A mixed picture across centre type – FE colleges and independent schools have seen the biggest absolute declines in the proportion of A-levels awarded A or above. For independent schools, this is not altogether surprising given their huge grade inflation from 2019 to 2021, which saw a massive 25.7ppt increase in the proportion of pupils achieving A or above over the period, and over 70% of all private school pupils awarded an A or above in 2021. This number has returned to a more ‘reasonable’ 58% for 2022. Two points to make here: First, this highlights the extent of grade inflation in this type of centre during the period of teacher assessment. Second, this is still an extremely high proportion of pupils achieving a grade A or above, which could be indicative of private school pupils being better placed to make use of the additional information on exam content made available in advance this year, as well as the advantages that private school pupils had in terms of relative learning loss during the pandemic.

FE colleges are far more puzzling – they have seen a similar absolute decline in the proportion achieving A or above, but from a much lower base. They saw a 16.5ppt rise in pupils achieving A or above from 2019 to 2021, only 29.2% reached this level of achievement by 2021. This has fallen back down to 16.5% in 2022. Somewhat speculatively, it seems plausible that students in FE colleges were, in contrast to those at independent schools, particularly badly affected by the disruption wrought by COVID-19.

Percentage of A-levels awarded A*/A by centre type in 2019, 2021 and 2022

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/guide-to-as-and-a-level-results-in-england-summer-2022

Grammar schools, on the other hand, have found themselves performing at a level that is almost comparable with that seen in 2021, despite the different type of assessment, and 14.1ppts higher than 2019. One explanation for this could be, like private schools, that grammar school teachers and pupils were better placed to use the additional information released in advance of exams this year, focusing on a far narrower set of curricula. Additionally, this may be the first indication (through exam results at least) that pupils from more advantaged backgrounds were less constrained by learning loss during the pandemic.

In many ways, these results have not told us much we did not already know – it was already pretty clear that independent school grades, especially, were artificially inflated by teacher assessment, although the percentage coming back down now challenges those who told a tale of Covid learning loss advantages last year. We already knew that the impacts of COVID-19 disruption were likely to be unequal. And we already knew that this was going to be an extremely tough transition for those young people in the middle of it, rightly proud of what they have achieved through difficult circumstances, but unsure of what it all means compared to their peers one year above or below them.

Skills are crucial to boosting productivity – but they cannot do the job alone

Blog Editor25 May 2022

Arun Advani and Claire Crawford

Today marks the launch of the Department for Education’s new Unit for Future Skills (UFS). Its remit is to use existing data – and champion the creation of new data – to better understand the skills businesses want and whether the education and training system is delivering them.

A focus of the UFS is to improve understanding of ‘skills mismatches’ – the gaps between the demand for and supply of different skills. The idea is that by learning more about skills mismatches and, crucially, their sources, we can design more effective policies to close these gaps, and hence raise productivity.

The UFS was the brainchild of the current Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi. Its origins, though, lie at least in part in the Skills and Productivity Board (SPB), set up by the former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, to investigate both skills mismatches and how skills contribute to productivity. The SPB comes to an end as the UFS launches.

This apparent change in remit between the UFS and its predecessor is an important one. While the focus of the new unit on collating and sharing data is undoubtedly welcome, the loss of the explicit link to productivity risks losing the ‘bigger picture’ rationale for such a unit.

Part of our work on the SPB – on which we sat alongside four other academic experts – was to provide some initial insights into the skills which seemed to have significant mismatches between demand and supply, or for which demand was likely to grow over time.

Unfortunately, the data at our disposal were not well suited to identifying skills mismatches, and we made a series of recommendations to the Secretary of State about the ways in which the UFS could improve upon this. For example, information about the demand for skills is collected either using relatively small-scale national surveys or in different ways across different local areas, for example as part of the new Local Skills Information Plans, making granular information that is comparable across areas difficult to obtain. Instead, we had to infer the demand for skills by combining information on the number of jobs in different occupations in the economy with the importance of each skill in those occupations.

The difficulties in identifying the supply of skills were even greater: while the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data provides excellent information about the qualifications of younger cohorts in England, there is no straightforward way of identifying which skills – rather than knowledge – different qualifications develop, and no way to reflect the skills that workers acquire – or indeed lose – through on-the-job training rather than in formal education.

Despite these challenges, our analysis highlighted some skills which seemed to be particularly important and potentially worthy of further investment by the government:

  • We identified a set of ‘core transferable skills’ that are important across a large number of jobs in the economy now, and are expected to remain so in future. These skills included communication skills, people skills and ‘information skills’ – including decision-making, problem solving and critical thinking. Ensuring people have these skills means they should be equipped to perform a range of jobs well, and should also help them to transfer between jobs as needed.
  • We also identified a set of skills that, despite being important for only a small number of jobs, seem to be in shortage now, and are valuable in occupations that contribute disproportionately to productivity. These include Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) knowledge and the application of this knowledge, including scientific and mathematical reasoning.

The appropriate policy responses to these findings are not straightforward. While encouraging more people to study STEM subjects may be sensible for many reasons, it may not help fill STEM job vacancies: not if the main challenge is that these occupations pay a lot less – or have other less attractive job characteristics – than occupations in which those skills can be equally effectively applied and are rewarded more highly.

In bringing together richer skills and labour market data, the work of the UFS should enable us to better understand these issues and support the development of policies to eliminate these gaps. But an important question is how far eliminating skills mismatches – and indeed increasing skills more generally – can get us in terms of boosting productivity, especially in ‘left behind’ areas.

One potential risk of relying heavily on skills investments as a route to ‘levelling up’ is that higher skilled or more educated individuals may move away, meaning the areas in which the investments are made do not benefit fully from those investments. We already know this is the case for many graduates.

But our work suggests that, unlike graduates, those with lower level qualifications are highly likely to remain in or close to the areas in which they grew up. While around half of both graduates and non-graduates have moved at least locally by age 27, only one in six non-graduates moves to a different commuting area, compared to a one in three graduates. Amongst those who move, a majority of non-graduates move less than 5km, compared to more than 20km for graduates. This suggests that poorer performing areas would benefit from investments in skills, at least up to degree level.

Our work also suggests that while a substantial proportion (two-thirds) of the difference in wages (a proxy for productivity) across areas can be explained by the qualifications and skills of the individuals living in those areas, a significant minority (one-third) cannot. This highlights that investments in human capital (skills) on their own will not be enough to ‘level up’. Such investments will need to be supplemented with investments in other types of capital – the type and extent of which will differ from place to place – to ensure that the benefits of investments in education and skills can be fully realised.

Better data will help shed light on the extent of and reasons for skills mismatches, and hopefully lead to policies aimed at addressing these mismatches. However, reducing mismatches alone is unlikely to be sufficient to deliver the necessary boost to productivity if we are to eliminate differences across areas, or between the UK and its international competitors.

Without greater demand for skills, particularly in poorer performing areas of the country, we risk levelling down rather than levelling up. It is crucial that the UFS works closely with colleagues across government and in local areas to ensure that they support the ‘productivity’ as well as the ‘skills’ part of the board they are replacing.

Financial Literacy Part 4: Do disadvantaged children receive enough financial education in school?

Blog Editor11 February 2022

John Jerrim, UCL Social Research Institute
This blog post first appeared on the IOE blog.

In the third blog post in this series, I started to investigate socio-economic differences in the inputs into young people’s financial skills, focusing upon the role of parents.

Schools, of course, also have a key role in helping to develop children’s financial skills. Therefore, in this final blog of the series, we turn to socio-economic gaps in the provision of financial education within primary and secondary schools.

Big gaps in primary schools

Let’s start by looking at what happens in primary school. Figure 1 illustrates the percent of primary pupils who say they have been taught various financial skills at school, stratified by socio-economic background.

There are two striking results.

First, there are consistently large socio-economic gaps. For instance, children from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds are much more likely to report that they have been taught skills such as working out change from shopping (67% versus 54%), saving money (43% versus 28%), and the difference between the things you “need” and things you “want” to buy (36% versus 27%) than their disadvantaged peers.

Second, it is notable how only quite a small proportion of primary school children are taught some really key financial skills at school. For instance, even amongst higher socio-economic status families, only around one in five primary children are taught about bank accounts, how to keep track of spending and saving, and how to spot that advertising is trying to sell them something.

Interestingly, Figure 2 illustrates how a similar pattern emerges during secondary school as well. This presents the clearest evidence to date that the financial education provided to socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged pupils differs significantly throughout their time at school. Moreover, some key basic financial life skills – such as learning how to budget, how to read bills, and understanding how borrowing works – are only taught by schools to a minority of disadvantaged pupils.

Figure 1. Socio-economic differences in the provision of financial education during primary school

Figure 2. Socio-economic differences in the provision of financial education during secondary school

With respect to the socio-economic gap in financial education provision during primary school, it is also notable how it seems to increase over time, between age 7 (end of Key Stage 1) and age 10 (nearing the end of Key Stage 2). This is illustrated in Figure 3, which combines responses to various questions into a scale, and reports changes in the socio-economic gap over time as an effective size.

In other words, while seven-year-olds from rich and poor backgrounds report receiving similar amounts of financial education at school, this gap in provision increases significantly during Key Stage 2.

Figure 3. Change in socio-economic status gap in “money planning” education provided to primary school pupils

Notes: “Money planning” includes topics such as saving, how to keep track of spending and saving, how to keep money safe and borrowing from banks.

Increase the focus of financial education in the school curriculum

The above suggests that greater time needs to be made in the school curriculum to provide financial education to young people – particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Currently, only a minority of low-income children report receiving any education through their school in some key financial life skills. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to their more advantaged peers, with the gap in provision particularly pronounced towards the end of primary school.

One option could be to integrate financial education skills into the Key Stage 2 tests (with the most obvious choice being mathematics). This would provide schools with a clear incentive to ensure young people develop these vital life skills, which currently seem to be pushed out of the school curriculum.

Financial Literacy Part 3: Are there socio-economic differences in how parents interact with their children about money?

Blog Editor11 February 2022

John Jerrim, UCL Social Research Institute
This blog post first appeared on the IOE blog.

In the previous blog post in this series, I investigated socio-economic differences in young people’s financial skills. This focused upon the types of financial questions that young people from advantaged backgrounds can successfully answer, that their peers from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t.

In this next post, I start to consider socio-economic differences in one of the key inputs into the development of young people’s financial skills – the role of their parents. Are there certain things that higher-income parents do with their offspring to nurture their financial skills, that lower-income parents do not?

Let’s take a look (with further details available in the academic paper here).

Differences in knowledge

Figure 1 presents the percent of parents who say they do various financial activities “often” with their children, divided by socio-economic group.

Figure 1. Socio-economic differences in parent-child conversations and demonstrations of money use

Note: Figures refer to the percentage of parents who report that they “often” talk to or who show their child how to do the following things with money.

Although higher socio-economic parents are slightly more likely to regularly do most of the activities with their offspring, differences are generally quite small. For instance, although high socio-economic status parents are more likely to talk to their child about where their household money comes from than low socio-economic status parents (34% versus 29%) and the fact that advertising happens online (26% versus 23%) there is no difference in – for instance – showing their child how to shop around.

There are also certain areas that lower socio-economic status parents are more likely to talk to their children about, such as the risks of borrowing, the impact of debt, and how they pay for different household bills.

So, on the whole, socio-economic differences in the informal types of financial education parents provide their children are relatively muted. This point is reiterated by another finding from the survey – that the vast majority of parents recognise the importance of teaching their children about money, regardless of socio-economic background (see the top row of Table 1 below).

Where there does seem to be a notable socio-economic difference, however, is in parents’ confidence in their ability to effectively teach their children about money.

For instance, as Table 1 illustrates, more affluent parents tend to have greater confidence in being able to teach their child about how to manage money (65% versus 52%), that they can act as a good financial role model (65% versus 52%) and that they will be able to affect how their child will behave with money in the long-term (46% versus 37%), than disadvantaged parents.

Table 1. Socio-economic differences in parental views and confidence in teaching their children about money

  Disadvantaged background Advantaged background
% who believe it’s important to teach children about money 85% 88%
% very confident in talking to your child/children about how to manage money 52% 65%
% who strongly agree they can be a good role model for child around money 32% 47%
% who strongly believe they can affect how child will behave around money when they grow up. 37% 46%
% who don’t know how to talk to my child/children about money 13% 13%

Now, such differences could either reflect that (a) higher socio-economic parents are indeed able to teach their children about money more effectively or (b) they are simply more confident in doing so.

Either way, any socio-economic gap in financial skills does not seem likely to be linked to the frequency with which high and low-income parents interact with their children about money – as they report having money conversations and conducting money demonstrations equally regularly. Rather, it seems more likely to be related to low-income parents’ ability to provide effective financial education to their offspring, either through a lack of skills or lacking in confidence to do so.

Financial Literacy Part 2: The financial skills of children. What can rich kids do that poor kids can’t?

Blog Editor10 February 2022

John Jerrim, UCL Social Research Institute
This blog post first appeared on the IOE blog.

The first blog post in this series illustrated how there are substantial socio-economic gaps in children’s financial literacy skills, with these differences emerging before the start of primary school.

But what exactly can rich kids do – in terms of their financial knowledge and skills – that poor kids can’t?

This blog post takes a closer look.

Differences in knowledge

As part of the Children and Young People’s Financial Capability Survey, young people age 11 and above were asked whether they knew the correct term for various financial concepts, such as “the money people pay to government” (taxes) and “the amount the price of things in shops does up by”.

The percentage of young people who provided the correct response – stratified by socio-economic group – can be found in Figure 1. This provides a clear and consistent story of there being around a 10 to 15 percentage point difference on each of the concepts asked; young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have consistently weaker knowledge across a range of financial concepts.

Figure 1. Inequality in young people’s knowledge of different financial concepts (children age 11 – 17)

How about how money works “in practice”? Young people were also informally tested about their knowledge of how interest on savings work. The exact questions they were asked can be found in Table 1.

Around one-in-three 11-17-year-olds from low socio-economic status families could not work out the amount of money they would have in their savings account with an interest rate of two percent. This is compared to just 14% of children from affluent family backgrounds.

Even fewer disadvantaged children – around two-thirds – failed to understand the concept of a real savings rate, and how inflation erodes the purchasing power. Again, as Table 1 illustrates, the socio-economic gap here is particularly stark.

Table 1. Inequality in understanding interest rates (children age 11 – 17)

Low SES High SES
Suppose you put £100 into a savings account with a guaranteed interest rate of 2% per year. You don’t make any further payments into this account and you don’t withdraw any money. How much would be in the account at the end of the first year? 68% 86%
If the inflation rate is 5% and the interest rate you get on your savings is 3%, will your savings have more, less or the same amount of buying power in a year’s time? 31% 53%

 

But what about the consequences of not keeping up with paying important bills? This may have more salience for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds than advantaged backgrounds, given how their parents are more likely to face such financial difficulties.

Interestingly, in this area, socio-economic differences are a lot less pronounced, as illustrated by Figure 2.

Figure 2. Inequality in young people’s understanding of the consequences of not paying council tax (children age 14 – 17)

Almost all children, regardless of their socio-economic status, understood that failing to pay council tax has consequences, and that the government won’t simply pay it for you.

But only around one-in-three understood that this is a criminal offence, which could result in a custodial sentence, with the percentage actually slightly higher for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Similarly, only around half of 14-17-year-olds realised that possessions may be seized by a debt collector, with again only a comparatively small difference between socio-economic groups.

Conclusions

Although disadvantaged children’s knowledge of key financial concepts is weaker than their more advantaged peers, they seem to be equally tuned in to the consequences of failing to meet important financial commitments.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat concerning the way there do appear to be significant gaps in disadvantaged children’s financial knowledge. Many cannot work out simple interest rate calculations, with most not understanding that inflation erodes the purchasing power of money. More than half of disadvantaged teenagers also do not grasp the full severity of not paying their taxes due.

Given the potential long-term consequences of such weak financial skills, more needs to be done to improve disadvantaged young people’s understanding of money and how it works.

Financial Literacy Part 1: How unequal are children’s financial literacy skills?

Blog Editor10 February 2022

John Jerrim, UCL Social Research Institute
This blog post first appeared on the IOE blog.

In an increasingly complex financial world, it is important that we ensure young people develop a sound knowledge of financial issues and possess key financial skills. This is particularly important for young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds who, unfortunately, are the most likely to struggle financially during adulthood and become entrapped in a cycle of poverty and debt.

Yet, in the UK, we know relatively little about children’s financial capabilities, including differences between socio-economic groups, and the age when such gaps start to develop.

Along with Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan, I have tackled this issue in a new academic paper. This uses data from the 2019 Children and Young People’s Financial Capability Survey – based upon responses from 3,745 children from across the UK.

Spoiler alert! The gaps are pretty big, and emerge pretty early.

How big are the socio-economic gaps in children’s financial knowledge?

As part of the survey, young people were asked a series of questions that tested their financial knowledge (further detail about the questions asked are provided in the next blog post in this series). We have converted this into an overall score, and then compared the average percentile ranking of children from advantaged and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds (where 100 = top 1% of children in terms of their financial skills and 1 = the bottom 1% of children).

Figure 1 presents one of our key findings, plotting results for children from advantaged and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and illustrating how this changes as children age.

Three key results emerge.

First, the socio-economic gap in children’s financial skills is pretty big. For instance, at age 17, there is a difference between socio-economic groups – on average – of around 14 places in the financial skills rankings (low SES = 55th percentile versus high SES 69th percentile).

Second, the gaps emerge early, and then are sustained – but do not seem to grow bigger. For instance, at age 11, there is a difference between socio-economic groups of around 13 places in the financial skills ranking (30th versus 43rd percentile). This is essentially the same gap as observed at the end of secondary school.

Finally, the financial skills of 15-year-olds from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are approximately the same as those of 11-year-olds from the most advantaged backgrounds. In other words, poor kids have similar financial skills just before they are about to leave secondary school as rich kids do just after joining.

Clearly, then, the root cause of inequalities in young people’s financial skills is taking hold before children enter secondary school.

But just how early such differences emerge we still don’t really know…

Figure 1. The financial literacy skills of socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged children (age 11 to 17).

What might be driving this gap?

Figure 1 in many ways replicates what we know about socio-economic inequalities in educational achievement more broadly – gaps emerge early in life and are then firmly maintained.

A later blog in this series will look into the inequalities in the inputs into children’s financial education, both by schools and by parents. This may, in turn, provide some suggestions of the potential factors underpinning this gap in schools.

But at the same time, it’s important to understand that there are unlikely to be easy solutions to such problems. Rather, coordinated action by schools, parents, policymakers, financial service providers and society is likely to be needed if such socio-economic differences in financial skills are to get meaningfully reduced.

Levelling up education and skills: a recipe for success?

Blog Editor3 February 2022

Claire Crawford, Laura Outhwaite, Sam Sims and Gill Wyness

It’s finally here: an answer to the question of what the government means by ‘levelling up’. On the education and skills front, it seems to involve some seriously ambitious targets: a massive increase in the percentage of children achieving the ‘expected’ level in reading, writing and maths at age 11 over the next eight years across all areas, with more than 50% rises needed to meet the target in most local authorities. Alongside these national targets, a set of 55 ‘Education Investment Areas’ – roughly the poorest performing third of local authorities in terms of primary and secondary school results – were identified, in which some new (and some re-announced) policies would be targeted.

It is good to have specific, measurable and stretching goals, but given the scale of ambition involved, there was very little detail of how we will actually get there – and no evidence of significant new resources to do it. Complex issues, like inequalities across the life course, require holistic solutions and joined up thinking across all aspects of the journey – things that simply cannot be delivered without appropriate funding. There was also little evidence of the embedding of new announcements within existing strategies – certainly in terms of the plans for educational technology, with the white paper championing the creation of a new online UK National Academy to support schools and children, without embedding this within the wider EdTech strategy.

There were some other glaring omissions as well . . .

Early years

“Potential is shaped from the very beginning of our lives, and all children and families need to be able to access high quality early years education, schools and support.” So began the ‘case for action’ underlying the pledge to ‘eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy’. The statement is correct: the best evidence we have, from both the UK and internationally, suggests that high quality early education benefits children – especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds – in both the short-term and the long-term.

But – aside from the reannouncement of funds previously identified in the spending review to expand Family Hubs, the ‘Start for Life’ programme and the ‘Supporting Families’ programme – that was the only mention of early years anywhere in the 332 page document. More time was spent discussing the Roman Empire than the early years sector. Despite pointing out that there are significant regional differences in children’s development by age 5 – differences that are dwarfed by the even larger gaps in development between those who are and are not eligible for free school meals at the same age (18 percentage points: 57% vs 74%) – no mention was made of the crucial role investment in early years could play in reducing these gaps. At a time when the percentage of 0-4 year olds attending early years settings has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels – with larger drops amongst those from more disadvantaged backgrounds and areas – as well as significant recruitment difficulties and funding challenges, this feels like a significant missed opportunity.

11-19 education

Perhaps the most eye-catching commitments were focused on schools and colleges, although not all of these were new announcements. The reintroduction of retention payments – “to help schools [in Education Investment Areas] with supply challenges to retain the best teachers in high-priority subjects” – was announced at the Conservative Party conference in 2021, and is a reincarnation of several previous versions of a similar policy. More on this below. We also reflect on the promise to “ensure that talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a college, school sixth form or 16-19 academy, with a track record of progress on to leading universities”.

Teacher retention payments

The government is pledging an additional £3,000 (around 10% of a year’s salary) to early-career maths and science teachers in the 55 Education Investment Areas. (It is not clear yet whether this is per year or in-total.)

Will these retention payments be effective? That depends how we define effective. Similar policies have been shown to improve the retention of early-career teachers in the profession. If teachers can be retained for the first few years of their career, they are then much less likely to leave the profession prior to retirement, so the retention payments probably will increase the overall supply of science and maths teachers in England.

However, a recent systematic review suggests that incentives aimed at keeping teachers in specific schools or local areas are likely to be effective only as long as the policy is in place. It is possible that teachers will move away from the targeted areas when they no longer qualify for payments. Whether – or for how long – the policy will improve the supply of science and math teachers in these areas therefore depends on how long the policy is kept in place. It will also depend hugely on the size of the incentive: clarity over whether it is £3,000 per year across the early-career period, or £3,000 in total – either delivered in a single lump-sum or spread over a number of years – is needed before we can predict how effective this policy might be.

‘Elite sixth forms’

These sound like they could be grammar schools in all but name, given that the school admissions code allows sixth forms to select pupils on the basis of ability. While this might expand educational opportunities for a small number of high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is likely to widen inequalities within the areas more broadly. We have strong evidence from the areas of England which still operate large numbers of grammar schools that suggests these systems widen inequalities in attainment during school, in higher education and in subsequent earnings, because while they generally improve outcomes for those fortunate enough to attend the selective schools, they tend to worsen outcomes for those who miss out. The policy also seems somewhat at odds with the government’s recent shift in focus away from higher education and towards the long-neglected further education sector, almost a direct contrast to the aim of encouraging greater parity between academic and vocational routes. Why favour one and not the other here?

Higher education and skills

The continued focus on adult skills is, of course, welcome. Most of the announcements in the white paper are not new – although, to be fair, there was a skills white paper out last year. But many of the initiatives, while potentially promising, are quite ‘piecemeal’, targeting relatively small numbers of learners, and nowhere near enough to reverse the historical declines in either numbers of students or funding per head seen over the last decade. It’s also not clear to what extent some of the more specific initiatives – such as skills bootcamps – are evidence-based.

One new announcement is the Unit for Future Skills, which will champion a more data driven approach to identifying skills gaps. This has the potential to improve the ‘matching’ of workers and jobs, potentially leading to higher productivity in future. But they will have their work cut out for them, as we don’t know a whole lot about the skills people have (other than their qualifications), or which specific skills employers struggle to recruit or find difficult to train. We will watch this space with interest . . .

The role of the university sector – often lauded as an engine for regional growth – was limited to a few mentions here and there, although it sounds like it will benefit from increased funding for R&D.

Final thoughts

The white paper emphasises the importance of place in its version of levelling up. If successful, this means that the average difference in outcomes across areas may fall. But it is worth remembering that inequalities in outcomes, including education outcomes, tend to be larger within areas – between different groups – than across areas.

The education and skills policies outlined in the white paper make a reasonable attempt at targeting the benefits towards more disadvantaged individuals living in the Education Investment Areas. But of course there are plenty – indeed the majority – of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds living in other areas, whose outcomes are far lower than those of their better-off peers. We must ensure that the political focus on the levelling up agenda does not displace any of the much-needed support for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of where they live.

The 2021 Autumn Budget and Spending Review: what does it mean for educational inequalities?

Blog Editor28 October 2021

Claire Crawford

The pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, but children and young people have seen perhaps the biggest changes to their day-to-day lives, with long periods spent away from school and their friends leading to significant rises in mental health difficulties and a substantial reduction in learning. Moreover, these challenges have not been felt equally: the evidence suggests that the pandemic has also led to a rise in inequalities between children from different socio-economic backgrounds, from the early years through to secondary school and beyond.

A budget and multi-year spending review delivered against a backdrop of the highest peace-time borrowing levels ever, and by a chancellor on a ‘moral’ mission to limit the size of the state, was unlikely to deliver the sort of investments in education that Sir Kevan Collins hoped to see when he took the role of ‘catch-up tsar’ earlier this year. But what did it deliver for education? And is it likely to help roll back the rises in educational inequalities that the pandemic has generated?

Early years

While it is positive to see some recognition of the need for a higher funding rate to be paid to early education providers to cover the delivery of the early education entitlements for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, the amount earmarked – £170m in 2024-25 – does not represent the substantial investment that many in the sector have been calling for: certainly nowhere near the £2.60 per hour increase that was estimated to be needed to fully fund the entitlement, enabling providers to deliver these hours without incurring a loss, or by charging for ‘extras’ (such as food or nappies) or increasing fees for other children in order to cover costs.

We await the details of exactly what this means for the official funding rate per hour. Still, for some idea of scale, spending on all early education entitlements – the universal 15 hour entitlement for 3 and 4 year olds, the additional 15 hours for 3 and 4 year olds via the extended entitlement, and the 15 hour entitlement for disadvantaged 2 year olds – was around £3.8bn in 2019-20. 170m represents less than a 5% increase on this figure. Putting it another way, in 2019-20, a total of around 1.75 million children were benefitting from each of the free early education entitlements. If the number of children taking up these places was to remain unchanged between 2019-20 and 2024-25, this suggests that early education providers would only receive around £100 per year more per child than they do now. In reality, the population of 2, 3 and 4 year olds is expected to fall over the next few years, which – when coupled with the reduction in take-up of the early education entitlements that we have seen over the course of the pandemic – may mean that the actual increase in funding rates is higher than 5%. But not much higher.

Likewise, while greater investment in family support services is also welcome, the much-trumpeted £500m increase represents less than half of the reduction in spending on Sure Start Children’s Centres that has taken place over the last decade, falling by over £1bn (around two thirds) in real-terms from a peak of around £1.8bn in 2009-10. A start, perhaps, but not the transformative ‘Start for Life’ that the rhetoric surrounding this announcement would suggest.

Schools

Yesterday’s announcements on schools were dominated by the news that school funding would return to real-terms levels last seen in 2010. Not much to write home about, you might think. But there was also only a small amount of additional money for education catch-up, including an increase in the ‘recovery premium’ – catch-up money targeted towards pupils from lower income families – for secondary school pupils. While it is positive to see funds being targeted towards the pupils most in need of support, our work has shown that the differences in remote learning experiences while schools were closed to most pupils varied substantially by socio-economic background, and whether the roughly £5bn allocated to catch-up will be enough to redress the balance is unclear. It certainly amounts to a lot less than is being spent per pupil in other countries.

Further and higher education

Despite rumours circulating in the media, the decision on the funding of higher education was kicked into the long grass yet again, with the words ‘higher education’ mentioned only three times in the Budget and Spending Review document, and more information promised “in the coming weeks”.

Meanwhile, the eye-catching nominal and real-terms increases announced for further education (FE) and skills look decidedly less generous once account is taken of the fact that we are about to experience a massive increase in the population of 16-19 year olds. The document itself acknowledges that while there will be a 28% real-terms increase in 16-19 funding in 2024-25 compared to 2019-20, this will only maintain – rather than increase – funding per student in real terms. Despite a much greater emphasis in policy discourse about the importance of further education and adult learning than we have seen in recent years, this settlement does not suggest a transformation of the fortunes of the FE sector, which caters to the majority of each academic cohort and in which young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are over-represented.

Implications for inequalities

Perhaps contrary to expectations, yesterday’s spending review contained increases in spending for most government departments, paid for by the highest tax rises in nearly 30 years. But given the significant challenges posed by the pandemic for children and young people, the Department for Education’s budget will be only a little higher in 2024-25 than it was in 2009-10, while the Department of Health and Social Care budget will have increased by over 40%.

The thinking seems to be that children will catch-up over time anyway. But the evidence suggests that inequalities in educational attainment only increase as children get older: higher socio-economic status parents can provide more opportunities for learning – through better schools, tutoring or more academic and non-academic enrichment activities – than lower socio-economic status parents, and these investments cumulate over time, widening the gap between those from different backgrounds. The same will be true of parents’ ability to support their children to ‘catch-up’ on what they lost during the pandemic.

Without significant government investment to support children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, the wider inequalities that have opened up over the course of the pandemic are likely to foreshadow even greater inequalities in future. Yesterday’s spending review offered some support – but nowhere near enough.

Learning About Culture: The importance of arts-based learning, the limits of what we know about it, and the challenges of evaluating it

Blog Editor8 September 2021

Jake Anders, Kim Bohling, Nikki Shure and Alex Sutherland

There is little doubt about the importance of arts and culture to the education and upbringing of young people. Arts-based education gives young people an important means of creative expression and “arts for arts’ sake” is the best argument for having arts-based education in schools. However, far less is known about the link specifically between arts-based learning activities and pupils’ educational outcomes – partially due to a lack of robust studies on this topic. Yet this is a link that is often invoked as part of the overall importance of these programmes, partly in response to a perception that an increased focus on “core educational outcomes” is squeezing arts-based education out of schooling.

Over the past four years, a team from UCL and the Behavioural Insights Team has been working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) and five arts-based education organisations on a project called Learning About Culture (see Table 1 below for programme detail). At the heart of this project are five randomised controlled trials (RCTs) involving around 8,500 children in 400 state schools across England. These evaluations were designed to look at the impact of five specific arts-based learning interventions on literacy outcomes. To our knowledge, these trials represent the largest collection of RCTs testing arts-based approaches on attainment outcomes. This body of research represents a significant step forward in understanding how to assess the relationship between creative activities and pupil outcomes, which is in itself important.

Each of the programme reports is linked to below and an overarching report that synthesises the findings, lessons, and recommendations can be found here. What you’ll immediately notice is the diversity of approaches we looked at – including music, storytelling, and journalism – reflecting the richness and diversity of the sector.

Table 1. Learning about Culture programmes

Each programme name is hyperlinked to the EEF project page.

Programme name (Developer): Description:
First Thing Music (Tees Valley Music Service) Programme to train teachers in the Kodály method of music instruction in order to deliver daily a structured, sequential music curriculum of increasing progression (Key Stage 1)
Speech Bubbles (London Bubble) Weekly drama and storytelling intervention aimed at supporting children’s communication skills, confidence, and wellbeing. (Key Stage 1)
The Craft of Writing

(Arvon, University of Exeter, Open University)

Programme to develop teachers as writers combined with explicit focus on pedagogical implications for the classroom. (Key Stage 2)
The Power of Pictures

(Centre for Literacy in Primary Education)

Specialist training from published author-illustrators and expert teachers helps primary teachers to develop their understanding of the craft of picture book creation. (Key Stage 2)
Young Journalist Academy (Paradigm Arts) The project aims to develop pupils’ writing by involving them in journalism. In doing so, it aims to provide pupils with a meaningful purpose for writing and teach specific writing techniques. (Key Stage 2)

What did we find?

When compared to ‘business as usual,’ we were unable to find improvements in pupil attainment in any of the five trials that we could reliably say weren’t due to chance. However, it’s important to emphasise that this is an extremely challenging barrier to clear and the fact of the matter is that most of the trials that the EEF funds don’t find impacts of interventions on pupil learning outcomes.

While it is easy to focus on the lack of a positive impact in the outcome measures, we also want to emphasise the trials found no evidence of detrimental effects from introducing such programmes. That is actually really good news, because it means that including arts-based programmes alongside ‘core curriculum’ subjects isn’t a zero-sum game where increasing time on arts means lower grades elsewhere.

And, as we pointed out above, improving pupil academic attainment is not the best or only reason for schools to implement arts-based interventions in schools. Although they did not improve literacy test scores, in interviews with participating teachers and pupils, we found that the programmes generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the teachers and pupils who took part in them. Perceived improved pupil engagement was a theme that emerged from the implementation and process evaluations across the five programmes.

In the overarching report, we also stress that these results should absolutely not be seen as the last word in whether arts-based learning is effective in improving outcomes for pupils. Necessarily, in this kind of research, we focused on one set of outcomes, which could be quantified and measured over a fairly short time horizon. But benefits could accrue in many other ways that we just couldn’t capture. For one, having these initiatives available to pupils may have long term consequences for the subjects these pupils choose at GCSE or A level or the career paths they choose to follow. We don’t know that there are these benefits, either, but our evidence shouldn’t be used to discount such possibilities.

Our reflections as evaluators

The overarching report contains thoughts and lessons for multiple audiences: researchers, funders, and arts organisations. For brevity, we’ve only selected a few takeaways to highlight here.

Evaluators and funders

There is a line of argument against our efforts here that what we can measure in trials (and research more broadly) is not always what ‘matters’, or what we ‘should’ measure. Equally, some will point to challenges in measuring what we did use as outcomes, as well. We know that the measures used are imperfect, but given the choice between imperfect measurement of something versus perfect measurement of nothing – or something further removed from the intervention – then we stand by our decision to do what we can in an imperfect world. This isn’t an abstract research issue: in order to be able to ascertain whether something is effective (or not) we need to be clear what we expect to change and measure that as best we can.

In line with EEF’s policy, reflecting their primary aim as an organisation, our impact evaluations focused on measuring pupil attainment outcomes. While this approach has many strengths given the undoubted importance of such outcomes, these projects – where we see positive signs of engagement based on the implementation and process evaluation but ultimately no impacts on our measured outcomes – highlight one of its key limitations: a null finding leaves a lot of unanswered questions. An alternative approach – with similarities to the increased emphasis on ‘mechanism experiments’ in economics and particularly important where there is a limited evidence base about how interventions work – would focus first on establishing whether the interventions do indeed affect the intermediate steps via which they are thought to improve attainment. This would help us first to establish whether the programme is working as we think it does or if there is more to be done to understand this crucial first stage to achieving impact on pupils’ academic attainment.

Arts organisations

We really appreciate the courage and commitment from the arts-based education organisations who put themselves forward to participate in a multi-year evaluation process. The EEF’s support for both an individual and overarching approach to the evaluation meant that we were able to observe themes across the programmes that could be useful to other arts organisations. From these themes, we offer some recommendations for consideration.

Ensure buy-in and engagement from school staff at multiple levels.

High teacher buy-in was crucial for the day-to-day delivery of the programme, and senior leadership team (SLT) buy-in was important for supporting the teacher in high-quality delivery. For example, SLT members were able to ensure teachers had access to necessary resources and space, as well as ensure there was time in the timetable for the programme.

Carefully consider programme resource requirements and test assumptions about what’s available in schools

The interventions placed different demands on schools in terms of the resources needed to take part, and even where required resources were considered ‘standard’, challenges were still reported. In some cases, schools did not have resources, such as arts supplies, that were assumed to be available in most schools. In other cases, the schools had the required resources, such as technological equipment, but they were difficult to access. Organisations may want to consider how to surface these challenges early in set-up and whether they can provide any support to schools in overcoming them.

On a more personal note

As independent evaluators, we have a responsibility to be as objective as possible, recognise our biases, and do our best to minimise their influence on our work. We are also all researchers who care deeply about improving outcomes for pupils and furthering our understanding of ‘what works’ to support pupil development. When we are able to take the ‘evaluator hat’ off, this team also broadly supports the inclusion of arts in the school day, and some of us have direct experience of delivering arts-based learning opportunities either in the school day or extended learning space. We would have been thrilled to report that the programmes had a significant impact on attainment outcomes – not only to further enhance the toolkit for improving pupil outcomes, but also to secure further protection for the arts in the school day. Ultimately, we are not able to report those outcomes, and we stand by the findings of the six reports produced. We are still supporters of arts in education and we also enthusiastically support further research in this space, as there is certainly more to learn.

A-levelling up: the thorny path back from teacher assessed grades

Blog Editor12 August 2021

By Jake Anders, Claire Crawford, and Gill Wyness
This piece first appeared on theGuardian.com.

This week’s GCSE and A level results confirmed the expectations of many who study education policy: the proportion of students achieving top grades in these qualifications has increased substantially compared to 2019, especially at A level. Students themselves should be extremely proud of their results, which were achieved under very difficult circumstances. Likewise, teachers have worked extremely hard to make the best assessment they can of their pupils’ performance. But there is no getting around the fact that these results are different – and not directly comparable with – pre-Covid results.

It is right to allow for the fact that students taking GCSEs and A levels this year and last are at a disadvantage compared to previous cohorts. In-person exams would have been next to impossible in 2020, and those assessed this year have missed significant amounts of schooling.

To deal with this, the government chose an entirely different means of measuring performance: teacher assessments. (We advocated a different approach, based on more flexible exams, in 2021.) This year’s approach has been rather more orderly than last year’s chaos, but the wide range of measures that teachers could consider – such as mock exams, in-class tests and coursework – inevitably led to variation in how schools assessed their pupils.

This year’s grades may also be capturing average or ‘best’ performance across a range of pieces of work, rather than a snapshot from one or two exams. This seems to have been particularly true at A level, where grades have immediate consequences for university entry decisions. In short, it is unsurprising that grades based on teacher assessment are higher than those based on exams alone: while some have called this grade inflation we think it’s more accurate to say that they are capturing different information.

A level grade distribution in 2019, 2020 and 2021

But given they have been presented on the same scale, the stark increase in grades compared to pre-Covid times present significant challenges for current and future cohorts.

Even making comparisons between pupils within the 2021 cohort may be challenging. Using teacher assessment is likely to have disadvantaged some students relative to others. Previous research has shown that Black Caribbean pupils are more likely than white pupils to receive a grade from their teacher below their score in an externally marked test taken at the same time. Similarly, girls have also been found to perform better at coursework, while boys do better at exams on average. Differences by gender have been particularly apparent this year, with girls seeing larger improvements in performance than boys compared to pre-pandemic.

This year’s record high scores raise challenging questions. The much larger proportion of pupils getting As and A*s at A level, for example, may lead to universities relying more heavily on alternative methods of distinguishing between applicants – such as personal statements – which have been shown to entrench (dis)advantage.

There is also the all-important question of what to do next year: are this year’s grade distributions the right starting point, or should we be looking to return to something closer to the 2019 distribution? Is it possible to go back? And would we want to?

Assuming in-person exams are feasible next year, one possibility would be to return to 2019’s system as if nothing had happened. This would probably see substantial reductions in the proportion of students getting top grades, especially at A level. One can only imagine the political challenge of trying to do this.

Even more important is that the next cohorts of GCSE and A level students (and indeed the ones that follows – we are tracking the experiences of those taking GCSEs this year as part of a new UKRI-funded cohort study, COSMO) have also been affected by the pandemic, arguably to a greater degree than this year’s. They are therefore likely to underperform their potential and get lower grades than cohorts who took their exams before the pandemic struck. That is clearly not desirable.

It is important to continue making allowances for the exceptional circumstances young people have faced during this crucial time in their education. During the period affected by pandemic learning loss, our suggestion would be to design exams with more flexibility, allowing candidates to choose which questions to answer based on their strengths, as is common in university exams. This would enable a return to the fairest way to assess students – exams – while still taking account of lost learning.

Either way, any return to exam-based grades is likely to result in an immediate pronounced drop in results compared to the last two years, especially at A level. Gavin Williamson has suggested that the government will aim instead for a “glide path back to a more normal state of affairs”. This would smooth out the unfairness of sharp discontinuities between cohorts. But it would mean moving away from grades being based on the same standard over time, instead setting quotas of students allowed to achieve each grade, gradually reducing the higher grades and increasing the lower ones. Even if that seems a good plan now, it would be very hard to stick to: the fall-out from the small reduction in pass rates seen in Scotland this week would be a taste of things to come for years.

A more radical possibility would be to reset the grading system entirely. This would get around the political issue of there being very large or deliberate small falls in grades for future cohorts, but one wonders whether this is the right time to undertake such a drastic overhaul. The pandemic will have repercussions on young people’s grades for years to come: is the best approach really a total reset right now?

The question of what to do next is one that policymakers will have to grapple with over the coming months and years. Of more fundamental importance and urgency, however, is that pupils have experienced widespread learning losses due to the pandemic – regardless of what their grades show – and are likely to be affected by these for years. Students require ongoing support throughout the rest of their educational careers, including catch up support throughout school, college and university.

We cannot simply award them GCSE and A level grades that try to look past the learning they have lost and move on – the learning loss remains and must be addressed.

Dr Gill Wyness & Dr Jake Anders are deputy directors of the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO). Dr Claire Crawford is an associate professor at CEPEO.