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The path to a more socially diverse and inclusive workforce

By Blog editor, on 15 June 2023

By Dr Claire Tyler

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities: our evidence-based policy priorities for equalising opportunities. In this weekly blog, we are highlighting one of our priorities and the reasoning and evidence behind them. This week, we are focusing on socio-economic inequalities in the workplace and how employers can use data to create more socially diverse and inclusive organisations.

Evidence consistently shows that an individual’s social background predicts their chances of accessing a ‘top job’ such as a professional or managerial career – for example, 74% of medical professionals, 64% of journalists and lawyers and 89% of senior financial services professionals originate from professional or managerial backgrounds compared to 33% of the population. Two-fifths of Britain’s ‘leading people’ attended independent schools compared to 7% of the population. Even comparing graduates with similar academic backgrounds, privately educated graduates are still a third more likely to enter top jobs than comparable peers from state school.

But this isn’t just an issue of access: large socioeconomic pay and progression gaps also exist within many occupations. Individuals from working-class backgrounds earn 16% less in top jobs compared to colleagues from more privileged backgrounds. And These issues of access, pay and progression gaps by social background mirror those faced by women and ethnic minorities in the workforce. These gaps could therefore be targeted by a similar data-led policy approach – mandatory gender pay gap reporting was introduced in 2017 in the UK and mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting is on the horizon after the government released guidance for voluntary reporting last month.

So what do we propose? We suggest the introduction of both entry and pay gap audits by socio-economic background. Employers would report: 1) the proportion of individuals from different socio-economic backgrounds entering occupations (which are easily compared to national benchmarks), and 2) pay inequalities by socio-economic background in a similar way to current gender pay-gap reporting. This policy would shine a light on current disparities in both access and progression of individuals from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds and reveal if career opportunities are being equalised over time.

Why is this a policy priority? Creating a level-playing field in the workplace is not only the ‘right thing to do’; it is also economically advantageous – a win-win strategy. Recent work shows that reduced workplace discrimination improves the allocation of talent in the labour market and drives economic growth. The growing ‘business case’ for diversity argues that more inclusive workforces drive profitability, innovation and better decision making.

It is also the right time for such a policy – the growth of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) agendas alongside more responsible and sustainable business practices (such as ESG reporting) has raised the profile of socio-economic diversity in recruitment, promotion and retention. Young people increasingly aspire to work for companies with a strong commitment to diversity – 72% of workers aged 18- 34 recently said they would consider turning down a job offer or leaving a company if they did not think that their manager (or potential manager) supported EDI initiatives. The policy would also crucially provide employers with a baseline for monitoring the impact of their own diversity initiatives and identify ‘what works’ for creating more diverse organisations –particularly vital insight at time when early talent teams are dropping academic credentials, navigating hybrid working for new recruits and designing alternative pathways into careers to widen and diversify their talent pools.

The policy is also likely to have a substantial impact – recent evidence on the effectiveness of UK gender pay gap legislation shows that pay transparency increases the probability of women working in above-median-wage occupations by 5% and closes the gender pay gap by 18%. Evidence on social background shows that firms returning year-on-year to the Social Mobility Employer Index are more likely to demonstrate progress on social mobility – they are four times more likely to be collecting at least three socioeconomic background data points than new entrants to the index, suggesting that transparency and focus can facilitate change.

While most policy levers available to government to equalise opportunities occur before labour market entry, this policy priority highlights one way in which government can hold employers to account for their role in equalising opportunities. If the government is committed to collecting and using data differently to improve social mobility (as stated here), introducing entry and pay gap audits by social background is a cost-effective place to start with benefits for employees, firms and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social mobility scorecards for universities

By Blog Editor, on 6 June 2023

Oliver Cassagneau-Francis

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy priorities each week. This post makes the case for why we should introduce an official “Social Mobility Scorecard” for universities. This would both act as an incentive to those universities who are failing to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and to recognise others who are a positive force for social mobility.

Graduates earn more money and enjoy better employment prospects than non-graduates, among other benefits. Governments know this, and so a key policy focus has been to encourage more young people, particularly those from less-advantaged backgrounds, to attend university. This is seen as a way to improve social mobility: put disadvantaged young people through a process that the evidence suggests can elevate people to be among the advantaged in society. And it works for some. However, “university” encompasses a wide range of institutions with wildly varying returns. Recent research in the UK has shown that returns can be as high as 35% for the universities with the highest financial rewards, falling to -5% for those with the lowest returns. So, securing high returns is not just about graduating – from where you graduate matters a lot too.

This issue is particularly relevant for the impact of pro-social mobility policies aimed at higher education. Are disadvantaged students attending the universities whose students get the best returns? Recent evidence suggests they’re not – the “best” universities and subjects are doing pretty badly at admitting less-advantaged young people. Students from the most disadvantaged groups were 100 times less likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge (two of the best-performing universities in terms of returns) than students from private schools.

This is where social mobility scorecards could make a difference. To ensure the “best” universities are not cherry-picking advantaged students (who would likely go on to do well anyway), and to reward those universities helping the most disadvantaged students, we need a public record of how universities are doing with regard to social mobility.

These scorecards are inspired by the Social Mobility Foundation’s “Social Mobility Employer Index” which appears to improve both practice and reporting around social mobility of the employers involved. Going a step further and making university scorecards official government releases will increase their traction among policymakers and other stakeholders, and ensure all universities take them seriously. There is evidence that publishing key information does hold educational institutions to account – for example, abolishing school league tables in Wales led to a 3.3 percentage point fall in the percentage of students achieving at least five GCSEs at A*-C (the key published measure) relative to schools in England (where league tables were not abolished).

Following the lead of researchers in the US, researchers at the IFS have already produced a one-off version of these scorecards – showing that the data required is readily available. They calculate a “mobility rate” for each university, which is the share of students from low-SES backgrounds (“access rate”) multiplied by the share of low-SES graduates who are in the top 20% of earners at age 30 (“success rate”). These calculations led to the damning results for Oxbridge reported earlier. However, there are also some positive findings. London-based universities do particularly well on this metric, mainly driven by their high access rates, with Queen Mary, University of London topping the overall ranking of mobility rates at 6.8%. There is no correlation between the average labour market returns at a university (i.e., wages) and mobility rates, highlighting the need for these scorecards in addition to already available metrics.

Officially publishing these mobility rates regularly (alongside other related statistics) would not only hold the most-selective universities to account regarding their poor performance on this metric, but would also highlight the important contribution of many less prestigious universities to society through their role in improving social mobility. This would be an important step towards ensuring that higher education is a positive force for social mobility, and why we’ve chosen to make it one of CEPEO’s policy priorities.

Persistent absenteeism: Who is missing school since the pandemic?

By Blog Editor, on 1 June 2023

Xin Shao, Jake Anders, and Lindsey Macmillan

Since the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a worrying rise in school absence rates, raising concerns about the detrimental impact on young people’s education. This is a key reason that tackling absence is one of CEPEO’s policy priorities — including better understanding its root causes.

The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) show that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic. Missing school can have negative impacts on pupils’ outcomes including educational attainment, wellbeing and wider development. However, as yet there is very little robust evidence about which pupils are most likely to be absent from school since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential reasons for this absence.

Improving our understanding of the main challenges to school attendance is important so that effective, targeted policies can be developed to tackle this issue. In this blog post, we provide new evidence on some key drivers of school absences, including providing empirical analysis of qualitative reasons raised in the recent inquiry by House of Commons Education Committee into persistent absence. We use data from the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), one of the only studies available to look at this issue, by tracking a cohort of young people currently in Year 13 (or equivalent) whose education has been significantly affected by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DfE’s definition of a persistent absentee is “a pupil having 46 or more sessions of absence (authorised or unauthorised) during the academic year, around 15% of overall absence.” We define persistent absence here as whether pupils met this criterion during their Year 11 in academic year 2020/21. Schools fully reopened at the start of this academic year following the initial disruption of the pandemic, however in-person schooling was suspended again during the third national lockdown, from 4 January 2021 until 8 March.

A picture of persistent absence in COSMO

About 10% of our sample met the definition of persistent absentees. But this overall rate masks important variation associated with the challenges that young people are facing in their lives. There are important differences in persistent absence by socio-economic background and food poverty, demographics, mental health experiences, and SEND status.

Pupils who are eligible for FSM were 14 percentage points more likely than non-FSM eligible pupils to be persistently absent from school (Figure 1), indicating that pupils from disadvantaged family backgrounds are more likely to have school attendance problems.

Figure 1. Percentage of persistent absentees by FSM eligibility

 

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. FSM eligibility over the last 6 years. N = 8,774.

Persistent absenteeism also varies significantly by household food poverty (Figure 2). Pupils living in households who have suffered from hunger were 13 percentage points more likely to persistently absent from school, compared to those living in households that did not experience hunger. Pupils from families who used a food bank were 18 percentage points more likely to be persistent absentees (Figure 3), compared to their peers whose families never used a food bank.

Figure 2. Percentage of persistent absentees by food poverty in households

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,297.

 

Figure 3. Percentages of persistent absentees by food bank usage

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 6,220.

Boys are slightly more likely than girls to be persistently absent from school (Figure 4), while differences by ethnicity are somewhat larger, with White pupils more likely than other ethnic groups to be persistent absentees (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Percentage of persistent absentees by gender

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N = 8,563.

Figure 5. Percentage of persistent absentees by ethnicity

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. N= 8,686.

Pupils facing challenges with their mental health were also more likely to be persistently absent from school, compared to those do not have mental health problems (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Percentages of persistent absentees by high psychological distress

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. High psychological distress defined using a score of 4 or above in the General Health Questionnaire, GHQ-12. N = 8,508.

Even starker is the inequality in persistent absence by pupils’ Special Educational Needs (SEN) status. Students with SEN status were 21 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent from school than those without SEN status (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Percentages of persistent absentees by SEN

Notes. Analysis is weighted to account for sampling design and non-response. SEN = Special Educational Needs. N = 8,772.

 

Key drivers of persistent absenteeism

While there are stark differences in persistent absenteeism across socio-economic background, mental health experiences and SEN status, these factors are likely to be related to each other, so we could be seeing the same underlying difference in multiple ways. We can therefore consider changes in the probability of persistent absence related to each of these factors, while holding the others fixed, and comparing otherwise similar pupils in terms of family background (parental education and occupation) and prior attainment.

Figure 8 shows the probability of being persistent absentees from each particular group, including those pupils living in a household that used a food bank, having SEN status, and being at elevated risk of psychological distress, relative to those pupils not in each of these groups, but with similar prior attainment, and similarly educated parents, working in similar occupations.

Pupils whose family needed to use foodbanks were over 5 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent, even compared to pupils who had similar family backgrounds and prior attainment, but whose family didn’t need to use foodbanks. Similarly, pupils who had SEN status were over 10 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than pupils without SEN status but otherwise similar. Pupils facing mental health challenges were over 2 percentage points more likely to be persistently absent than otherwise similar pupils not facing high psychological distress levels. Each of these factors feature heavily in qualitative reports of school absenteeism beyond a breakdown of the social contract between parents and schools, and do not fit the caricature of a school truant who is missing school simply because they don’t feel like turning up.

 

Figure 8. Change in probability of pupils living in households that used a food bank, pupils with SEN status and pupils with high psychological distress being persistently absent from school, relative to their otherwise similar peers

Notes. Reporting change in probability (marginal effects). N = 4,387; Residual Degrees of Freedom: 2456. The model also includes gender, ethnicity, parental education, parental occupational status, and Key Stage 2 prior attainment; SEN = Special Educational Needs

 

Moving beyond standard approaches to absenteeism?

Understanding rates of persistent absenteeism, beyond a breakdown of the social contact between parents and schools, is crucial for tackling the issue. Building on existing qualitative evidence, we show substantial differences in experiences associated with financial instability, mental health, and pupils’ SEN status, over and above young people’s demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This highlights the potential to tackle a number of these factors directly to alleviate possible reasons for young people not attending school.

In particular, reviewing eligibility for free school meals to help lessen the pressure on families struggling to provide food for everyone in the family, or who are having to organise their lives accessing food banks in a way that may be disruptive to children’s education, appears an important factor. Similarly, ensuring that schools have the funding and capacity to support SEN pupils so that they can attend school is likely to be another way to reduce persistent absenteeism. Finally, these findings again highlight the importance of mental health support for young people, both for its own sake, but also because mental health challenges appear to be negatively affecting young people’s ability to engage with their education.

Notes

Aspects of the analysis use administrative data from the Department for Education (DfE)’s National Pupil Database (NPD), where consent was gained for this linkage (73% of young people), with additional weighting carried out to ensure (insofar as is possible) representativeness of analysis using linked administrative data. This work was produced using statistical data from the DfE processed in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS). The use of the DfE statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the DfE or ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets, which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly referred to this absence as being during this cohort’s Year 12 (academic year 2021/22), rather than their Year 11 (academic year 2020/21).

Making Maths Count in Early Childhood

By Blog editor, on 25 May 2023

By Dr Laura Outhwaite

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy proposals each week. This post makes the case for why we need to raise standards in maths attainment from early childhood, and how this can be achieved through a new campaign to support parents’ engagement with children’s early maths skills.

Why maths?

Children’s maths attainment has been significantly impacted by the disruptions caused by Covid-19. Only 71% of 11-year-olds met expected standards in mathematics in their end of primary school SATs in 2022, compared to 79% in 2019. This decline in maths attainment was not observed for reading, which showed a small increase from 73% of 11-year-olds reaching expected standards to 74%, over the same period. This also reflects trends seen in longitudinal cohort data prior to the pandemic, where a maths-reading attainment gap emerges in the first years of school, with reading skills significantly exceeding those of maths.

These figures are a great distance from the Levelling Up Mission of 90% of 11-year-olds meeting expected standards in maths, reading, and writing by 2030. It also poses challenges to the Prime Minister’s vision for every young person to study some form of maths up to the age of 18. While there are several shorter-term solutions to these goals, such as the recruitment and retention of specialist maths teachers, we also need to address the bigger picture on factors that impact maths attainment, including the need to emphasise the importance and impact of maths development in early childhood.

Early maths matters

A meta-analysis of six longitudinal datasets shows that early maths skills at the start of primary school are the strongest predictors of later general attainment at ages 10-11, compared to other skills, including reading. How well children do in basic maths skills at ages 4-5 also significantly predicts enrolment in advanced mathematical courses between ages 15-18. This relationship remained significant after socio-economic status was accounted for. Furthermore, children who do well in maths throughout their educational careers are also more likely to have better labour market outcomes, including employment opportunities and earnings in adulthood.

Overall, this is not to say that a focus on maths should replace a focus on reading.  Rather, opportunities for maths need to have an increased presence in children’s early learning environments, including at home.

Maths in the home learning environment

Parents and caregivers typically read with their young children every day, compared to engaging in maths related activities once a week. These engagements in children’s learning at home are shown to be related to their attainment outcomes, including after controlling for socio-economic background. Likewise, parents who report feeling more confident in early maths spend more time engaging with maths activities, which in turn supports their child’s outcomes. Whereas feelings of anxiety about maths from parents can have a negative impact on child’s attainment, as well as their own anxieties about maths.

There are also inequalities in opportunities for active parental engagement with children’s maths development. For example, higher levels of maternal education support higher family incomes, which in turn supports increased parental investments in educational resources at home, and consequently increased maths skills for primary-school aged children. This highlights the need for low-cost solutions and resources that can boost parents’ confidence and engagement in early maths at home.

However, to date, initiatives aimed at encouraging and supporting parents to engage in early learning at home with their children have primarily focused on literacy and language skills. Review evidence suggests these kinds of programmes are beneficial for boosting engagement in the home learning environment. Feedback from the focus groups conducted by Public First about the CEPEO policy priorities also showed this proposal was well received as a way of solving the learning gap, particularly if the resources were online or on-demand. Therefore, we recommend a similar national campaign that targets children’s early maths skills.

Launch a new campaign to support children’s early maths skills

Research shows when involving parents in home learning, simply communicating the need to ‘do more maths’ is not enough. Instead, active parental engagement also needs to be encouraged. This can be achieved in several ways. For example, studies show parent-based educational apps that provide parents and caregivers with resources and ideas for how to engage with their child’s maths development have shown positive and sustained benefits on child outcomes and parent confidence. Mathematical story books and applying maths concepts into everyday life situations, conversations and play have also shown positive benefits.

Encouraging parents to engage with these resources, alongside support from early childhood education and care providers, can be a valuable way forward. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation describes the parental engagement on child outcomes as “high impact for low cost based on extensive evidence”. The Centre for Social Justice also calls for an integrated approach for supporting parental participation in children’s education as a way to contribute to reducing the attainment gap.

Overall, in creating this national campaign, it is vital to signpost and promote high-quality, evidence-based resources. This should be combined with working with parents and practitioners to maximise their reach and impact, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In doing so, the summarised evidence suggests that this policy priority will make important contributions to raising maths attainment in early childhood with long-term benefits.

 

Attendance Matters: Evidence-Based Solutions to the Post-Covid Absenteeism Crisis

By Blog editor, on 18 May 2023

By Dr Asma Benhenda

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy proposals each week. This post presents evidence-based solutions to address the post-Covid persistent absenteeism, which include effectively engaging parents through automated text messages and addressing underlying factors such as the cost-of-living crisis, increasing mental health problems among young people, and a lack of support for special educational needs.

Schooling can only equalise opportunities if children are present in the classroom. Preliminary empirical analysis from FFT Education Datalab suggests that absence rates remain significantly higher than before the pandemic, especially in secondary school. Non-Covid-related persistent absence rates were 12 % in primary schools and 21 % in secondary schools during the autumn 2021.The latest data from Department for Education shows that persistent absence rates were equal to 20 % and 28 % in secondary school during the autumn 2022.  By comparison, persistent absence rates were equal to 11 % in primary school and 16 % in secondary school during the autumn 2019. Free school meals pupils are twice as likely to be persistently absent than other pupils.

This issue is not unique to the UK context.  A McKinsey study conducted in December 2021 shows that, in the United States, absenteeism has risen, with 2.7 times as many students on a path to be chronically absent from school in 2021 compared with before the pandemic. While absenteeism rates for high-income students are levelling off, rates for low-income students have continued to worsen since the spring 2021, despite the return to in-person school.

More recent evidence from California further supports this concerning trend. Between 2018-19 and 2021-22, there were substantial spikes in chronic absenteeism for students from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged socio-economic background. Absenteeism rates for Black students rising from 23% to 43%, and rates for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds increasing from 15% to 37%

There is evidence from before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic on the determinants of persistent absences. Evidence from the US (EPI, 2018) shows that poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status, changes in adult household composition (e.g., adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g., children looking after siblings) – along with inadequate supports for student within the educational system (e.g., lack of adequate transportation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.) are all associated with a greater likelihood of being chronically absent. Evidence from Scotland using the 2007 and 2008 waves of the Scottish Longitudinal Study shows that that parental education, parental class, housing tenure, free school meal registration, and neighbourhood deprivation all increased the risk of being absent from school. Neglecting some of these dimensions would underestimate the full extent of socioeconomic inequalities in school attendance (Klein and Sosu, 2021), especially in the context of the cost of living crisis.

 

Post-pandemic evidence on the determinants of persistent absences is still very scarce. A multiple stakeholder qualitative study with parents and professionals conducted in the Spring and Summer 2021 suggests that compounding factors for persistent absences included COVID-related anxiety, difficulties adapting to new school routines, poor home-school communication and collaboration, and concerns about academic catch-up (McDonald et al., 2022).

 

An ongoing research project conducted by Asma Benhenda at CEPEO examines the impact of the pandemic on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) pupils’ absences. Preliminary evidence reveals that during the pandemic, the absence rate for SEND pupils remained consistently 4 percentage points higher than the average pupil. While absence rates increased for all groups at the end of the pandemic, with an overall absence rate of 5.80%, pupils with SEND still faced a higher risk of absence at a rate of 10%. However, the pandemic did not widen the gap in absence rates between SEND pupils and the average pupil. Disparities in the SEND-all pupils absence rate gap were observed across different regions, with London having the smallest gap of around 2 percentage points, while the Southwest and the East Midlands had the highest gap of around 4 percentage points. Secondary schools exhibited a larger gap of approximately 8 percentage points compared to primary schools, which had a gap of around 3 percentage points. Additionally, a positive and statistically significant correlation was found between the gap in absence risk between SEND pupils and all pupils and local COVID-19 rates, indicating that SEND pupils were more affected by local surges in COVID-19 cases than the average pupil.

While the existing research provides valuable insights, further investigation is needed to fully understand the underlying factors contributing to persistent absence among pupils and inform the development of comprehensive solutions. Work by CEPEO colleagues using the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO), tracking a cohort of students currently in Year 13, is exploring the links between persistent absences and financial instability, mental health challenges, and students’ SEND status. Factors such as food poverty, reliance on food banks, elevated risk of psychological distress, and SEND status are recognised in anecdotal evidence as significant contributors to persistent absence, and analysis of large-scale representative data will shine a light on the importance and implications of these potential contributors to this issue.

Pre-pandemic evidence from the US shows that leveraging low-cost technology to improve communication with parents can significantly reduce absence rates. In the US, a large-scale one-year experiment that pushed high-frequency information to parents about their child’s absences via automated text messages increased class attendance by 12%. The effect of this intervention is the largest for low achieving students, and the total cost was very low: just $63 in intervention costs for the whole study. A 2022 Evidence review by the Education Endowment Foundation also highlights that sending parents of pupils who are persistently absent personalised letters or texts can help improve attendance.

Despite the detrimental impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on persistent absenteeism, there exist practical and effective solutions to address this challenge. Evidence suggests that leveraging low-cost technology, such as personalised letters or automated text messages, to communicate with parents can significantly reduce absence rates. Addressing persistent absenteeism will require a multi-dimensional approach, considering various determinants such as the current cost of living crisis, increasing rates of mental health problems among young people, and issues of SEND provision in schools. As the education system recovers from the pandemic, addressing persistent absenteeism must be a priority to ensure that schooling can equalise opportunities.

 

Using targeted pay uplifts to reduce teacher shortages

By Blog editor, on 11 May 2023

By Dr Sam Sims

CEPEO recently launched New Opportunities, our evidence-based manifesto for equalising opportunities. In this blog series, we are highlighting one of our policy proposals each week. This post will take a fresh look at the reasons why we have a shortage of teachers in England and outline the evidence for using targeted bonus payments to mitigate the problem.

Each year, around 800,000 students graduate from universities in England. And each year the government tries to lure around 30,000 graduates into teaching. Putting aside the pandemic years, the government has failed to do this every year since 2015.

An important for this is the declining attractiveness of teaching as a profession. Over the very long run, as private sector real wages have increased, the competitiveness of teachers’ pay has declined. This process has accelerated over the last decade, as austerity has seen teacher real pay fall by 5% or more, while wages elsewhere have retained their value. More recently, many professional occupations have seen a big increase in working from home, something which is largely incompatible with teaching. Teaching is not what it used to be.

An effective solution would be to dramatically increase teacher pay. Indeed, in 2019 the government announced that it would increase starting salaries by 24% over just three years. However, a series of delays to the policy, combined with sustained double-digit inflation, has rendered this once radical policy somewhat modest.

The sheer cost of a blanket increase appears to have put off the government. Keir Starmer has also refused to rule out below-inflation pay rises for public sector workers. Is there a more cost-effective, more politically palatable way to address the shortages?

There are two broad ways to cut the costs of a blanket increase. The first is to focus pay increases on the phases (secondary) and subjects (maths, physics) where shortages are most severe. The second is to focus pay increases at the career-stage (early career) in which it makes the largest difference.

In 2018, the government announced a pilot of one such policy, known as Retention Payments. These provided a £2,000 (8%) bonus to maths and physics teachers in the first five years of their careers. The policy was only available for teachers working in 42 (of the 343) local authorities in England, providing a convenient comparison group against which to gauge the impact of the policy. Asma Benhenda and I did just this, and found that eligible teachers were 23% less likely to leave the profession in a given year.

The longer-term effects of the policy are less clear. But the hope is that, by retaining more teachers during the early-career period when they are most likely to leave, the effects will be sustained. Early-career payments for maths teachers have now been in place nationwide for  several years and, notably, maths has gone from being a subject that used to have among the most severe shortages to a subject with relatively minor shortages.

Early-career payments have since also been rolled out to other shortage subjects, namely physics, chemistry and languages. However, there remains more to do. Despite the early career payments in physics, it still has the worst shortages of any subject. The retention payments for physicists should therefore be increased in value and/or duration. Computing still does not qualify for early-career payments at all, despite having the second worst shortages of any subject. There is therefore a strong case for expanding coverage of early-career payments to computing and other severe shortage subjects.

If the government is committed to providing enough specialist teachers for all pupils, and they are not willing to increase teacher wages generally, then increasing the value and coverage of targeted payments must be their policy priority.

 

 

We must reform school admissions to ensure all pupils can access high-quality education

By Blog Editor, on 4 May 2023

By Jake Anders

In April, CEPEO launched New Opportunities: our evidence-based policy priorities for equalising opportunities. As part of an ongoing series, each week we are highlighting one of our priorities and the reasoning and evidence behind them. This week, we are focusing on school admissions, an area where we see huge disparities in access to high-performing schools by socio-economic status. In this blog post, we discuss two key reasons for this — the importance of distance to school in admission criteria, and the continuing existence of grammar school systems in parts of the UK.

Pupils from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to attend schools that get better results in national tests. In London, pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) attend, on average, schools where 59% of pupils achieve 5 passes or higher at GCSE, compared to 65% for non-FSM students. The gap is wider outside London at 8 percentage points between FSM and non-FSM eligible young people. This means that non-FSM students have access to schools where there is a higher chance of achieving academic success, which can have significant implications for their future prospects.

People sometimes suggest that this is because less advantaged families differ in their approach to choosing schools. But analysis of families’ preferences for secondary schools suggests this is not the main cause of the difference. Families of FSM pupils are only slightly more likely than more advantaged families to express a preference for only a single secondary school, or to make their closest school their first preference. This suggests little systematic difference in the degree of active engagement with school choice.

What, then, actually explains the difference? The disparity is driven by the fact that more affluent families are more likely to live in the proximity of good schools (including due to deliberately moving house to be near a good school), combined with admissions rules that prioritise distance in their decisions.

Schools typically apply admissions rules that consider the distance from prospective pupils’ homes. While this makes sense if all schools are equally good for all pupils, given the reality of disparities in school quality, it ends up limiting the ability of some pupils (disproportionately from less advantaged backgrounds) to access the best school to which they could reasonably travel. This means that disadvantaged families are limited in their ability to access schools with the characteristics they desire.

This is particularly important as parents and pupils seem to do a good job of picking schools for their children, if they are able to exercise that choice. Recent work has found that pupils who get into their first choice school do better than if they attend one of their lower-ranked schools, and this boost is not explained by any differences in overall effectiveness between the two schools.

Another feature of our school admissions system that is a major disruptor to fair access to high-quality schools for all pupils is grammar schools.

Grammar schools (which are allowed to select their students based on tests purporting to measure academic ability) are highly socially selective. In the areas where a grammar school operates there are stark differences in attendance at that grammar school by socioeconomic status. Just 6% of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds attend a grammar school. It is not until the 90th percentile of the socioeconomic status distribution that we see more than half of students attending a grammar school. The top percentile group, however, has a grammar school attendance rate of 80%.

And this is not just because of correlations between academic attainment and socioeconomic status. Pupils with the same level of attainment in their end of Key Stage 2 tests (taken in the same school year as grammar school entry tests are sat) are much more likely to go on to attend a grammar school if they are from advantaged backgrounds. This suggests that high-attaining young people from less advantaged backgrounds are less likely to be taking the grammar school entry tests, or are doing less well in those tests than we would expect from other measures of their attainment. This latter factor could well be explained by the big differences in private tutoring by family income.

And if you live in a grammar school area then missing out on a place matters for long-term life chances. High-attaining pupils living in such areas who miss out are less likely to go on to higher education. If they do, their chances of attending a high-status university and achieving a good degree classification are lower compared to equivalent pupils who went to grammar schools.

Across both of these issues, reforms to school admissions could make a significant difference in equalising opportunities. Reducing the importance of distance to school and, hence, the link between family income and school attended could make a significant difference to life chances. Even better, requiring schools to prioritise applicants who are eligible for the pupil premium, or, more radically, introducing a degree of random assignment of pupils to schools within certain areas would help to level this aspect of the education playing field.

Jake Anders is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities, and Principal Investigator of the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities study (COSMO).

Why we should introduce a post-qualification applications (PQA) system for post-18 education

By Blog Editor, on 27 April 2023

Gill Wyness

The UK is the only country in the world in which young people make their university applications before they have received their exam results. Instead, pupils apply to university with grades that have been predicted by their teachers.

The problem is predicted grades aren’t always accurate. Analysis of UCAS data has shown that only 16% of applicants achieve the A-level grades they were predicted to achieve, while 75% of students are over-predicted. The same research showed that among equally high attaining students, disadvantaged students receive less generous predictions compared to more advantaged students, highlighting that there are systematic differences in predicted grades across student groups.

Teacher predicted grades have always been controversial, but were thrown into the spotlight during the pandemic, when exams were cancelled, and teacher predictions were pupils’ only means of proving their achievement levels. Of course, there will always be some degree of error in predicting student grades. Research has shown that even when relying on machine learning and advanced statistical techniques, it is only possible to accurately predict the grades of 1 in 4 students from their attainment in previous years and characteristics. This demonstrates that teachers are certainly not to blame for inaccuracies in predicted grades, and also highlights that this difficult and time-consuming task may not be an ideal use of their limited resources. But it also demonstrates that we cannot simply shift the responsibility of the assignment of predicted grades away from them easily.

The fact that there are systematic errors in predicted grades is important. Predicted grades are an integral process of students’ decision-making, being the main piece of evidence they submit to university courses. The fact that high attaining disadvantaged students and state school students receive less generous grades than their more advantaged and independent school counterparts is likely to have consequences for their decisions on which courses to apply to. High attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to ‘undermatch’ and enter courses which are less selective than expected, given their grades, which leads to higher chances of dropping out, receiving a lower class degree, and earning less in the future.

The alternative to teacher predicted grades, used by every other major education system worldwide, is a post-qualification application (PQA) system. This would allow students to make university applications after they have taken their A-level exams and received their results. This system would be more accurate, fairer, and bring the UK in line with the rest of the world in allowing students to make these life changing application decisions based on full information.

It is possible to move towards PQA with minimum disruption to the current education system. Two proposals for achieving this are as follows: the first option would be to condense the final exam period to 4 weeks, and accelerate exam marking to 7-8 weeks. Examinations would take place in early May. Students would return to school afterwards, receiving their results in mid-July, in time for an in-school ‘applications week’. Universities would then have a month to process and make offers at the end of August, and students would have a short time to accept their favoured choice.

A second option would be to shorten the school summer holidays, allowing pupils to sit their exams and receive their grades during term time, and then make their university applications before the school holidays begin. Alternatively, first year university students could start later, giving them more time to process applications. We outline these options in more detail in a previous blog post.

We cannot ignore the flaws of a system that grants and denies young people the opportunity to have full information on their achievement levels before making such important and life-changing decisions. Put simply, if we were starting from scratch, no-one would design a system like this one. Young people deserve the chance to have their applications assessed in light of their actual achievements.

Should we abolish personal statements from the university application process?

By Blog Editor, on 19 April 2023

By Dominic Kelly and Gill Wyness

Background

The personal statement – a key element of the university admissions process – has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. The main criticism levied at the personal statement concerns fairness:  students from disadvantaged backgrounds may have fewer extra-curricular experiences to highlight in their personal statements and are less likely to have access to high quality advice and guidance when writing their statement.

So, it is welcome news that UCAS recently announced the personal statement is to be reformed, by replacing the free text personal statement into a structured format consisting of six short questions. While these reforms may address some of the fairness issues that many are concerned about, these reforms do not go far enough, and a better solution would be to abolish the personal statement altogether.

What’s the problem with personal statements?

Under the current rules, students applying to university through the UCAS system must submit a personal statement alongside their educational attainment (based on predicted A-level or equivalent grades). The personal statement is a free-text essay, with no specific question, just some loose advice, and a word limit of 4,000 characters. The essay is automatically sent to all the courses an applicant applies to.

There are three key reasons personal statements have been criticised – that they may favour students from more advantaged backgrounds, that they may not be great predictors of ability, and that they may put candidates under unnecessary stress.

Looking first at whether personal statements favour more advantaged students, research examining large samples of personal statements (Jones, 2012, 2013, 2015) revealed clear differences between the statements of independent/selective school applicants and those from non-selective state schools. Independent/selective school pupils had access to many more work experience opportunities to discuss, which were also broader and more diverse. The extreme differences in the extra-curricular activities that those from higher SES backgrounds have has been recently documented by Park et al (2023) whose study of US college applicants found that White, Asian American, higher SES, and private school students listed more extra-curricular activities, reported more top-level leadership roles, and reported more activities reflecting accomplishments and distinctions. Importantly, among those who listed undertaking an activity, Black and low SES students were just as likely to list having played a leadership role in the activity, suggesting that disadvantaged students are just as likely to have leadership qualities, but simply have less resources available to try different activities.

As well as having a wider range of experiences to draw from, the statements of independent school pupils were also longer, and contained fewer spelling errors and punctuation errors. One reason this may be the case is that independent school pupils may receive more guidance and assistance in writing their statements. There is some evidence for this. A study on 16- to 19-year-olds’ efficacy at ‘selling themselves’ in personal statements suggested that this was directly related to differences in resources and training provided by their educational institutions. It is also likely that those from richer backgrounds would be more able to take advantage of private consultancies to help them craft their statements, as they do with personal tutoring, for example.   A 2009 Guardian article reported evidence of independent school pupils receiving more help with personal statements, with a teacher admitting “of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!”

Turning to the usefulness of personal statements as a way to assess candidates, there are a small number of papers examining this issue. For example a small meta-analysis showed that ratings of personal statements were poor predictors of academic achievement, over and above standardised test scores and prior attainment. Arguments have also been made that rather than functioning as a holistic assessment of university suitability or preparedness, they function solely as assessments of writing skills, again casting doubt on their usefulness in identifying good candidates. There is also evidence that a more structured approach to rating personal statements yielded negligible predictive validity for first year grades and dropout rates.

Any doubts about the validity of personal statements are likely to translate into inconsistencies in their use. There is little research examining how personal statements are used by university admissions teams – so we have no real understanding of the extent to which they are trusted by admissions departments and used seriously for decision-making. A greater concern for UCAS than what applicants are writing should be how university admissions staff are assessing their writing, as well as the biases that these staff implicitly or explicitly have regarding low socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups.

Finally, examining the issue of stress, a recent report analysed a large number of personal statements from students from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as conducting surveys and interviews of these students. Applicants from under-represented backgrounds were found to experience a number of challenges when writing their essays, with some spending 30-to-40 hours on their essays, with obvious knock-on effects to their studies and free time. Particular challenges arose from the free-form nature of the essay – such as writing the opening paragraph, developing an effective flow / structure arise, and uncertainty from the lack of an explicit question.

What is UCAS’ Proposed Solution?

UCAS current proposals are to replace this free text personal statement with a structured format consisting of 6 open questions:

  1. Motivation for Course – Why do you want to study these courses?
  2. Preparedness for Course – How has your learning so far helped you to be ready to succeed on these courses?
  3. Preparation through other experiences – What else have you done to help you prepare, and why are these experiences useful?
  4. Extenuating circumstances – Is there anything that the universities and colleges need to know about, to help them put your achievements and experiences so far into context?
  5. Preparedness for study – What have you done to prepare yourself for student life?
  6. Preferred Learning Styles – Which learning and assessment styles best suit you – how do your courses choices match that?

This structured format does have some improvements over the existing personal statement. For example, Jones, Fryer and Westlake (2023) argue that shorter, more guided questions are likely to reduce the stress burden on applicants, and are more transparent, making the essay easier to write. However, there is still likely to be a significant effort involved in writing the statement, given the number of questions.

Simply breaking the personal statement down in this way is unlikely to overcome the many other issues discussed above.

First, the issue of unfairness will remain. Pupils from better-off backgrounds will still have more experiences and activities to draw on in answering the questions. In fact, reducing the remit of short-answer questions to more specific topics could further highlight the lack of extra-curricular opportunities some students have to draw upon, especially since students will then be forced to provide an answer for each topic regardless of whether they have anything they feel important to say. Given a lack of ways of verifying applicants’ information, survey research suggests that there is already an established culture of lying or embellishing on personal statements, which could be exacerbated if applicants feel forced to list opportunities. Issues with spelling and grammar and greater sophistication of language will remain, even in this environment. And independent school pupils can still avail themselves of extra help in answering the questions – in fact a structured format could even make it easier for independent schools to assist their pupils in completing the form. A further issue concerns the rise of ChatGPT software, which seems particularly suited to this new style of short question, now potentially posing an existential threat to the personal statement.

Second, the issue of whether shorter questions are likely to alleviate stress is also questionable. There is not an existing literature on the differences in stress between writing long-form personal statements compared to shorter questions; i.e., there is not a hypothetical study where participants experienced two conditions and levels of stress were compared. Assumptions that shorter questions are less stressful are based on inferences from qualitative data about the current UCAS application. Until such a study is conducted – or the results of the natural experiment that UCAS propose by changing the questions are analysed – this remains an assumption. There is a possibility that issues of opening sentences, structure and word limits will apply to each of the 6 proposed short responses, ultimately multiplying the stress compared to one response.

Finally, as has already been criticised elsewhere, any reference to the concept of ‘learning styles’ (the idea that students have inherent differences that require them to be taught the same concepts in different ways for the instruction to be effective) should be omitted. The concept of learning styles has been debunked but persists as a ‘neuromyth’ which is at best pointless and at worst harmful.

Removing the personal statement altogether

In order to move towards a fairer, more equal applications process, we believe the personal statement should be removed from the university application process altogether. This would not be an unusual situation. Many countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, operate a completely blind process where grades are the only admission criteria.

A potential criticism (as pointed out by Jones, Fryer and Westlake) is that admissions would then be purely based on academic grades (plus an academic reference), meaning inequality could still arise if students’ grades (and teachers’ perception of them) do not accurately reflect their true ability. This is especially likely among more disadvantaged students, who have typically received far less investment in their education than their more advantaged peers. However, retaining the personal statement is unlikely to help with this problem, and may even compound it, if both grades and personal statements favour more advantaged students. A further potential problem is that the personal statement can be used as a means for students to highlight their extenuating circumstances – but this option could be retained without the personal statement.

The removal of the personal statement should be paired with a continuing push towards more contextual admissions. For example, in cases where there are several applicants with similar grades, places should be filled based on a contextual admission strategy (e.g., applicants on Free School Meals, from schools that traditionally send few applicants to university, etc., should be favoured). And beyond simply dealing with ties, students from low SES backgrounds should be given grade discounts. As we outline in a recent blog post, there is a clear economic rationale for the use of contextual admissions, to “level the playing field” at this crucial life stage. Any remaining ties in grades could be filled based on random assignment, which has also been shown to be a fair system of assignment when allocating individuals with the same levels of achievement.

The UK’s university applications system has remained unchanged for many years, and this reform is a unique opportunity to improve the fairness of the system. However, UCAS proposals do not appear to go far enough to achieve this goal.

 

A substantial childcare package from the Chancellor – but children’s needs take a back seat

By Blog editor, on 15 March 2023

Claire Crawford and Laura Outhwaite

We had to wait almost an hour to hear details of the heavily trailed package of childcare reforms announced by the Chancellor in the Budget today, but when the moment finally arrived, it lived up to its pre-programme billing. This was the most significant investment in childcare for years.

But while the Chancellor presented the reforms as part of the “Education” pillar of his 4 Es of economic growth and prosperity, they should really have been part of the “Employment” pillar. These reforms were all about childcare as a route to higher labour market participation and working hours, for mothers in particular. There was nothing about the implications for children, their development and wellbeing, or the inequalities in access and child outcomes that these reforms would cement. And little on the importance of quality, which is vital to the success of these reforms.

The most substantial element of the reforms was the one leaked last night – the introduction of 30 hours per week of free care during term-time for children 9 months and older in working families. For a Chancellor seemingly interested only in the likely impact on mothers’ labour supply, our earlier work comparing the impact of offering 0 vs. 15 vs. 30 hours of free care per week during term-time offers some good news. We found that offering 30 hours per week of free care during term-time was effective at encouraging more mothers into work, while the offer of 15 hours per week had no effect. Although, as we have pointed out previously, it does seem odd for a policy focused on supporting working families to apply during term-time only. When stretched across a whole year – which is what many working families using private care have to pay for – it is really only 22 hours per week, and then only during certain hours of the day and excluding ‘extras’ like lunch.

More concerningly, these reforms will undo what little progressivity there was left in the system, funnelling more money to support children from potentially very high-income working families, while those in non-working families receive less support. The existing 15 hours per week of free care for the 40% most disadvantaged 2-year-olds will be dwarfed by the new reform. Only children from non-working households amongst the 60% better-off families will not be entitled to any free care at age 2. And, just as with the existing 3-4-year-old offers, those in families with household income of nearly £200k per year will receive more government support than non-working families on Universal Credit, who receive an 85% subsidy on their childcare spending (now up to a higher cap and paid upfront, rather than in arrears).

There are already large differences in skill development and school readiness between children from richer and poorer families by the time they start school, driven in part by differences in use of high quality early education. As we outlined in an earlier briefing note, high quality early education, including from as young as age 1, can benefit children’s development, especially for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. But these reforms will bolster the amount of time spent in early education for those from better-off backgrounds, while doing little to improve the participation rates of those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. This is likely to exacerbate, rather than address  inequalities in child learning and development.

The benefits of early education found in the literature are heavily reliant on the provision available being of high quality. And in a move that will be hugely welcome to providers, the Chancellor also announced a rise in the funding rates paid for existing hours of free care. We’ll leave our friends at the Institute for Fiscal Studies to crunch the numbers on what the figures mean for the hourly rates paid to providers over the next few years. But it was notable that there was no mention of the funding rates to be paid for the new provision. This will be absolutely vital in determining how many providers choose to offer the free hours, and what quality of care they will be able to provide.

And quality is crucial to the effects of these policies. Not only for children’s development, but also for parents’ labour force participation. Parents will be more likely to use the provision available – especially for younger children – if they are happy with the quality of care their child is receiving, making it vital for labour supply decisions. Moreover, evidence suggests that a child attending a low-quality setting can have negative effects on the wellbeing of both parents and children. For all of these reasons, it is essential that providers are paid sufficiently for the care they deliver.

Alongside incentives to encourage more childminders to enter the system and schools to offer more wraparound care, the Chancellor also went ahead with the much-maligned reform to relax staff:child ratios for 2-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5, bringing England into line with Scotland. As we set out in an earlier briefing note, there is little concrete evidence that this would significantly harm children’s outcomes – but neither is there much evidence that it would significantly reduce parents’ childcare costs, and a clear risk that it could further damage already low workforce morale. Given that today’s announcements may substantially increase demand for childcare for 1-2-year-olds – potentially requiring a massive increase in the staff needed to deliver it – ensuring that the pay and conditions of staff in the early years sector make it an attractive option will be hugely important.

The Chancellor certainly didn’t try to get away with tinkering around the edges of the childcare system. He has gambled on a large expansion of free childcare encouraging more mothers back to work, helping to fill vacancies and plug skill shortages in an effort to increase economic growth. But these short-term benefits for productivity may come at the expense of children from our poorest families missing out on the benefits of early education, potentially damaging productivity in the longer-term.