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Catch-22: we cannot have growth without a focus on education

By Blog editor, on 8 March 2024

By Professor Lindsey Macmillan and Professor Gill Wyness

We were having a discussion in our CEPEO team meeting yesterday about Spring Budget 2024 and the implications for education policy. As we outlined in our Twitter thread, there’s resounding disappointment across the education sector based on the announcements, with very little offered in terms of investment in education and skills. It’s no real surprise of course, given there is no money. Without any real prospect of economic growth this will be the story for the foreseeable future. And yet, and this is the catch-22 of it all, we cannot have growth without a focus on education and skills. In the words of John Maynard Keynes “We do nothing because we have not the money. But it is precisely because we do not do anything that we have not the money”.

Lip service is often paid to the importance of education and skills for growth, and we hear regularly about investments to support the development of skills in particular sectors – AI or green growth, for example. But while these skills are undoubtedly going to be important for future growth, it is the skills of the many, not the few, that are critical for productivity. And, as we know from a wealth of evidence about the effects of the pandemic, the challenge here is a daunting one. We can see from the most recent assessments at the end of primary school that the proportion of pupils reaching expected standards in reading, writing, and maths are down to 60%, levels not seen since 2016. In addition, inequalities have risen. The disadvantage gap is now higher than any point in the past decade.

As outlined in the Times Education Supplement piece this morning, there was a fully-costed education strategy put in place by Sir Kevan Collins, at the request of the government, in 2021 to help children who had missed school during the pandemic. This was based on the idea of three Ts. Teachers, Tutoring, and Time. Invest in the education workforce, invest in tutoring, and invest in extending the school day. Each one supported by rigorous evidence. And each one intertwined with the other to create complementarities to support education recovery. £15 billion was the ask, equivalent to £1,680 per pupil. This might sound like a lot of money but it was against a backdrop of estimates of the economic cost of learning loss reaching as high as £1.5 trillion, because of a lower-skilled workforce. In the end, only one tenth of this £15bn was offered up by the then Chancellor (and current PM), prompting Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation.

This is one example of the short-termism of government policy relating to growth: the reluctance to spend money now for the sake of future benefit. Those incomprehensibly large numbers of the economic costs of learning loss won’t fully hit now, but will instead permeate for decades to come. This means there is little incentive to spend the required money now; government won’t see the immediate benefits and get direct political gain in this election cycle.

Human Capital or Signalling?

A telling part of Sir Kevan Collins’ interview is that there was some kind of idea that the learning lost during the pandemic “would all just come out in the wash”. That children and young people who missed months of school would just catch up with little intervention required.

But this suggests that children can miraculously learn more in a year than they might otherwise have done with no further investment. That somehow teachers could be more productive after the pandemic than before – despite the myriad other challenges the pandemic created or worsened, not least significantly higher school absences. It also suggests that the government didn’t think that investment in the education system would have led to more learning.

But that goes against one of the fundamental theories of economics – human capital theory. The idea is that education increases the stock of human capital – skills – and higher skills fuel productivity and the economy, so investing in education is one of the most effective ways to drive sustainable economic growth. This is backed up by a wealth of evidence establishing a positive return to individuals and the wider economy from investing in education. Furthermore, education has been shown to have wider social benefits as more educated societies have higher levels of civic participation, better birth outcomes and reduced crime. We outline this in more detail in our briefing note “Does education raise people’s productivity or does it just signal their existing ability?”

There was also a lot of discussion at the time that learning loss didn’t matter anyway – because education is just there to act as a signal to employers about the relative abilities of different individuals, rather than something that directly improves their productivity. In other words, if someone has 3 A*s at A level, this tells an employer that they are a better worker than someone with 3 Bs, and it doesn’t matter how much knowledge or skills the person with 3 A*s actually has. But the evidence around this is much weaker as our briefing note describes.

Wasted talent

Linked to this is the belief that learning loss would be equally felt by all pupils. But again, the evidence (including from our own COSMO study) has shown the opposite. Learning loss is felt much more by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and thus failing to invest in catch-up has compounded inequality. This inevitably results in wasted talent, further stifling economic growth, as outlined in our UKRI-funded project exploring the links between diversity, education and productivity. Evidence from the US shows that between 20-40% of economic growth over the last 50 years resulted from a better allocation of talent.

Failing to invest when pupils are young also has knock on effects. Education and skills are like building blocks. It is much easier to build an individuals’ skills if they have an existing foundation of basic skills to build upon. This in turn leads to higher returns on investment, as individuals become more and more skilled.

The catch-22 illusion?

This isn’t the first time education has been side-lined in recent budgets. Even the childcare announcement of 2023 was really about increasing labour force participation, rather than investing in early childhood education.

This short-term outlook is the government catch-22: we need growth to invest, but we can’t invest without growth. We need to break this cycle and understand that human capital is the fundamental underpinning of economic growth.

Post-pandemic schooling challenges: CEPEO’s second annual lecture by Professor Joshua Goodman

By Blog Editor, on 10 August 2023

Lisa Belabed with Jake Anders and Lindsey Macmillan

Each year, CEPEO holds an annual lecture showcasing vital research on education policy and equalising opportunities. For this year’s lecture (held at Central Hall Westminster on Thursday 20 July 2023) we were delighted that Professor Joshua Goodman from Boston University, who recently completed a year in Washington DC on the US President’s Council of Economic Advisors, joined us to talk about his ongoing research on post-pandemic schooling challenges in the United States — which have many parallels with the challenges we are facing in the UK.

Professor Lindsey Macmillan, CEPEO’s Director, began proceedings by recapping highlights from the centre’s past year, including the recently released evidence-based policy priorities, and new research from the COSMO study, as well as reminding us that CEPEO was established just six months before the pandemic started, with its huge implications for educational inequalities and, hence, the direction of our research, including a shift to carry out work to understand post-pandemic schooling challenges.

How it Started

Professor Goodman’s talk was divided into three parts. He started with his research at the beginning of the pandemic, as 50 million children across the US saw their schools close their doors, for what would turn out to be periods ranging from a few months to over a year. At this point, there was virtually no data on school disruption of this scale, and this lack of historical precedent made it difficult to predict learning losses.

However, those unprecedented learning losses were difficult both to grasp and fully anticipate, and there were disparities among parents’ ability to and proactivity in responding to them. Professor Goodman and colleagues used Google Trends to try to quantify the extent of these responses: by April 2020 searches for school- and parent-centred online learning resources doubled compared to pre-Covid levels. Partly because of these differential responses, learning losses were worse for students in high-poverty schools, whose families were less likely to have the resources to compensate for their losses outside of school. Josh pointed out his own ability as a professor and former mathematics public school teacher in helping his children stay on track as exemplifying those disparities.

Beyond learning loss, Professor Goodman highlighted that school enrolment has also been adversely affected by the pandemic, with public school enrolment dropping 3% in autumn 2020, the largest decrease since World War II. Part of this can be explained by an increase in homeschooling, likely driven by health fears, but many of those students effectively vanished.

Josh was also keen to avoid being entirely negative in his assessment of the situation. One silver lining of the pandemic relates to bullying. Turning again to Google Trends data, Goodman and colleagues found that searches about bullying and cyberbullying (perhaps especially surprising for the latter) were reduced as a result of school closures. Suicide rates among children also decreased as schools closed.

How it’s Going

Having described the immediate impacts of COVID-19 disruption, Professor Goodman turned to post-pandemic recovery efforts. Early in the pandemic, the US federal government sent $60 billion to K-12 schools: an unprecedented use of federal funds for school support, as schools in the US are mostly funded at the state- or local-level. This was followed in March 2021 by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER), another $120 billion to be spent by 2024. A minimum of just 20% of ESSER was allocated to be spent on programmes to reduce learning loss, and a lot has rather been spent on temporary hires and salary increases for teachers. The extent of this support dwarfs that which we have seen in England, but appears to have been less well targeted.

As our understanding of the effects of the pandemic on learning loss has become clearer, the picture has remained bleak. The US has seen a drop in 8th grade math scores estimated to lower lifetime income by 1.6% or $1 trillion across all affected students. Chronic absenteeism rates have doubled in many states — more so in schools with high proportions of ethnic minority students — with an average of 6-7 missed days per school year. And enrolment has remained an issue: there was no rebound in enrolment in autumn 2021 to offset the 3% of students who had left public schools at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. While there were widespread concerns about teacher burnout early in the pandemic, there is a lack of direct evidence on this point, but the rate of quitting has jumped 17%.

What now?

Concluding his talk, Professor Goodman was keen to focus on the future and what we should be doing to mitigate the challenges he outlined. Asking “what now?” he set out what he sees as the biggest challenges facing education policymakers at this moment. First, the big federal spending in light of the still terrible learning results is leading to a narrative of wasted funds, which makes it challenging to obtain further funding. But, he pointed out, this ignores the counterfactual: the learning losses without this federal support could very easily have been even worse.

Second, districts (somewhat equivalent to English local authorities, albeit retaining more oversight over schools than many now have here) still do not understand the scope of intervention necessary to tackle the learning loss that has become embedded. On top of this, they are concerned that adding instructional time is not popular, are finding high-quality tutoring hard to scale, and that the teacher workforce is tired, sapping energy for taking the urgent action still needed.

Third, there is a perception that parents do not have the appetite to tackle the embedded learning loss their children are facing. This is largely because they often do not recognise that their child’s academic skills were affected by the disruption of the pandemic, as school grades (“on a curve”) can have tended to obscure learning losses from them.

In the face of these challenges, Professor Goodman stressed the importance of getting attendance back to pre-pandemic levels, as absenteeism makes all other interventions less effective. This mirrors one of CEPEO’s policy priorities of reducing pupil absenteeism. He also highlighted the need to help districts (or, in a UK context, school and academy chain leadership) understand the scope of intervention needed, as well as the importance of choosing solutions that scale. For instance, tutoring has proven difficult and labour-intensive, and Josh argues that other, more widely manageable, teaching solutions would be preferable, notably through technology that supports, rather than replaces, teachers’ work.

Wrapping up

The lecture ended with Professor Goodman reasserting the importance of data, which is foundational in his research on education and economics — the same being true for CEPEO. In the US, the local nature of schooling presents major data challenges. He also stressed the need for timely datasets: federal enrolment data is released with a one-year lag, which he argues is much too long: by the time the data are released, another school year has already begun so policymakers often feel that priorities have ‘moved on’. He also stressed a lack of data on important issues such as teacher workforce, and the difficulty of measuring ESSER funds’ spending and efficiency.

Having had the opportunity to speak with members of CEPEO on their own research, Professor Goodman referred to the datasets being used and developed within the centre. These include pioneering use of administrative data such as the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset, in partnership with the UK Government, along with the COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study supported by UKRI Economic and Social Research Council and in partnership with the UK Department for Education. He called for more partnerships of this kind in building datasets that will allow research that drives forward education policy by helping to identify schooling challenges rapidly and responding to them just as rapidly.

Retain external examination as the primary means of assessment

By Blog editor, on 22 June 2023

By Dr Dominic P. Kelly

Earlier this year, CEPEO launched ‘New Opportunities’, a list of practical priorities for future governments based on the best existing evidence across the social sciences. One of our recommendations regarded calls to abolish high stakes educational assessment by traditional means (i.e., ‘high stakes’ external examinations). Although these calls are not novel, in the wake of disruption to traditional GCSE and A-Level examinations in the past few years, those calls have certainly grown recently. Critics of external examinations argue that they are merely a test of rote memory of impractical knowledge and neither measure the underlying skill they claim to nor improve a child’s educational experiences or later outcomes. There is additional suggestion that these exams lack predictive value for future educational achievement, particularly in higher education, and provide additional stress for students. Based on the existing empirical evidence, we disagree with these assertions. On this basis, our recommendation is to retain external examination as the primary means of assessment and contend that not doing so would harm equity between students in a way that outweighs other concerns around external assessment. Yet, we also advocate for evidence-based improvements to assessments to be made with the intention of holistically improving both the examination system and national curricula and we detail some potential changes below.

 

External examinations are more resilient to examiners’ bias

One primary concern about external examinations is that they are disadvantageous for students from minority groups compared to coursework or continuous assessment. Although continued effort is needed to modernise the curriculum and provide content and skills that are relevant to diverse backgrounds, the evidence that alternatives reduce disadvantage for minority groups is lacking. It is often suggested that internal assessments by teachers would be an optimal alternative. But evidence suggests that teachers are prone to either showing bias or being inaccurate in their assessments of students from minority groups. Research has shown that some teachers demonstrably show ethnic bias in their assessments such that nearly three times as many Black Caribbean pupils received predicted scores below their actual scores than White students. Additional research also suggests that students from higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to have more favourable internal assessments by teachers than those students from lower SES backgrounds. Although it is sometimes thought that students from low SES backgrounds do comparatively better in coursework than examinations, evidence from the UK suggests that this is not the case. In addition, concerns about examinations causing increasing in student anxiety are contested: although test anxiety is a notable phenomenon among students, it has been suggested that there is minimal effects of test anxiety on performance in GCSE examinations and that children’s wellbeing or happiness was not related to their participation in Key Stage 2 external examinations. Therefore, systems without anonymous external assessments are thought to have substantial biases and this would have deleterious effects for reducing inequalities in the UK education system.

 

External examinations can be complemented by improvements made elsewhere

Despite our recommendation that external assessments remain the primary means of assessment, that is not to say that these assessments could not be complemented by evidence-based approaches to reform to the current curricula and assessment. First, concerns over the practice of ‘teaching to the test’ could be addressed by changing the content of the external examinations to reward a richer approach to teaching, which would likely benefit students. For example, providing examples with “higher level” items in classroom assessments (which encourage deeper processing of information than items that only require rote learning) may yield comparatively stronger performance on both low- and high-level items in external examinations. Incidentally, reducing the amount of time teachers spend on providing their own assessments of students could potentially provide more time for other activities in the classroom. Second, portfolios and other types of summative assessments can have utility as a complement to traditional exams but they should be marked externally by someone unfamiliar with the student to avoid biases. Third, and most of all, the administration of thoughtful formative assessment has the potential to prepare students for external examinations and potentially providing a greater context for external examinations to be interpreted within. Formative assessment has been shown to have notable positive effects on pupil attainment and can be structured in a way devoid of teacher bias. Given the evidence that single assessments of cognition can be affected by stress, sleep and other extraneous factors, there are benefits to repeatedly assessing smaller and more specific elements of knowledge or cognition in a way that complement single external assessments and benefit learning environments – as long as it can be done objectively and with minimal bias from educators.

 

Summary

We advocate for external assessments to continue to be the primary means of educational assessment in the UK. Switching to internal teacher-based assessment would set back attempts to reduce inequalities in the UK education system. Furthermore, we would argue that concerns about stress are surpassed by evidence of teacher bias and inaccuracies in internal assessments. There are additional benefits to students and teachers of summative or continuous formative assessment, but these are complements rather than substitutes for external examination. The content and format of external assessments, whether high-stakes or continuous, should continue to be re-evaluated in line with well-founded and methodologically rigorous research.

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).