Implication of subject choice on university entry

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) performance measure for schools in England means that schools are incentivised to encourage pupils to study this set of subjects (to count towards the EBacc, a pupil must achieve GCSE grade C or above in a range of subjects including English, maths, history or geography, two sciences, and a language). But are some subjects “better” to study than others for getting to university?

A recent Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Paper seeks to understand the implications of subject choices at age 14 (when pupils pick their GCSE options), and if these choices then play a part in whether pupils go to university and where they end up studying.

Using data collected from the longitudinal survey, Next Steps, Jake Anders and colleagues looked at the different probabilities of applying to university, entering university, and attending a high-status university for pupils who study the full set of subjects required for EBacc, compared to those who study other combinations of subjects. Using both regression modelling and propensity score matching to test the robustness of the results, they found that pupils who study the full set of EBacc subjects are slightly more likely to apply for and to attend university (a positive effect of 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively). However, the results from the regression model imply that pupils with a full set of EBacc subjects are less likely to get into a high-status university.

The researchers emphasise that the differences are not large, and ultimately it’s far more important to perform well in whatever subject is studied, so the likely implications of more pupils studying EBacc subjects should not be exaggerated.

Source: Incentivising specific combinations of subjects: does it make any difference to university access? (August 2017), CLS working paper 2017/11. Centre for Longitudinal Studies

Tweet tweet: How distracting are mobile phones in class?

A new study in Communication Education examines the effects of texting, Twitter, and message content on student learning. Participants in the study were 145 undergraduate students enrolled in communication classes at a large university in the US. After completing a brief screening questionnaire, students were randomly assigned to one of several study groups: a control group who did not use their phones, an experimental group who received text messages during class either related or unrelated to lecture content, or an experimental group who posted tweets either related or unrelated to lecture content. Furthermore, the groups were broken down into a high-distraction texting group (message every 30 seconds) or a low-distraction texting group (message every 60 seconds), or a high-distraction Twitter group (post a tweet every 30 seconds) or a low-distraction Twitter group (post a tweet every 60 seconds). During class, while the messages and tweets were being sent and received, students were instructed to take notes as they watched a 12-minute video lecture, and then they were tested on the content.

Results showed that the control group and relevant-message groups earned a 10–17% higher letter grade, scored 70% higher on recalling information, and scored 50% higher on note-taking than students who composed tweets or responded to irrelevant messages. Sending/receiving messages unrelated to class content negatively impacted learning and note-taking, while related messages did not appear to have a significant negative impact.

Source: Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Examining the Effects of Texting, Twitter, and Message Content on Student Learning (2015), Communication Education.

Degrees of socio-economic difference

A working paper by the University of Warwick and the Institute for Fiscal Studies investigated differences by socio-economic background in the likelihood of UK students dropping out of university, completing a degree within five years, and graduating with a first or upper second class degree.

The study found that among young people on the same course of study, students from the most impoverished backgrounds were 3.4 percentage points more likely to drop out within two years than were students from the most advantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds were also 5.3 percentage points less likely to complete their degree.

Source: Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class (2014), The Institute for Fiscal Studies

Small Schools of Choice improve graduation rates and college enrolment

A new update on New York high schools Small Schools of Choice has shown that the positive effects of the approach continue into postsecondary education.

In the 1990s, New York City instituted a high school reform effort called Small Schools of Choice (SSCs). SSCs have 100 students in each year group and emphasise academic rigour and strong student/faculty relations. Students apply to their preferred schools and are selected by lottery.

Researchers at MDRC examined the effects on postsecondary education of attending SSCs in a longitudinal study of more than 12,000 mostly disadvantaged students. They found that students at SSCs had higher graduation rates and were more likely to attend college the following year than the control group of students who applied to SSCs but attended other schools.

Attending an SSC increased graduation rates in the four cohorts studied by an average of 9.4 percentage points. Students at SSCs were more likely than the control groups to remain enrolled in college more than three years later. SSCs made these gains at a 14-16% lower cost per graduate than the control schools (mostly due to higher rates of graduation and fewer students needing a fifth year of high school to graduate).

Source: Headed to College: The Effects of New York City’s Small High Schools of Choice on Postsecondary Enrollment (2014), MDRC

Poorer high achievers falling short of potential

New research conducted by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions tracked the performance of high-achieving pupils from deprived backgrounds through the education system, and compared their trajectories with their more advantaged peers.

The authors found that children from poorer backgrounds who are high achieving at age 7 are more likely to fall off a high achievement trajectory than children from richer backgrounds. High-achieving children from the most deprived families perform worse than lower-achieving pupils from the least deprived families by Key Stage 4 (KS4). Conversely, lower-achieving affluent children catch up with higher-achieving deprived children between KS2 and KS4.

The research focused on children born in 1991–92. Of these, 2.8% of pupils (921 out of 33,039) who claimed free school meals (FSM) throughout secondary school went to an “elite” university, compared with 9.9% of pupils (40,165 out of 406,596) who never claimed FSM in secondary school. These differences can largely be explained by the higher levels of achievement of pupils from more affluent backgrounds.

The authors conclude that the period between KS2 and KS4 seems a crucial time to ensure that higher-achieving pupils from poor backgrounds remain on a high achievement trajectory, and that this is potentially important for policy makers interested in increasing participation at high-status universities among young people from more deprived backgrounds.

Source: High-attaining Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds (2014), Social Mobility and Child Poverty Comission.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage

This policy brief from the RAND Corporation examines the impact of child-targeted interventions in early childhood education and care (ECEC) as well as initiatives to widen access to higher education in Europe, and their impact on social mobility in later years. It provides an overview of research on the topic, discusses various policies, and describes a number of case studies on different programmes and practices.

One example presented is the UK Aim Higher initiative, which focused on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds living in areas characterised by low participation in higher education. The aim of the initiative was two-fold: first, to raise the aspirations of potential candidates, and second, to develop the abilities of under-represented groups so they could apply to college. According to the brief, research suggests that the programme appears to have delivered some improvements in exam results, retention, and progression to higher education. However, there appears to be little evidence that it was successful in influencing participants’ attitudes towards higher education.

Overall, key conclusions of the brief include:

  • In the context of economic uncertainty, investing in high-quality ECEC appears to be an effective evidence-based social policy tool, although it should not be considered a panacea.
  • The level of ECEC provision is very unequal across the EU: to be effective, it needs to be of high quality.
  • One way to break the cycle of disadvantage would be to develop ambitious indicators and policy goals that link ECEC provision for under-represented groups to access to higher education.

Source: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage: Early Childhood Interventions and Progression to Higher Education in Europe (2014), RAND Corporation.