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.

KS4 achievement key to HE success

What role do schools play in encouraging more young people to continue into higher education and achieve at university? New research published by the Department for Education suggests that pupils’ Key Stage 4 (KS4) attainment is central.

Using data from schools and universities, the authors found evidence of sizable differences between pupils from different types of schools. For example, pupils who attended selective state schools were more than 40 percentage points more likely to go to university and more than 30 points more likely to go to a high-status institution than pupils attending non-selective state schools. In contrast, students who attended one of the 20% of secondary schools with the highest proportions of free school meal (FSM)-eligible pupils were, on average, 5.4 percentage points more likely to drop out, 11.0 points less likely to complete their degree, and 21.8 percentage points less likely to graduate with a first or a 2:1 than those who attended one of the 20% of secondary schools with the lowest proportions of FSM-eligible pupils.

However, when comparing pupils with similar background characteristics and KS2 scores, most of the remaining gaps in higher education participation could be explained by accounting for the qualifications, subjects, and grades that pupils achieved at KS4.

The authors conclude that amongst pupils with a given set of characteristics and prior attainment, those from non-selective or low-value-added state schools could be regarded as having higher “potential” than those from selective or high-value-added state schools or independent schools. Therefore, they suggest that university entry requirements could be lowered for such pupils. They also recommend that widening participation efforts should focus on ensuring that pupils make the right choices of subjects and qualifications they take at KS4 to maximise their chances of getting good grades at this level.

Source: The Link Between Secondary School Characteristics and University Participation and Outcomes: CAYT Research Report (2014), Department for Education.

Going to college still pays off

This report from the Pew Research Center explores the current value of going to college. Findings are based on a nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 2,002 adults in the US, including 630 young adults aged 25-32. The survey captured the views of the adults towards their education, their job, and their experiences in the workforce. To measure how their economic outcomes compare with those of other generations at a comparable age, the Pew Research Center analysed economic data from the US Census Bureau.

According to the report, on virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment – from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the proportion employed full time – young US college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. In addition, when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.

Source: The Rising Cost of Not Going to College (2014), Pew Research Center.

How are schools and colleges raising aspirations?

New research commissioned by the Department for Education has reviewed the strategies used by schools and colleges to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education. It comprised a nationally representative telephone survey of 400 schools and 100 FE and sixth-form colleges, and ten case studies drawn from institutions identified as exemplifying good practice.

Aspiration-raising activities with high-achieving disadvantaged pupils were reported in 50% of 11-16 schools, 39% of 11-18 schools, and 40% of colleges, although nearly all reported at least some activities to raise aspirations more generally. 32% were using Pupil Premium funding specifically to raise aspirations among disadvantaged pupils, and 75% were using it to fund aspiration-raising activities with all pupils. However, concerns were raised that Pupil Premium funding did not adequately replace the support offered by the previous Aim Higher programme.

The report identified key issues that aspiration-raising activities needed to address. These included financial concerns; feeling that higher education was not “for them”; attainment levels; and pupils favouring other opportunities such as work or vocational qualifications. However, the findings challenged the assumption that parents or family constitute a significant barrier to higher education.

Recommendations for best practice include a whole institution culture of raising aspirations; a combination of universal and targeted approaches; staff with specific responsibility for higher education access; early intervention from KS3 onwards; information and guidance on financial issues for both pupils and parents at an early stage; immersive, subsidised, university experiences; and systematic monitoring of applications and destinations.

Source: School and College-level Strategies to Raise Aspirations of High-achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to Pursue Higher Education Investigation: Research report (2014), Department for Education.

Intergenerational mobility on the up

A new working paper from the Institute of Education explores education and intergenerational mobility. Put simply, do those from the poorer or richer families have the same chance of ending up well-off, and has this situation changed in the decades since the 1950s?

Using data which measures educational inequality for different cohorts at different points in the education system, the authors conclude that the picture has improved for cohorts born after 1980, with absolute improvements in educational attainment closing gaps by family background at several important education milestones.

They found that from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, there has been a reduction in educational inequality at Key Stage 4, a reduction in educational inequality in higher education participation for the youngest cohorts to have reached this stage, and for those born in the late 1990s, this reduction in educational inequality has continued and can be observed in their Key Stage 2 test scores at age 11. They note that this coincides with increased public educational investment, a prescriptive focus on standards, and increasing use of performance tables from the mid-1990s.

However, they say there is little evidence that these improvements have reduced inequality at the highest levels of attainment. If the highest qualifications matter in obtaining the most lucrative jobs, then these findings cast doubt on the idea that a standards agenda alone can encourage mobility.

Source: Education and Intergenerational Mobility: Help or Hindrance? (2014), Institute of Education.

A-level gender bias worse in the state sector

A new report from the UK’s Institute of Physics looks at patterns of gender bias in six A-level subjects, all of which are taken by large numbers of pupils and all of which have a significant gender imbalance. The subjects considered are English, biology, and psychology (which are more popular with girls) and maths, physics, and economics (which are more popular with boys). The findings are based on data taken from the National Pupil Database on all co-educational schools in England between 2010 and 2012, providing they had at least ten pupils in Year 13.

The authors were particularly interested to know whether schools that send relatively more girls on to A-level physics also have a smaller gender imbalance in other subjects. They found that the 19% of schools that send relatively more girls on to do A-level physics also have a smaller gender imbalance in progression to other subjects. They suggest that changes in the uptake of physics amongst girls would require changes to the whole school culture.

The report found that the relative size of the school had little effect on its “gender progression score”, nor did its relative socio-economic status. However, 22.5% of independent (private) schools had equal numbers of boys and girls progressing to the A level subjects, compared to 3.9% of state-funded schools.

Source: Closing Doors: Exploring Gender and Subject Choice in Schools (2013), Institute of Physics.