A blog about politics, education, Ireland, culture and travel. I am Conor Ryan, Dublin-born former adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett on education. Views expressed on this blog are written in a personal capacity.
After nearly six years at the Sutton Trust, my reflections on some of the research findings that most interested me and helped to advance the policy debate.
Today is my last day at the Sutton Trust after nearly six years in post. It has been a privilege to be involved in commissioning and communicating 100 pieces of research over that time, and I will miss working with such great colleagues. It seems like a good time to take stock too. So, I thought I would share my five favourite findings and facts from those reports, facts chosen because of their symbolism and influence in different stages of the social mobility debate.
Stop Start: The lost children’s centres
In the week of Tessa Jowell’s sad passing, it is worth reflecting on an important part of her legacy – the Sure Start programme, which brought a range of children’s services, including childcare, education, health, family support and play together under a single roof. Professor Kathy Sylva and her team showed in our 2014 report, Sound Foundations, the importance of good quality early years provision to school readiness and giving disadvantaged children a decent start in life. Her research this year brought an auditor’s eye to what had happened to the children’s centres at the heart of Sure Start, and in Stop Start, showed that 1000 centres had effectively been lost, nearly a third of all those set up by 2009. While some had been amalgamated, others had been hollowed out. It highlighted the importance of a much clearer early years mission in all parties if we want to address social mobility at the time when the gaps start to widen for poorer children.
Missing Talent: The high attainers who slip back in secondary school
In 2015, we published a much-cited research brief by Dr Rebecca Allen, which we called Missing Talent. Her research looked at what happened to a cohort of around 60,000 of the highest attainers in the Key Stage 2 tests at age 11 – the top 10% – when they took their GCSEs five years later. She found that 15% of highly able pupils who score in the top 10% nationally at age 11 fail to achieve in the top 25% at GCSE, but the figures were much higher for disadvantaged students, particularly boys, a third of whom fell behind. The report helped to highlight the absence of dedicated provision for disadvantaged high achievers in too many comprehensives, and made the case for the Future Talent Fund, announced in Justine Greening’s social mobility plan last year.
Admissions in Context: Giving poorer pupils a break
The debate on contextual admissions has moved on quite a bit over the last decade, and a report we published in 2017 helped to show that. Admissions in Context not only made the case for selective universities having transparent policies that show any breaks they are willing to offer disadvantaged students who have triumphed against the odds, but maybe don’t have quite the same grades as those who enjoyed a more privileged education. Crucially Dr Claire Crawford and Professor Vikki Boliver showed that a fifth of those from more advantaged backgrounds are being admitted to the more selective universities with two A level grades below the advertised ones. In the media coverage that followed, even columnists on right-wing newspapers traditionally suspicious of contextual admissions accepted that a change was needed to address the gaps that still exist – from, six to ten times – between those from the poorest and best off neighbourhoods at those universities.
Access in Scotland: Progress in higher education equity north of the border
I had the privilege to sit on the Scottish Commission on Widening Access, which reported in 2016, and subsequently to chair a Framework Development Group which has just commissioned a new access toolkit for Scotland. One thing that surprised me on first engaging with the Scottish debate was the dearth of data compared to England. That was what prompted me to commission Professor Sheila Riddell and colleagues at Edinburgh University to produce the Access in Scotland report. It had an enormous impact on the debate in Scotland, and is still cited regularly. Ironically, the finding we chose to lead on – that 90% of all access places in Scotland had come through colleges rather than directly to university – was overshadowed by a figure we quoted that I (mistakenly) assumed was widely known: that the university access gap was wider in Scotland than England. Either way, there remains a need for more good data and candour about it in the debate. But what is heartening is the progress being made on the policy front – driven by Nicola Sturgeon and Shirley-Anne Somerville (her higher education minister) – not least in the acceptance of commission recommendations. With the redoubtable Professor Peter Scott as Commissioner for Fair Access, acceptance of a minimum threshold for disadvantaged students by all Scotland’s universities and the progress towards better evidence on access, there are real prospects for progress north of the border.
Real apprenticeships: Improving quality and progression in job-based qualifications
When we asked the Boston Consulting Group in 2013 to look at how other countries did apprenticeships, we did so at a time when the political consensus on the value of apprenticeships was being undermined by the poor quality of too many of them. BCG’s analysis Real Apprenticeships has helped move the debate on and has given the Sutton Trust a locus in an area where it had not previously engaged. In their first report, BCG not only highlighted how relatively few British employers were then offering apprenticeships in those pre-levy days (there are other challenges now) but the low quality of what the majority of young people were doing compared to their German or Swiss counterparts. Later BCG research in 2015, Levels of Success, showed that those doing advanced or higher apprenticeships had comparable earning power to their A-level or average traditional degree counterparts. And our Better Apprenticeships research in 2017 by LSE and UCL Institute of Education academics showed how poor the progression rates were from intermediate to advanced apprenticeships. All of which has helped make the case for the Sutton Trust’s 2018 #BetterApprenticeships campaign for automatic progression, improved quality and more higher apprenticeships. Giving young people real choices must be the key to getting this right for the future.