Thursday 30 June 2016

Brexit's mobility challenge

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on the implications of Brexit for education and social mobility.
It is not as simple as saying – as many do – that we are heading out of the European Union thanks to the disaffected poor who felt their needs were overlooked by the distant metropolitan elite.
As YouGov’s final polling showed, there was a huge age divide too – 71% of 18-24 year-olds were for remain versus 64% of the over-65s backing leave – and a marked difference between those with different levels of education – those with few formal qualifications voted Leave in as great a proportion as graduates voted remain.
There is undoubtedly a strong degree of disaffection among older poorer voters. And this underlines more than ever the importance of ensuring that educational and employment opportunities are available for their children. In a sense, intergenerational poverty could breed intergenerational disaffection if whoever emerges as our political leadership in the months ahead doesn’t address the social mobility issue head on.
We need to start young. The gaps in school readiness at age 5 – the bottom 10% are 19 months behind the richest 10% – continue through the education system. While the pupil premium and other education reforms have reduced the gaps at age 11, on traditional measures little has changed at GCSE and there are still eight-fold access gaps to our leading universities.
As I have argued before, there is a danger that those gaps will perpetuate in the new accountability regime – though there is also growing evidence that such gaps are far from universal – so it is increasingly important that rhetorical choices between apprenticeships, college and university are made a reality in ways that really make a difference to young people’s life chances.
This matters at several levels. The Sutton Trust has long championed the importance of changing the elites – and the referendum has arguably thrown that into sharp relief – where our research earlier this year found that the privately educated continue to dominate in the professions. Even in politics, half of the current cabinet went to private school, and that’s a lower proportion than the coalition cabinet.
Politics needs to become more representative – something the social mobility APPG will be discussing later this month – but so does the leadership of all those institutions that affect our lives.
But change needs to come at every level. We have seen a welcome embrace of transparency in school-level data over the last 25 years, with the chance now to compare schools on a like for like basis as never before. That has spurred real improvement, and with the pupil premium has placed the attainment of disadvantaged pupils centre stage.
Yet there still remains a real challenge narrowing the gap between London and other parts of the country, in part because of different attitudes to reform, but equally the result of differential access to good teachers and demographic differences. It may be no accident that the strongest Brexit votes came in coastal areas and North East cities where students end up with fewest qualifications. The urgency of addressing those inequities has never been greater.
Equally, there is a real challenge assessing the value of post-school opportunities. Colleges have been measured on ‘success rates’ for too long, rather than student outcomes. There are welcome moves to change this, though the danger is that the data is presented in ways that are not easily understood – a real danger too with the new GCSE rankings (replacing A-E with 1-9). The best colleges transform lives, but it is vital that in communities where colleges are the only source of post-16 education that the current patchwork of performance is transformed for the better.
More worrying, perhaps, is the emphasis on quantity over quality in the apprenticeships programme. Apprenticeships are back in vogue, which is a good thing. But for young people, it is not good enough that only 40% of them lead to a qualification at level 3 – A level equivalent – or above. Too few teachers will recommend apprenticeships, but until the government is clear that every young person starting a level 2 apprenticeship will progress to a level 3 without having to change course – as is the way in what are still (for now) our European partners – that won’t change.
And finally we need to shake the university sector out of its complacency and open it up to a transparency that has been alien to them for far too long. It is good that they are judged on impact in the research excellence framework, and that the teaching excellent framework will force them to think more about how they impart knowledge to those paying them £9000 a year in fees.
But it is quite appalling that universities can refuse to co-operate in publishing the data on earnings by course linked to tax data from HMRC, something that Anna Vignoles worked with IFS to show recently at an aggregate level. We will be working with MPs to get that changed in the higher education bill. Students have a right to know the worth of their courses, not least when our data has shown that on average higher apprenticeships may be an option as good – or even better – financially.
So if we are to ensure that the disillusionment that led to Brexit among their grandparents – and many of their parents – is not translated through the generations, we need to make sure not only that opportunity is available to young people across Britain, but that it is provided in a way that is open and honest about the strengths and shortcomings of different pathways. Brexit may have its long term economic downsides, but politicians of all parties need to find ways to ensure that the young who voted overwhelmingly to remain have the chance to use their talents to the full.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Scotland's access challenge

I blogged for the Sutton Trust on access in Scotland, linked to a new Trust report that attracted a lot of Scottish interest last week.

Nicola Sturgeon has placed education at the top of the government’s agenda. By making her deputy John Swinney responsible for education in her cabinet, she has given a clear signal of how highly she prioritises the issue. And in looking again at national testing, she is showing a willingness to put pupils’ interests first: good data is vital to educational equality, and must be part of what emerges.

But the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Today’s Sutton Trust report Access in Scotland from Sheila Riddell and her colleagues at Edinburgh University provides the most detailed data to date on the scale of the access challenge north of the border.

Some figures are familiar: between the most and least disadvantaged, there is a four-fold gap in university access in Scotland at age 18, compared with a 2.4 point gap in England. Others are encouraging: access to “higher tariff” universities is less polarised than in England, although this may in part reflect that a larger proportion of the Scottish sector are in this category, though it includes all the ancient universities . But what is new is the startling figure that of the growth in new entrants to higher education from the poorest areas over the last decade, fully nine in ten have been to sub-degree courses at further education colleges.

This is not to decry the efforts of colleges. As I learnt in my time as a member of the Scottish Commission on Widening Access, articulation from college to university is a tried and tested route into university. Colleges have displayed an enormous dedication to improving the education of poorer students. But in a system where half the students moving from college to university have to repeat at least one year,  there are clear issues about both the  nature of what has been learnt before university and the willingness of universities, particularly the Ancients, to credit that learning.

Sturgeon has commendably accepted many of the recommendations of the Commission, including the idea of an independent Commissioner for Fair Access – a cross between Les Ebdon and Alan Milburn, at least in their current roles – and the target that a fifth of higher education entrants by 2030 should be from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

There is a danger that the access debate is simply clouded in the arguments around tuition fees. In truth, neither side has a strong enough case there. The absence of tuition fees has not obviously changed the access picture – and in other countries, the abolition of tuition fees has proved a welcome initial saving for middle class families rather than a spur to participation by the poor. But then it is hard to argue that incurring £50,000 debt on graduation in a debt-averse culture is the right answer either, even if a proportion of the fees are used to fund access and outreach and regardless of what protection may be in place for lower earning graduates.

That’s why it is not enough simply to accept radical targets. The means must be put in place too. And that means accepting also the more radical commission proposal that universities should formalise their contextual admissions work with institutional minimum thresholds that are targeted at disadvantaged students. Critics in Scotland have talked of social engineering, but the inspiration for this idea was the radical access work at St Andrews which I heard about when visiting the university.

At St Andrews, studying Physics and Astronomy has become so popular that the standard asking rates are AAAA in the Highers. Students from a widening participation background can join standard degree programmes but with a modified Gateway entry year, which has a lower asking rate for entry, typically BBBB. In their year of entry these students do about half their credits on traditional modules integrated with the rest of the intake, and about half their time on strongly tutored modules designed for this entry cohort. The early Gateway cohorts include some doctoral students.

That’s also why it is so important that the Scottish government continues to fund dedicated places at the Ancients for disadvantaged students, particularly when other places continue to be capped.  But the changes needed to meet the ambitious targets can’t just be about the Ancients. Some universities already meet the 20% target, but there is room for more higher and degree-level apprenticeships in addition to their existing offer, directly linked to employers and jobs. The overall scale of provision at Scotland’s universities deserves more debate too, with applications having risen faster over recent years than the number of places.

Of course, none of what universities or ministers might do is enough on its own. The real challenge lies in what happens in schools, where attainment gaps are evident from an early age. It is a good start providing comparable data through assessments, but that needs follow up with equally radical approaches through targeted funding, a strong drive to improve standards, and intervention and support for schools with poorer results, especially in disadvantaged areas.

But we need to go further in raising aspirations too. The Sutton Trust supports 250 students each year at its summer schools at Edinburgh and St Andrews. Other charities, like the Robertson Trust, play a vital role funding access programmes too.

It is simply not fair that 26% of places at ancient universities go to privately educated students, when less than 5% of Scottish students are educated at independent schools. We need to see a concerted drive to improve education for able, gifted and talented students in every state school from S1 (Year 7 in England) onwards too.

That’s the challenge behind today’s report. And it is one that matters for Scotland’s future success.