Wednesday 16 May 2018

Five favourite facts and findings

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.

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Under review

I have blogged on the PM's post-18 education review for the Sutton Trust and Public Finance.

It was 16 months before the 1997 election and Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard had a problem. It was a time of austerity. University intakes were growing rapidly. New ways had to be found to fund higher education that didn’t simply involve the taxpayer.

So she approached David Blunkett, her Labour shadow for whom I then worked to support her in setting up a review – with explicit backing from Don Foster for the Liberal Democrats – under the late Ron Dearing. The review would report after the general election and would be wide-ranging in its outlook. But it is remembered for one thing: it led to the introduction by the new Labour government of tuition fees paid by students (then opposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats).

In 1998, the decision was also taken to convert all maintenance grants to loans (some had already been converted), but to means-test fees. Those who faced new fees also got higher interest-free loans repaid after graduation for those earning over £10,000 a year.

Since the Dearing review, we have had other big changes to the system. In 2006, fees were increased to a maximum of £3000 – after a big argument in the Labour Party against variable fees that led to the plans almost being defeated – and income contingent loans were explicitly available for fees. By then, Scotland had already abandoned fees. Means-tested maintenance grants were reintroduced and the repayment threshold was raised to £15,000.

Peter Mandelson set up the Browne Review in 2009, which reported to the coalition government after the 2010 election. It led to a £9000 fee maximum and no more variability in reality than the 2006 reforms despite the government saying it expected many students to pay just £6000. Repayments now started at £21,000 – a hugely expensive concession to the Liberal Democrats that ensured that many loans would never be repaid – and a real rate of interest was introduced that would only start to bite when inflation picked up more recently. Tinkering since then has seen maintenance grants scrapped and – at a cost of £3 billion a year – the barely noticed raising of the threshold to £25,000.

That’s the background to the latest review announced by Theresa May on Monday. But the background also includes rising student numbers – touching the 50% of young adults entering higher education by age 30 target set by Tony Blair in 1999 – and some narrowing of the access gap between disadvantaged and better off students. Perhaps more importantly, the political backdrop includes a popular pledge by Jeremy Corbyn to scrap fees that undoubtedly helped win seats like Canterbury and Reading East for Labour at last year’s election. So rather than seeking cross-party consensus, this review is more about neutralising a perceived party disadvantage.

But the confused history of fees is reflected in the confused nature of the review. A bizarre flurry of weekend briefing – propped up by the Secretary of State in his first TV interview on Marr – suggested that a key outcome of the review might be universities charging more for courses in expensive STEM subjects and less in humanities. Given the importance of STEM subjects to the economy this could perversely discourage students from doing those subjects and cold harm social mobility by encouraging poorer students to take cheaper courses. One can only assume its intention was to distract attention from reports that fees would fall to £6,000 a year, which ministers feared would raise expectations that might not be realised.

And the review has not exactly had an auspicious start. It is good that it is looking at the too often overlooked FE sector and at the paucity of apprenticeship options – barely 10,000 young people a year start higher or degree apprenticeships compared with 330,000 freshers at university – but it will be vital that the review panel feels able to take a hard look at the whole funding system and the interaction between different levers.

Modelling by London Economics for the Sutton Trust in November showed that it would cost about £1 billion to restore maintenance grants. It was a mistake to remove them, even if students got higher loans, and this should be the first priority for the panel. Then if the committee wants to look at fees and variability, they should be varied according to family income not the cost of the course. A model that would reduce average fees to £3,500 a year could – with restored maintenance grants – reduce debts for the 40% poorest students from over £50,000 to £12,700 and increase the proportion of loans repaid from 55% to 65%. The total cost of this would be up to £3 billion – about the same as the threshold change announced last October. Less radical means testing could cost less. There is also a need to get better value from the £800 million a year that universities spend on access and outreach in England, building a reliable evidence base on what works. But the priority should be leveraging this existing money to achieve better outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than to risk stalling progress with cuts.

And then the review should take a long hard look at what’s on offer for those who go don’t go to university. For all the words about apprenticeships, the brutal reality is that less than a third of those taking higher apprenticeships are aged under 25 (let along being 18 or 19). Most apprenticeships for young people are limited level 2 programmes with few career prospects and patchy progression to higher levels. If anything, the apprenticeships levy is reinforcing a bias towards adults doing higher apprenticeships as the levy lacks the levers to prevent it being used simply to upskill existing staff. Addressing that issue and the quality of technical and paraprofessional education in colleges is as important to social mobility as changing the funding of higher education.

This week’s review may have had a pretty inauspicious start. But as the panel deliberates over the next year they have the chance to make a real difference to social mobility – if they get their priorities right.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Ministerial mobility

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on what the reshuffle means for education and social mobility.

Reshuffles are a funny – and brutal – business. For Prime Ministers, they rarely go according to plan, and this week’s was no exception. I’ve been in both the education department and at no. 10 while they have been happening, and seen the drama at first hand. For individual ministers, they may be a personal success – or tragedy. But for the general public, who would be hard placed to name more than a handful of cabinet ministers, any impact is a lot less than those in the Westminster bubble imagine.
Yet they can also tell us a lot about the direction of government, and the choices of minister can make a big difference to how particular issues are treated. That’s as true for social mobility as for any other issue.
Justine Greening has been a doughty champion of social mobility as education secretary, reflecting her own journey to become the first Conservative education secretary to be educated at a comprehensive. Her social mobility plan allowed her finally to define the issue on her own terms – away from the noises off about grammar and faith schools that dominated the pre-election discourse – and it was generally well-received. To explain her refusal to accept a sideways move to welfare secretary, Greening cited her commitment to social mobility, believing that she could do more for the cause (particularly the role of education) from the backbenches.
Her successor, Damian Hinds, has no silver spoon in his mouth either, but is more representative of the grammar school educated politicians who have played a much more prominent role in Theresa May’s cabinets than those of David Cameron. Hinds championed social mobility as a chair of the APPG in the early 2010s and showed a keen interest in the issue as a member of the education select committee. He is unlikely to dismantle the emphasis that Greening had introduced to the department on social mobility, though some of his solutions may be different.
Those changes were part of a wider reshuffle which has tilted the composition of cabinet meetings a bit more privately and Oxbridge-educated than before – though still a lot less than in Cameron’s day – and a bit away from the record achieved with May’s first cabinet as having the lowest proportion of privately educated members for a PM’s first cabinet since Clement Attlee in 1945.
But what of policies? In her social mobility plan, Greening set out a number of proposals which it would be surprising if they were not to continue – including the Future Talent Fund and the stronger focus on early literacy.
However, No 10 will also want to see a more robust advancement of the free school programme, as much laxity for new grammar schools as possible – the numbers attending existing grammars continue to rise – and more support for faith schools. The problem Hinds faces is that his room for manoeuvre on these issues is limited to the extent that new legislation is required – certainly the case for new grammars and abolishing Gove’s cap on faith admissions in new schools. He certainly needs to address the uneven performance of academy chains and revisit the rationale for free schools before applying the ‘rocket-boosters’ urged by some commentators.
But legislation is an overrated aspect of policymaking. A lot can be done by exhortation too. A second casualty of the reshuffle – perhaps less remarked than Greening’s – has been Jo Johnson, who was demoted to transport minister a day after gamely defending Toby Young’s appointment in the Commons. Some commentators see his move as connected to the Young business (and Young quit the next morning from his board membership at the Office for Students). But in reality it may have had more to do with Johnson’s reluctance to change the student funding model from that which had been introduced by David Willetts, beyond tinkering with interest rates and a very expensive raising of the repayment threshold.
And it is here that there may be more room for movement. The Sutton Trust has published a series of reports in recent months on higher education, with several important policy recommendations. There are three that could make a big difference: much greater use and transparency over contextual admissions; moving the sector towards post-qualification offers; and introducing means testing for fees as well as restoring maintenance grants. Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, should take a fresh look at higher education access and funding, and surely has some licence to do so.
A second area where the new education secretary should focus urgently is on apprenticeships – in addition to implementing the technical skills reforms. The apprenticeship levy – a brave policy for a Conservative government – is in danger of being squandered. As our major pre-Christmas report Better Apprenticeshipsshowed, the quality of too many apprenticeships is poor; too few are taken young people; too many are accrediting existing skills; and progression for young people to apprenticeships that may be of some use is dismal. Done well, apprenticeships should be a route to social mobility for many; as they are now, they will be for too few.
And finally, Damian Hinds should look at what’s happening in the early years. A lot of headlines focus on the closure of Sure Start children’s centres – and that’s worrying – but the bigger issue is the quality of experience for disadvantaged toddlers in early education across all settings. They need the very best, but if the cash is spread too thin – as our recent report showed – the poorer kids will continue to start school at a distinct disadvantage and things will go downhill from there.
Damian Hinds may have had a few reporters searching urgently for his Wikipedia profile. But if he takes the bold steps needed in higher education, apprenticeships and early years, he has a chance not only to make his name; he can also make a big difference to social mobility.