Housing wealth, not bursaries, explains much of private school participation for those without high incomes

This blog post was co-authored with Golo Henseke and was first published on the CEPEO Blog. It has also been published on the LLAKES Blog.

Although less than a tenth of children in Britain attend private schools, who goes matters to all of us. This is because of the considerable labour market advantages that have persistently been associated with attending a private school, including recruitment into the upper echelons of power in British business, politics, administration and media. As a result, in recent work published in Education Economics we looked into who send their children to private schools. In brief, despite all the talk about bursaries, public benefits and attempts at widening participation, who goes to private school remains as closely tied to family income and wealth as it did at the end of the 1990s. This casts doubt on accounts of real progress in opening up the sector to a more diverse student body.

Income concentration of private school participation, 1997–2018.

In the paper we demonstrate quite how concentrated private school attendance is among the highest levels of household income (see image). The proportion of children attending private school is close to zero across the vast majority of the income distribution, and doesn’t rise above 10% of the cohort except among those with the top 5% of incomes. Even the top 1% only send half of their children to private school.

On one level this is unsurprising. Sending your child to a private school costs a lot of money: in 2018 average annual fees were £14,280 for day schools and £33,684 for boarding schools. Not many people have more than £1000 per month available to spend on school fees unless they have some of the highest incomes in the country. But what about those who do attend even though they’re from families with incomes below these levels, even if there are not many of them?

One potential explanation, much flaunted by private schools themselves, are bursaries. Indeed, our analysis found that about 1 in 6 private school pupils received some form of financial support such as bursaries or fee reductions – does that explain our observation and suggest these are doing real work to open up the private school sector to a wider stretch of society? Sadly, not: it’s not the case that all kinds of financial support are targeted at lower income groups (some are academic or music scholarships, for example) and if we focus on those outside the top income decile, a large majority – up to four out of five children – are not receiving grants or bursaries.

Furthermore, among those who received it, average financial support was around £4,900 in 2011–2018. This is little changed from earlier periods that we also analysed and, because of rising fees, paid for a smaller fraction of those fees (35% compared with 57%) than it did in 1997-2003. Taken together, these cast serious doubt on the idea that this is making a big difference to widening participation in private schools – or that it’s playing a growing role in achieving this in recent years.

As such, we set out to explore other sources of potential financing for private school fees that might explain their affordability at lower levels of income: housing wealth and how it has grown in recent decades. We find that a 10% rise in a family’s housing wealth raises private school participation by 0.9 percentage points. This is actually similar to the association we see between family income and private school participation – among those with high levels of income. However, unlike the income link, the role of increased housing growth is evident much further down the income distribution. This suggests that access to wealth, rather than support from bursaries and grants, is playing an important role in helping these families send their children to private schools.

These findings have clear implications for things that need to change. Our findings imply that while existing bursaries offered by private schools do perform a somewhat progressive role, they are far too small and scarce to make much of a real dent in private schools’ exclusivity. Means-tested bursaries would need to expand considerably in reach and scale, and the selection criteria should take into account family wealth, not just income. Private schools need to up their game dramatically in this respect, otherwise calls for externally-imposed reforms to effect real change will only grow louder.


Exams 2021: So what now? Part 2: CEPEO’s response to the DfE/Ofqual consultation on summer assessment 2020/21

This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

Given the widespread disruption to learning this academic year and the substantial risk of continued disruption to schooling into the summer term, the government were right to take the decision to cancel exams in England in their usual form – indeed having done so earlier as many were calling for would have made the implementation of a wider range of alternatives feasible. But now that the government, working with Ofqual, have turned to decide how GCSE and A level grades should be awarded this year, what should they do? In our recent blog we made the case that assessment should be flexible in terms of timing and content, but that it should continue to be externally set and marked, to ensure fairness and rigour.

Unfortunately, the government’s new proposals do not take that message on board and instead take teacher assessment as a given. As a result, their current consultation is framed without allowing for the opportunity to consider this fundamental aspect of the government’s approach. In setting out these plans, Gavin Williamson said that they put their trust in teachers, not algorithms. But this is a false dichotomy, as our proposed approach shows. In addition, as we argued last year, asking teachers to assign grades accurately and fairly is asking them to do a near impossible task – and one that will add considerably to their hugely expanded workloads: fundamentally, trusting teachers can only go so far when it comes to achieving fair and rigorous assessment.

Nevertheless, since the framing gives no alternative, in our response to the consultation, we make suggestions that will minimise the unfairness that this approach will cause. In particular, we highlight that, if teacher assessment must be used, it must take unequal learning loss into account, and it must be subject to a system of external quality assurance.

Dealing with Learning Loss

Assessment is important, not just so that students can continue to the next stage of their education, training or employment, but also to ensure that they continue to engage with schooling for the remainder of the academic year and, hence, minimise the learning loss that will be experienced. We therefore agree that students should be assessed in some manner, and that this should be through papers set by the exam boards and provided to the schools (as is proposed). Both for this reason and wider aims of fairness, it should be compulsory for these to be used by schools as the primary basis of the teacher assessed grades for both GCSEs and A levels. Flexibility in the timing of these assessments will allow this possibility despite the ongoing risks to disruption of schooling.

However, as is widely documented, pupils have had very different experiences of learning this year, so they will be at very different stages when they come to be assessed. For this reason, it is deeply unfair to award pupils grades based solely on the standard they are performing when they are assessed(which is proposed to be at some point between May-June 2021). While it is important to push the assessment date to the latest time period possible (to allow students maximum time to catch up), it is unlikely that students will be able to recover from lost learning, and it is inevitable that students will be at different levels when they are assessed through no fault of their own.

This is fundamentally different from the philosophy that DfE and Ofqual have taken according to the consultation document, which states that students should be assessed at the standard at which they are currently performing. While we agree that it is important that these grades proxy pupils’ potential for that next stage, given the important role they play in the transition to further education and employment, it cannot be fair for pupils whose education has been disrupted the most to be systematically disadvantaged by an approach that ignores this. As such, it is vital that this year’s assessment system take this unequal opportunity to learn into account.

An important aspect of that would be for the papers set by exams boards to have several flexible components. There should be flexibility in the timing, to ensure that all pupils are able to sit them in their educational setting despite the risks of further disruption. The papers themselves should also be flexible, with teachers able to account for differentially disrupted curricula by deciding which topics are covered in the questions that students are asked to answer.

Quality assurance

Given the exam boards will be required to set these exams, the best approach would be also to use their expertise in marking them. As well as being far more rigorous, using the exam boards’ available, paid workforce to do the marking would avoid placing a huge additional burden on teachers’ workloads, as well as avoiding the risks of exposing them to unfair pressure from pupils and parents.

But in the absence of this option, we agree with Ofqual that exam boards should still play an important role in providing assessment guidance and monitoring. We agree with the proposals to involve exam boards in providing support and information to schools and colleges to help them meet the assessment requirements, and to ensure internal quality assurance. Exam boards should also be involved in external quality assurance. At the very least this should include extensive sampling, at subject level, the evidence on which the submitted grades were based. Judging by last year’s experiences, there is good reason to suggest that independent schools should be a particular focus of external quality assurance activity.

We also argue that the exam boards should be responsible for the appeals processes, rather than schools and teachers being involved in reconsidering the marks they have provided. Again, this distance between candidate and assessor is vital to ensure a rigour and fairness in the process that is not susceptible to inappropriate pressure, while also protecting individual teachers and schools from unfair criticism from parents and the media.

Finally, it is crucial that the appeals process take place before universities receive students’ grades. This is critical to avoid the deeply unfair situation of last year, with students apparently missing offers and losing their university place, only to have their grades later overturned.

Making these decisions quickly will provide much needed clarity for schools, pupils and their parents. However, the serious problem of learning loss will remain. Students transitioning to further education or into the labour market will be doing so having received less education than in a normal year. Adjusting grades to take account of this is a necessary short-term solution to avoid embedding unfairness in the transition process, but even more important is a plan to support catch up for all those who have fallen behind, which will be most acute for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will require significant commitment and investment. This needs to be recognised immediately to prevent further delay.

Exams 2021: So what now?

This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

While the uncertainties of a global pandemic make this one of the most volatile periods of education policy in history, if there is one lesson we should all have learned since last March, it is that indecision is costly. This has proven true repeatedly for public health and looks just as relevant for education. As we saw with the exam fiasco of summer 2020, the failure to act decisively led to there being little alternative but to assign students grades based on teachers’ predictions of what they would have achieved. This sub-optimal situation removed any final contribution on the part of the student, and, more importantly, resulted in significant biases across school type and family background. Of course, back in summer 2020, the government had little time for the advance planning that any alternatives (such as ongoing assessment) would have required. But this year, they have no such excuse, and inaction now poses the substantial risk of being left without alternatives again. That is why the government must act now to ensure that we don’t have a repeat performance in summer 2021.

For exams to give all pupils the same chance to succeed, one of the pre-requisites is that they have had the same amount of time to prepare. However, we know that is not the case from looking at patterns in disruption to their studies. While both exam cohorts (year 11 and year 13) missed up to 5 months schooling in the academic year 2019-20, the disruption has continued during this crucial exam year and in much less uniform a manner. Unfortunately, England does not publish data on attendance rates by year group, but we can look more broadly at attendance rates in all state-funded schools by region over the autumn term. The figure below illustrates that while attendance rates started the academic year between 85% and 95%, by mid-November we were seeing rates substantially below this (falling from 88% to 83% on average) driven by widespread – but regionally varying – self-isolation by both individual pupils and education ‘bubbles’. In mid-November, attendance rates were lowest in the North West and Yorkshire. By mid-December, with what we now understand to be the prevalence of the new variant increasing, London, the East, and the South East had all seen stark declines in their attendance rates. In contrast, the South West has remained near the top of attendance rates throughout.

Figure: Weekly attendance in state-funded schools by region, 10th September 2020 – 10th December 2020.
Source: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/attendance-in-education-and-early-years-settings-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak

This disruption seems likely to get worse still. The Christmas holidays were anything but a break for schools and teachers, with an announcement on setting up in-school testing released shortly before the end of term (here) and the long-awaited announcement on returning to school made by DfE on December 30th. Secondary schools across the country have now moved to remote learning this week. While the majority of primary schools remain open, an increasing proportion (upwards of 15%) will not open their doors to pupils for the foreseeable future, either under direct DfE instruction through the schools contingency framework, or acting unilaterally over fears for teachers’ and students’ health. The DfE currently state that the majority of schools will re-open on January 18th, but with spiralling infection rates and stretched hospital capacities in every region, this position looks increasingly untenable. We await the Prime Minister’s announcement this evening, but many suspect that all schools will be closed for the foreseeable future.

In a blog post from November (here), we laid out the evidence that points to exams being the best route forward for school pupils in 2021, but advocating important changes (particularly focused on allowing greater flexibility),  given the uncertainty that was already evident at that point. It is becoming increasingly clear that exams, at least in their usual form, cannot go ahead – this makes the changes that we continue to call for vital and urgent. The current exam plans cannot provide the level playing field that it is claimed they will deliver, given the extent of differential learning experiences of those from different regions and backgrounds in this school year alone. So what now?

A levels and GCSEs

The evidence clearly points to avoiding centre or teacher assessed grades where possible. We, therefore, argue that externally set and marked exams remain the fairest option to all pupils taking terminal exams.

But these do not have to take place in the current format proposed, during a three-week period in June 2021. Instead, there is a strong case for more flexible timing for testing pupils, allowing exams to be spread across the summer term and, crucially, allowing pupils to sit these exams at different times to deal with any continuing need for closures during this period. While this will involve more work for exam boards given the need to provide multiple versions of each exam, this is the fairest way to ensure that pupils do not miss out on external assessments. The fact that it requires more work only underlines the need for swift action.

Further, we must ensure that this year’s exams include flexible content. This would help to reduce the unfairness caused by the fact that different schools will have been able to cover different content through interruptions to in-person schooling. These reformed exams would be more like university finals: pupils could be given a wider set of options and be asked to answer a smaller proportion of these, for example, 2 questions from 6 alternatives covering a wide sweep of the curriculum.

This approach would have substantial similarities with that already announced in Wales – also supporting fairness for university applications between applicants from the two countries – and would ensure that pupils can still be awarded grades that they have earned while providing robust information on achievement for universities and future employers. Scotland, on the other hand, has cancelled their exams altogether – with National 5s (the GCSE equivalent) cancelled several months ago, and Highers (the A level equivalent) cancelled just before Christmas. Scotland will instead base awards on teacher judgement, and while this is not an optimal situation, announcing this well in advance gives schools and teachers ample time for ongoing assessment and observation.

Primary school testing

While Key Stage 1 tests have been suspended for 2021, current plans are for Key Stage 2 tests to go ahead, although the school-level results will not be published. Given that these tests are primarily used as indicators of school performance, which is going to be measured with substantial error this year, there are serious questions about their value to bodies such as Ofsted with whom they are still proposed to be shared for accountability purposes. As such, there is a strong case for abandoning these tests altogether given the current circumstances. This would significantly reduce the burden on primary school teachers, who are working under very difficult conditions, and would remove the stress on pupils and parents associated with preparing for these tests under such difficult circumstances.

Action this day

The longer it takes for these steps to be taken, the harder it will be for them to be implemented, until the point where they are no longer feasible. At that point, there is a major risk of a repeat of last year’s fiasco – but without the excuse of not having had time to prepare a better alternative. We’ve seen yet another example today of the decision making process in Whitehall lagging behind that of Holyrood. In the words of the Scottish national anthem, it’s time for the Prime Minister “tae think again.”

How should we assess students this year, and what are the implications for universities?

This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

In summer 2020, to much controversy, the UK government cancelled both GCSE and A level exams and replaced them with “Centre Assessed Grades” based on teacher predictions. While Scotland has cancelled some exams in 2021, and Wales appear to have arranged for something akin to exams to take place in a classroom setting, the English Government remains adamant that their exams will go ahead as planned. This strategy is not without its problems, but with some important adjustments, it’s still the best and fairest way to assess pupils.

Primary and secondary schools closed their doors in late March 2020 and only fully re-opened 6 months later in September. Schooling has continued to be disrupted for many, when classes or other ‘bubbles’ have to self-isolate due to suspected COVID outbreaks, meaning that learning has to move online. This situation is likely to result in further unequal “learning loss” as a result of inequalities in-home learning environments, including technology to reliably access lessons online.

Recent work by Ofsted reported widespread learning loss as a result of these closures, with younger pupils returning to school having forgotten basic skills, and older children losing reading ability. But the loss is not evenly distributed; Ofsted reported that children with good support structures were doing better than those whose parents were unable to work flexibly. Several analyses (e.g. Andrew et al, 2020; Anders et al, 2020) back this up, reporting that pupils from better-off families spent more time on home learning, and were much more likely to have benefitted from online classes than those from poorer backgrounds. Work by the Sutton Trust found that children in households’ earnings more than £60,000 per year were twice as likely to be receiving tutoring during school closures compared to those earnings less than £30,000. While steps have been put in place to help pupils catch up, such as the pupil catch-up premium and the National Tutoring Programme, pupils this year will almost certainly be at a disadvantage compared to previous cohorts when they face this year’s exams, and the severity of disadvantage is likely to vary by family background.

While this might be evidence enough that exams should be cancelled this year, it is worth first considering that the alternatives:

  1. Continuous teacher assessment

Perhaps the most obvious alternative to exams is continuous teacher assessment, through the use of coursework, in-class testing and so on. This would negate the need for exams and would mean all students would receive a grade in the event that exams have to be cancelled due to a resurgence in the pandemic. Scotland has already committed to using teacher assessment instead of exams for their National 5s (equivalent to GCSEs) this year. While this does seem like a safe choice to replace exams, research has shown that teacher assessment can contain biases. For example, Burgess and Greaves (2013) compared teacher assessment versus exam performance at Key Stage 2, finding evidence of black and minority students being under-assessed by teachers, versus white students. Campbell (2015) similarly shows that teacher’s ratings of pupils’ reading and maths attainment at age 7 varies according to income, gender, Special Education Need, and ethnicity.

Using coursework to assess pupils (whether internally or externally marked and/or moderated) also risks interference from parents and schoolteachers, so that a pupil’s eventual grade could be more a reflection of the support they’ve received rather than their own achievements. And levels of support are likely to vary by SES, again putting those from poorer backgrounds at a disadvantage.

2. Teachers’ predictions

But sticking with exams is not without its risks. It is, after all, a pandemic, and the government could be forced to cancel exams at the last minute. If they leave it too late to implement continuous teacher assessment or an alternative form of external assessment then they will have to turn to more reactive measures – such as asking teachers to predict pupils’ grades (the method finally adopted for the 2020 GCSE and A level cohorts). This would at least have the advantage of being consistent with last year, but, again would likely result in biased measures of achievement. Predicted grades have been shown to be inaccurate, with the vast majority overpredicted (causing headaches for university admissions). However, work by Anders et al. (2020) and Murphy and Wyness (2020) showed that among high achieving pupils, those from low SES backgrounds and state schools are harder to predict and end up with lower predictions than their more advantaged counterparts.

3. A school leaving certificate?

There are more radical possibilities to consider. One is for schools to abandon assessment this year altogether, and to simply issue students with school leaving certificates, similar to that received in America for graduating high school. This would certainly level the playing field among school leavers. But it could lead to some big problems for what comes next. For example, without A level grades, how would universities decide which applicants to accept?  Under this scenario, admissions tutors would become increasingly reliant on ‘soft metrics’ such as personal statements, teacher references and interviews. This may also lead to the more widespread use of university entry tests, which are already in place at some institutions.  All of this is likely to be bad news for social mobility since the use of “soft metrics” has been shown to induce bias (Wyness, 2017; Jones, 2016) while there is very little evidence about the equity implications of using aptitude tests, except in highly specific settings (Anders, 2014) so the potential for unintended consequences is substantial.

But in theory, universities shouldn’t need to use entry tests – these pupils already have grades in national tests – their GCSEs. For this university entry cohort, they were sat before the pandemic, and are high-stakes, externally marked assessments. Indeed, Kirkup et al. (2010) find no evidence that the SAT (the most widely used aptitude test in the US) provides any additional evidence on performance once at university than using GCSE results on their own. Many universities already use GCSE grades as part of their admissions decision along with predicted A level grades. Yet these grades were measured two years ago now – and so will obviously miss any changes in performance since then. Indeed, recent work by Anders et al. (2020) suggests that GCSE performance is a poor predictor of where students are at, in terms of achievement, at the end of their A levels. Using administrative data and machine learning techniques, they predict A level performance using GCSEs, finding that only 1 in 3 pupils could be accurately predicted, and that certain groups of students (those from state schools and low SES backgrounds) appeared to be “underpredicted” by their GCSEs, going on to outperform at A level.

An alternative approach to exams?

The alternatives to exams raise many concerns, particularly for those from poor backgrounds. A better solution may be to design A level exams to take account of the learning loss and missed curricula experienced by pupils, and the fact that some pupils will have experienced this to different degrees. Ofqual was dismissive of this suggestion in their report on examinations for 2020/21, pointing to burden on exam boards among other factors, but while we take seriously the considerations they highlight, we think this underestimates the challenges of the status quo.

For all the headlines about Wales “cancelling” exams, from a first look, it appears that this is rather a simplistic summary. They are still planning to hold some kind of examination, which will be both externally set and externally marked, but when these will take place is now more flexible, and they will happen in class rather than in exam halls – ironically, removing the in-built social distancing normally associated with examinations. This kind of flexibility is needed in these difficult circumstances.

An alternative that has also been discussed in England is that exams could be redesigned so that the majority of questions are optional. In this way, they would look more like university finals, in which students are typically given a set of questions, and need only answer a subset of their choice – e.g. answer 2/7 questions. This would take account of the fact that pupils may have covered different aspects of the curricula but not all of it, since they need only answer the questions they are prepared for. While appreciating there are challenges with this approach, a carefully designed exam would at least provide pupils with a grade they have earned and would provide universities and employers with the information needed to assess applicants.

Universities should also be aware that students from different backgrounds will have experienced lockdown in very different ways, and those lacking school and parental support may still struggle to do well, even in well-modified exams. This could and should be tackled with the increased use of contextual admissions. Universities often cite fears that students from contextual backgrounds are more likely to arrive underprepared for university and risk failing their courses. But this year, lack of preparation for university may well be the norm, forcing universities to provide extra tuition and other assistance to help students get “up to speed”. There has never been more need, and more opportunity, for widespread contextual admissions.

Covid-19: The risk of a double hit to young people’s wellbeing

This blog post was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

The negative effects of the covid-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions on people’s wellbeing, especially young people’s wellbeing, have been widely highlighted since the onset of lockdowns in March. Unfortunately, there are reasons to believe that even when the direct effects of the pandemic come to an end, there is a continuing risk to young people’s wellbeing from the more long-lived effects of the associated economic downturn that is only just starting.

In a recent research study that John Jerrim, Phil Parker and I carried out, we explored the impact of the last recession (the 2008-09 global financial crisis) on the wellbeing of young people in the Australian context. Our research used data from four different cohorts of their Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), for young people born in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1990.

Because young people’s wellbeing varies as they age, it’s not as simple as comparing the same cohort of young people’s wellbeing before and after the onset of an economic downturn. The difference that we observe might just be caused by those changes as young people get older. To address this issue, we attempted to isolate the effect of this event by comparing trends in reported wellbeing among overlapping cohorts of young people before, during and after this period. Since young people in these different cohorts experienced this event at different ages, we are able to verify that their wellbeing initially evolved in a similar manner, before comparing what happened as the economic challenge hit.

The basic idea of our results is evident from the following graph – although we also applied further statistical modelling to check the robustness of our findings in the paper.

You can follow the average reported level of each cohort’s wellbeing as separate lines reporting annually from when members of the cohort are 17, up to when they are 26. All the lines start out as solid lines – which indicates measures collected before the onset of the economic downturn – before becoming dashed lines after this event.

Because the cohorts were born in different years, the onset of the global financial crisis (and, hence, the change from solid to dashed line in our graph) happens at different ages. Only the cohorts born in 1987 and 1990 experience the onset of the global financial crisis between ages 17 and 26, so only these two lines change to being dashed. The cohorts born in 1981 and 1984 retain a solid line throughout.

The graph suggests that the cohorts born in 1987 and 1990 had similar (or slightly higher) levels of wellbeing as the older cohorts at younger ages. However, a substantial gap emerges between the wellbeing of the earlier and later cohorts, starting at age 19 for the 1990 cohort and age 22 for the 1987 cohort. This indicates that a negative impact on wellbeing was caused by the onset of the global financial crisis.

What are the lessons of this for the current situation? Unfortunately, it suggests that even if negative effects on young people’s wellbeing dissipate when restrictions are eased, the longer-term effects on well-being of the onset of the economic downturn are likely either to prolong these or add to them further. This further increases the importance of policymakers doing all they can to alleviate the negative effects of the pandemic on the economy, and in particular on the challenges that young people now seem likely to face in taking their first steps into the labour market.

The full article on which this blog post is based is freely available online: Parker, P., Jerrim, J., & Anders, J. (2016) What effect did the Global Financial Crisis have upon youth wellbeing? Evidence from four Australian cohorts. Developmental Psychology, 52 (4), 640-651.

What has the effect of Covid-19 had on Early Years providers and what should the government do about it?

This blog post was co-authored with Laura Outhwaite and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

It is estimated that 2.1 million children under the age of 5 access Early Years care. These early years of a child’s life are fundamental to their development, learning, and later life outcomes. Children who receive high-quality early education and care, and have a good level of development by age 5 years, go on to achieve good levels of academic achievement at age 7 and beyond. As such, high-quality early years provision is vital to addressing educational inequalities and has benefits for wider society and the economy. For every £1 invested in quality early education and care, £13 in future costs is saved for UK taxpayers.

In England, early education and care is provided by multiple stakeholders including group-based providers (66%), school-based nurseries (20%), and childminders (14%). Despite the range of benefits to the child and society, research shows Early Years workers are widely underpaid and undervalued: research carried out by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) before the Covid-19 pandemic found that the mean average hourly salary ranged from £8.30 in group-based provision to £15.10 for reception staff. However, 10% of staff in group-based providers received pay below the National Living Wage of £7.20 for workers aged 25 and over, which was made mandatory in 2016. In 2018, 44% of childcare workers claimed additional state benefits or tax credits to support themselves and their families.

The pandemic has only exacerbated such issues. While the government furlough scheme has protected jobs in this sector, the 80% salary coverage for those on already low pages has meant that many Early Years workers may find themselves with insufficient income to make ends meet. A recent analysis by EPI highlights that this has meant that the retention of workers within this sector is drastically falling, with many workers turning to other industries, such as retail, to provide financial stability.

But the current situation has also hit the Early Years sector from a business perspective. Before Covid-19, the Early Years sector was already experiencing issues of increased funding pressures, which were filtering down to increased costs for parents. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic: research by the Sutton Trust shows two thirds of Early Years providers were closed during the lockdown, with low-income areas of the country hit hardest, and ongoing capacity constraints are likely to mean that some no longer see a path to fiscal sustainability and will remain closed for good.

Given how important high-quality early years provision is, as both a vital part of supporting children’s early development and to support their parents’ ability to return to work, it is striking that plans to support the Early Years sector are largely absent from the government’s Covid-19 catch-up funding for schools. The Sutton Trust has set out what a similar package for the Early Years sector could look like; recommending an £88million package, including transition funding to see practitioners through these especially challenging months, and the introduction of an Early Years Pupil Premium available to providers serving children from low-income families.

The government’s response to both new and ongoing challenges faced in the Early Years sector has been widely criticised both before and during Covid-19. In particular, the Social Mobility Commission highlighted in their report earlier this year that the government has made little to no action on developing and delivering ‘a coherent and long-term early years strategy focused on improving outcomes for the least advantaged, since 2013’. It is vital for children, parents, the economy, and our society that immediate and lasting actions are taken to address this. The longer the sector does not receive such support, the harder it will be for it to recover, and the more children will go without the important developmental support that we know high-quality early years provision can bring.

The Coming Storm: The Long-Term Harm that Unemployment Causes

This blog post was co-authored with Profs. Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

In our last blog, we highlighted those who are most likely to be affected by the COVID-19 recession – young people, those from disadvantaged areas and backgrounds, and ethnic minorities, to name a few. Unemployment clearly has immediate effects on the financial situation of individuals and their households, as well as on people’s mental and physical health, while they are out of work. However, bad at this is, unemployment has effects that persist even when people get a new job. In this blog post, we discuss the long-term harm that spells, especially long ones, out of work cause. This emphasises the need for policymakers to take action to mitigate such eventualities, which we will address in the following post.


A range of studies from around the world have tried to quantify the impact of experiencing spells of unemployment on later outcomes. These have primarily focused on wages and further unemployment, years later, but also non-financial outcomes such as mental health and wellbeing. These legacy effects of unemployment are called ‘scarring’ and may result from either a depreciation in skills and wider human capital, or because employers use previous labour market experience as a productivity signal, although this latter signalling effect may be less marked where it is evidently due to well-known and widespread event such as COVID-19. Understanding this relationship is important in the current climate because it implies there are likely to be significant costs associated with unemployment caused by external shocks, such as the COVID-19 recession.

For employment: Research finds that “men who experience an extra three months unemployed before age 23 go onto experience another extra two months out of work (inactive or unemployed) between ages 28 and 33”. Using variation from local labour market conditions, this is shown to be a causal effect of early labour market unemployment experiences.

For wages: Evidence shows young people experiencing spells of unemployment earn about 6% less than we would otherwise have expected when they do manage to return to work, and around 14% less three years later. Other research from Britain documents similar findings and note that those who manage to go on to have sustained employment are able to reverse this wage penalty. Further work has highlighted the wage decline after job loss for men of all ages is around 10% plus just under an additional 1% for every month spent out of work. The initial impact is regained over the next three years but the duration penalties are not recouped. Longer periods of unemployment really do sustained damage.

The picture here then is that lower job stability and lower wages are connected and both result from unemployment exposure, especially if it is early in the career.

Unequal effects of leaving education during a recession

Much research has also directly considered the effects of leaving school/college during recessions. In the US, research finds that college graduates leaving education into a labour market with a 1%pt. higher unemployment rate earn 7% lower wages: this negative effect declines over the coming years but remains at 2.5% fifteen years after graduation. More recent work finds similar effects from school leaving/graduating in the 2008-09 recession in the UK, noting greater effects for those with less education. It has also been shown that men leaving full-time education into a labour market with “a one-point higher unemployment rate reduc[es] the probability [of being in a job in the next year] by almost 2 percentage points”; results for women are rather more mixed, but are substantially less negative.

By contrast, for those leaving school before college, there are persistent reductions (lasting at least 10 years) in earnings, employment and wages from entering the labour market during a recession, and these are substantially larger for the less advantaged. Recessions make it more likely for workers to begin their careers at lower-paying employers, and a key way that some manage to catch-up over subsequent years with peers who graduated during more prosperous times is by moving jobs to higher-paying firms. However, advantaged college graduates are much better placed to make such moves while less advantaged graduates catch up at a far slower rate, if at all.

Looking beyond wages and employment, work finds that spells out of work for youths have harmful impacts across a range of outcomes, including happiness, health, and job satisfaction, years later. The timing of the unemployment appears to be crucial, however, as spells of unemployment after age 23 have little bearing on later well-being. This emphasises the importance of considering differential effects of the COVID-19 shock on different generations. These findings appear consistently in varied contexts, too, with similar findings of long-lasting effects of unemployment on well-being in the German context and across the early 1990s, the early 2000s and the ‘Great Recession’ period.

There is a smaller related literature on the intergenerational impact of parents’ unemployment experiences on their children’s education and labour market outcomes, suggesting that any economic scarring effects from COVID-19 will have long-term implications beyond the current generation. Evidence from Norway, US, Britain, and Spain all finds negative impacts of father’s job loss on children’s educational outcomes. There’s also evidence that adult children whose fathers were displaced due to firm closures experience wages that were 9% lower than those whose fathers did not experience an employment shock.

Research from Britain and across Europe shows that the impact of high unemployment is particularly pronounced for those from deprived families with low levels of education: disadvantaged young people end up at the back of the queue for jobs when work becomes scarce. Scarring effects on employment and earnings are also shown to be worse for ethnic minorities.

The evidence is clear that unemployment hurts people who experience it, particularly school leavers who feel the effects for years after recessions are over and people have returned to work, in terms of future wages, job stability and health, and even for their children. The evidence is also clear that it is long periods of high unemployment that do the lasting damage. So the policy response needs to be both about job creation, and targeted help for those who experience the bulk of the duration of unemployment. We’ll highlight options in our next blog.

Home schooling during lockdown: Inequalities in inputs and perceptions

This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan, Patrick Sturgis and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

The past few weeks have been challenging for parents across the country working hard to support their children to continue to learn during the COVID–19 lockdown. One of the reasons for the big push to get kids back to school is the concern over inequalities driven by differences in home learning. Using new data from a high-quality random sample collected using the Kantar Public Voice Survey, we examine the extent of inequalities in home schooling during lockdown from the end of April to the beginning of June. We find stark differences in the time spent home schooling but also in the perceptions of parents, in terms of their ability to adequately support their children’s learning, and in how the burden of home schooling is divided between mothers and fathers.

Differences in days spent home schooling

While very similar proportions (around 75%) of graduate and non-graduate parents report doing any home schooling, graduate parents report home schooling their children on more days compared to non-graduate parents. While almost 80% of graduate parents are home schooling their children at least 4 days a week, only 60% of non-graduates are home schooling this often. This is consistent with other surveys covering the same period that have found inequalities in the amount of time spent home schooling by parental income.

Differences in perception of ability to home school

These differences in time spent home schooling could be driven, in part, by graduate parents having greater confidence in their abilities to home school their children. In our survey, graduates were more likely (70%) to agree with the statement ‘I am confident in my household’s abilities to home school my child’ compared to non-graduates (60%). Similarly, graduate parents report more confidence that their child’s learning is continuing. This confidence gap in ability to home school is concerning, as studies show that children who have parents with anxiety about maths tend to perform worse in maths.

Differences in perceptions of interfering with their job

These differences in time spent home schooling seem to have a consequential effect on whether parents’ feel able to do their jobs. Graduates are substantially more likely to agree that home schooling is interfering with their job, a difference this is particularly pronounced for mothers, with nearly 80% of graduate mothers agreeing that home schooling had interfered with their ability to do their job, compared to 67% of graduate fathers, and 50% of non-graduates.

Differences in perception of who is doing the most home schooling

This inequality between mothers and fathers can also be seen when we consider who is doing the most to support their child with schoolwork during lockdown. Around half (49%) of fathers say that their partner does most of the home schooling, with the other half split between those who say that they take on the lion’s share (16%), and those reporting that this responsibility is split equally (33%). This contrasts with mothers, with almost two-thirds (63%) saying they devote most time on this task, with only one fifth (21%) reporting an equal split, and just 13% saying that their partners are doing the majority of home-schooling. These patterns are, again, particularly pronounced for graduate mothers. Similar differences in perceptions between mothers and fathers have also been found in the US, where 45% of fathers said they did most of the home schooling – but just 3% of mothers reported that their partner was making the largest contribution.

Support for children and working mothers

Taken together this new evidence from a high-quality random sample of parents suggests that inequalities arising from home schooling during lockdown will exacerbate existing inequalities in education. We know that children of graduate parents already have higher levels of cognitive and socio-emotional skills on school entry. These inequalities are only likely to widen if children from less advantaged backgrounds are spending less time on home-schooling during lockdown. Non-graduate parents are also less confident in their ability to home school their children and this may be detrimental to the quality of the support they are able to provide.

Our survey also reveals gender disparities in the impact of home schooling, with graduate mothers particularly likely to report that home schooling is interfering with their jobs. But parents perceptions do not align on who is sharing the greater burden; while half of fathers say they are doing at least an equal share, a clear majority of mothers think that this level of paternal input is exaggerated.

Catch up strategies when schools re-open should be mindful that returning children will have been exposed to different levels of home schooling. Similarly, employers should be mindful that the burden of home schooling during lockdown is more likely to have affected mothers compared to other employees, and factor this into future pay reviews and promotions.

Who goes to private school? Looking beyond the money.

This blog post first appeared on the CEPEO blog. Similar content is available as a CEPEO podcast episode.

While those in private schools make up a fairly small proportion of children attending school in England (although higher than many realise: it is estimated that almost one in ten children attend a private school at some point during their educational careers), it is important to understand who does so. Unlike in many countries, private school attendance in Britain is associated with substantial advantages later in life. Many important and influential fields (such as politics, judges and journalists) are dominated by those who went to private schools when they were children.

It is well known, and unsurprising given the costs associated with attending, that there is a link between family income and attending a private school. However, it is not just the case that all those who can afford it send their children to private schools and those who cannot do not: even among families with high levels of income it is far from the case that all children actually attend a private school. If they are not constrained by finance, what explains why some of these families choose to send their children to a private school and some do not?

Some earlier studies have interviewed parents to ask about their motivations in choosing a school. However, we know that parents might not always be completely honest with a stranger about–or even be fully aware of–the underlying reasons for the decisions they make about personal decisions of this type. Our approach is quite different to such interviews, in that we use quantitative data to compare the characteristics of those whose children attend private schools with those whose children do not. We then try to draw inferences based on such patterns, avoiding the need to ask parents to think hypothetically about what they would have done in different circumstances, and instead basing our findings on their observed behaviour.

Using this approach, we shed new light on two seemingly important factors in explaining parents’ decisions to choose private schooling for their children. Our work was carried out using data from the Millennium Cohort Study: a large-scale research study that has followed a group of children who were born in the year 2000 and their families. The sample is designed to be representative of families across the UK, although in this work we focus specifically on those in England because of the differences in education systems between England and other countries in the UK. Every few years participating families are asked questions about their child’s development, their educational progress, and family life more generally. The data from this study allows us to paint a rich picture of families’ circumstances and finding out about the decisions they have made, meaning we can look at the links between these among those taking part.

First, the role of parents’ personal beliefs and values. To attempt to measure these, we analysed the responses parents gave to a set of statements about their views on family life when their child was one year old. One of the measurable values that emerged from this analysis we refer to as “traditional” values; two examples of the particular statements relevant to capturing these factors are ‘Couples who have children should not separate’ and ‘It is alright for people to have children without being married’. We found that, even when we compare families with similar levels of income, parents with higher levels of these “traditional” values were more likely to send their children to private school. We find this particularly explaining the variation in private school attendance among families with high levels of income, with this finding similar in spirit to earlier work by Stephen Ball whose interviews with parents identified that, for some people, “private schooling is a possible but unacceptable choice”.

Second, we explored the relevance of where families live on the educational choices they make for their children. Specifically, we calculate how close families live to the nearest state schools we think some parents might be more likely to see as substitutes for private schools. By doing so, we are able to observe that families who live closer to academically selective grammar schools, or who live closer to schools judged ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted, are less likely to send their children to private schools. While some of this difference could be caused by families deliberately moving, in order to live close to such schools (often in areas with higher housing costs), this link persists among those with similar levels of family income and other key characteristics, suggesting the patterns we see aren’t only about differences in house prices near to such schools, for example.

Overall, we provide new evidence about some of the reasons–beyond the basic finances–that parents make decisions about private schooling. Among parents with low levels of “traditional” values it is much less likely that they will choose private schooling for their children, no matter how much income they have. Adding to this, some parents who would otherwise choose private education are happy to send their children to a state school if they live close to one with certain characteristics, such as a high Ofsted rating. Findings such as these should make us mindful of the complexities of decisions parents make about private schooling and the implications these have for the composition of pupils in both state and private sectors.

GCSE and A-level results: it’s not just the grades that matter

This blog post was co-authored with Catherine Dilnot and was commissioned and first published by The Conversation UK. It also appears on the UCL Institute of Education Blog.The Conversation

A-level results will soon be out, with more than 300,000 students eagerly waiting to find out if they’ve made the grade. Then come GCSE results, with even more students keen to find out how they’ve done.

Whether students are heading to university, into an apprenticeship or straight into employment, chances are they will all be wishing and hoping and dreaming and praying of a set of grades that will reflect their level of academic accomplishment.

For would-be university applicants, there is often a requirement that students take a particular set of subjects at A-level – and achieve a certain grade – to be in with a chance of getting a place on a degree course. To study medicine, for example it’s often required that an applicant has taken chemistry and biology at A-level.

In this way, the subjects a student chooses to study at school can have long term consequences. In England, young people start making decisions on subject choice at the age of 14 when they pick GCSE options. For many pupils this may seem far too early to be thinking about what they want to do with the rest of their life. So given the fact that many students may not have decided what career path they want to take, are there subjects that are “better” to study than others?

The current advice

The Russell Group – which is made up of 24 leading UK universities – publishes an annual guide to A-level subject choice for 16-year-olds known as “informed choices”. This suggests A-levels in science, maths, languages, history and geography are good choices for students to take if they want to keep their options open.

This is also in part why the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – which aims to give students a wide background in a variety of subjects at GCSE level – was introduced in 2010. According to the schools minister, Nick Gibb, it includes subjects the Russell Group identifies as “key for university study”. To count towards the EBacc, a pupil must achieve GCSE grade C or above in English, maths, history or geography, two sciences and a language.

With this in mind, our research set out to understand the implications of subject choice and if these choices then play a part in whether students go to university – and where they end up studying.

We looked at the subjects chosen by young people at the age of 14 and 16 and found that pupils who study the full set of EBacc subjects are slightly more likely to go to university than those who don’t.

Our research also revealed that studying certain A-level subjects often leads to a place at a better ranked university. So a student who studies some combination of science, maths, languages, history and geography is more likely to attend a higher ranked university, than a student who chooses A-levels outside of these subjects.

Vocational vs traditional

Our research also revealed that studying more vocational subjects at both GCSE and A-level may be less helpful in terms of getting into a higher ranked university. We found that those who studied applied GCSE subjects (which are more vocational) were less likely to attend university.

These vocational style GCSEs were introduced in 2002 and include subjects such as applied business and applied home economics. But their introduction has since been criticised, as many of the qualifications have been downgraded in performance tables.

There was found to be a similar picture at A-level. Students who studied the more vocational study subjects – such as accounting or business – were more likely to go to a lower ranked university.

The most striking results were in law. Consistent with anecdotal evidence that higher ranking universities “don’t like” law A-level, our research shows that studying law at A-level is associated with attending a lower ranked university. So although a 16-year-old who aspires to have a career in law, accounting or business might think that an A-level directly related to the profession would help them take their chosen path, this may not actually be the case. But whether this is because law A-level is perceived by universities to be an easier A-level, or because those with law A-level are applying to lower ranked universities is unclear.

Either way, what all this shows is that while the subjects young people study in school are important for next steps in education, there are some subjects that can be more important than others in helping to further horizons.

Although that said, it’s important to emphasise that the differences are not large. Ultimately, it’s far more important to perform well in whatever subject studied. But still, when it comes to students deciding what subjects to choose at A-level or GCSE, it might be worth them trying to keep their options open, where possible.

The findings discussed in this post draw on work published in UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Papers by Jake Anders, Morag Henderson, Vanessa Moulton, Alice Sullivan and Catherine Dilnot. CLS Working Papers 2016/6, 2017/7, 2017/8, 2017/9, 2017/10, 2017/11.

Education, economics, evaluation, etc.

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