How can education and skills work for the many?

Raj Patel is Impact Fellow and Acting Director of the Understanding Society Policy Unit at the University of Essex. Here he discusses the latest issues facing the education and skills sector, ahead of an education debate to be hosted this week by Understanding Society as part of the Festival of Social Science.


Education transforms lives. So how successful are education and skills policies in the UK and how can they be improved? This question is becoming more complex to understand and answer in an era of mass education and diverse institutions, with patterns of participation, attainment and outcomes highly heterogeneous. Education of course does not exist as an island. Factors such as gender, ethnicity, disability, parental background, family lives, mental health and wellbeing, resources and geography have to be examined forensically to determine what predictive role they play in driving up or dampening attainment and outcomes.

There is also a normative aspect to the question. Parental expectations from education continue to grow partly due to fears that the next generation may experience poorer living standards than themselves. The Recession of 2008 disproportionately impacted on young people – living standards amongst 22 to 30 year olds, as defined by median income, still haven’t rebounded to pre-2008 levels. What lessons can be drawn from the recession, and in the context of wider economic, social and technological change, how can education be more effective at driving social mobility?

Following previous changes in regulation, the vast majority of young people now stay on in the education and skills sector post-16. It is also the case that young people follow very different pathways today than only a couple of decades ago. Going to university has grown dramatically since the 1990s as has the number of apprenticeship places more recently. But contrary to popular perceptions, a majority of young people do not follow the academic track to university after leaving school. The impact of a university education, and more specifically their role in driving social mobility, continues to attract a great deal of attention.

When one looks at cross-country comparison (fraught with some difficulty), or starts to drill down below the national picture different evidence emerges about the state of education and skills. In the context of life chances, social mobility and economic competitiveness, the ‘spread’ of attainment and outcomes matter as much as national averages. The OECD, for example, through its Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures the educational achievement of 15 year olds, finds that compared to the UK backgrounds have less of an impact on performance in some high-performing economies such as Canada, Estonia, Finland and Hong Kong. A powerful study on social mobility in the USA led by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, called the Equality of Opportunity Project, found that where you grow up really matters if you are poor but not as much if you are rich.

Education in the UK is a devolved responsibility

Theresa May, in her first speech as the new Prime Minister, outlined her vision of a country that “works not for the privileged few but that works for every one of us”. Her first act was to pursue schools reform as a driver of social reform in England. Choices after the age of 16 are also widely acknowledged to be in need of radical reform, and The Sainsbury Review, published in July 2016, set out a blueprint for technical education for young people and adults. Likewise in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, said that tackling inequalities in education would be the “defining mission” of her government.

So the scene is set for education to move up the policy and political agenda. But politicians often face a dilemma when it comes to education policy. Meeting rising expectations and lifting the bottom to significantly narrow the gap in educational performance is a difficult task to pull-off at the same time. Education is a long-term game and the real impact of policies may not be apparent for a number of years. Hence evidence and evaluation of the long-term effects of previous policies has to sit at the heart of policy design and what works, as decisions made today could impact on a generation. It would be highly unpopular to tell people they should have chosen their parents better or childhood neighbourhood more carefully.

Untangling the effects of how educational attainment interacts with individual aspirations, family lives and socio-economic background to identifying causal pathways requires the combination of longitudinal survey, rich in individual and household data, and administrative records focused more on institutional settings and performance. Understanding Society, the UK Household Panel Study funded by the ESRC, provides a unique tool for this purpose. This is not only because of its longitudinal panel but its large UK wide sample size, with ethnic minority and immigrant boost samples, and linked administrative data such as the National Pupil Database for England. Indeed, researchers and policy makers could use to it to understand this group that is “just about managing”, now the target of considerable Government interest.

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, Understanding Society is hosting an education debate, Education for all: Looking beyond the classroom, on 10 November 2016 in London. Combined with a panel debate this will present evidence on how wider factors such as selective education, the changing journey from education to work, selective migration and technology are effecting attainment and outcomes. Join us for a panel debate with:

  • Professor Simon Burgess, Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol
  • Leora Cruddas, Director of Policy and Public Relations, Association of School and College Leaders
  • Professor David Gillborn, Director of Centre for Research in Race & Education and Director of Research, School of Education, University of Birmingham
  • Lord James O’Shaughnessy, Chair, Centre for Character and Values, Legatum Institute; Founder, Floreat Education and previous Director of Policy to David Cameron (2010-11).

A full list of Festival events is available on the ESRC website. You can follow the Festival on Twitter using #esrcfestival.

You can also follow Understanding Society on Twitter @usociety

One thought on “How can education and skills work for the many?

  1. Pingback: How can education and skills work for the many | Real Media - The News You Don't See

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