The geography of social mobility

Yesterday’s DfE report Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential: a plan for improving social mobility through education put a strong emphasis on ‘place’, recognising that how young people ‘get on’ in life cannot easily be separated from the areas in which they grow up. I’ve blogged before, here and here, on the strong links between young people’s outcomes and the neighbourhoods they grow up in. Here, we’ve conducted new analysis on fresh data from UCAS to move the debate further.

‘Place’ and social mobility
Justine Greening promised that this week’s new social mobility strategy would be responsive to the context of local communities, and this is welcome. But aspects of ‘place’ – such as young people often being fiercely attached to their neighbourhood – make simplistic narratives of ‘social mobility’, and their expectation that young people can easily uproot themselves to capitalise on opportunities, quite problematic. I’ve argued so before here.

Even so, if ‘place’ is to be at the heart of our new social mobility strategy, we can do worse than try to develop a nuanced understanding of the types of places where young people’s outcomes fall short of their peers. This week UCAS released data from its 2017 End of Cycle Report which shows the entry rate to higher education (HE) of 18 year olds by parliamentary constituency. Constituencies cover mid-sized areas (compared to the small units of the POLAR classification and larger units like regions), and this makes them a handy geography for picking out geographical ‘hot spots’ and ‘cold spots’ in young people’s outcomes. As we’ve argued elsewhere, constituency-level data are also a useful tool when trying to mobilise political will behind a policy problem.

What do the data show?
Looking across all constituencies, there is a wide spread of HE entry rates, from the lowest (Glasgow North East, 19%) to the highest (Wimbledon, 81%). The largest increases in entry rates over the last decade appear to be in core metropolitan areas like Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. In the capital, East London appears to have experienced the largest increase in entry rates.

Full map here

Beyond picking out the entry rates in individual constituencies, one way of looking for broader patterns is to categorise constituencies into ‘types’. When we do this based on the urban/rural mix in each constituency, we see that a particular set of constituencies (classified as ‘urban with minor conurbations’) have the lowest entry rate, on average – 35% compared to 42% across all constituencies.

If we give these ‘low participation’ constituencies a black border we can see they lie in a tightly focused cluster between Derby and Nottingham, and between Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster.

Full map here

These aren’t necessarily the individual constituencies with the lowest entry rates – they’re shown in red on the map, with notable clusters of low participation in the Thames Estuary, East Anglia, the South Wales Valleys and the Central Belt of Scotland. However, as far as there are types of constituency that seem to send relatively few young people on to higher education, there appears to be a distinct cluster of former mining areas in the centre of England.

Why might these areas be significant?
Young people growing up in inner-urban areas of large cities tend to face the highest levels of deprivation. However, inner-urban areas also give young people access to a range of amenities, host a wide mix of people and jobs, and have historically tended to receive the most policy focus – from regeneration programmes to teacher recruitment schemes. It appears that young people might face particular challenges growing up in smaller urban areas: the outskirts of cities, smaller towns, or the places where one conurbation ends and another begins. It might therefore be worth policy makers, Widening Participation initiatives and, perhaps, social mobility strategies, focusing more on these types of area in the future.

I originally wrote this blog post for LKMco.

The underrepresentation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in higher education

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children and young people face significant barriers throughout their education, which results in them being severely underrepresented in HE. Perhaps because there is still an urgent need to address the issues faced by these groups in primary and secondary education, there is limited existing research on Gypsies’, Roma and Travellers’ progression to university. However, to achieve educational equality for these groups they must be given the same choice and opportunity as their peers from other backgrounds. The first step towards increasing equality in HE is to investigate how issues in compulsory education impact on progression to HE to understand and address specific barriers which reduce GRT pupils’ participation in HE.

This report, commissioned by King’s College London, and co-authored with my LKMco colleagues Ellie Mulcahy, Loic Menzies and Kate Bowen-Viner, presents a summary of the current landscape and a review of the barriers to HE faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. We draw on existing literature and our own research with academics, practitioners, members of the GRT communities and pupils to explore:

  • The definition of ‘Gypsy, Roma and Traveller’ and the various sub-groups described by this collective term
  • How these groups are distributed in the national and pupil population
  • Their current progress and attainment throughout primary and secondary education
  • The degree to which they are underrepresented in HE
  • The challenges and barriers they face in compulsory education which may impact on their participation in HE
  • The specific barriers they face in entering HE.

Throughout the report, we point towards potential responses to the challenges and make recommendations for schools, HEIs and for further research.

We launched the report at the 2017 Brilliant Club Annual Conference, and we received coverage on BBC Breakfast and in The Times and Schools Week.

The full report and research brief are available from the LKMco website.

White working class boys in the neoliberal meritocracy: the pitfalls of the ‘aspiration-raising’ agenda

I’ve just had a book chapter published as part of a collection on Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education, edited by Garth Stahl, Joseph Nelson and Derron Wallace. The chapter is about white working class boys in the neoliberal meritocracy, and the pitfalls of the ‘aspiration-raising’ agenda. It’s available here on Google Books. Here’s a summary of my argument:

The great meritocracy
When she became British prime Minister in July 2016, the core narrative of Teresa May’s premiership was quick to emerge: “I want Britain to be the world’s great meritocracy – a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.” According to this notion of meritocracy, a just and fair society is one in which people’s outcomes are governed by two things: their skills, and the effort they are willing to exert.

‘Raising aspirations’
Young people’s aspirations (their desires for the future) play a key role in this view of society: if meritocracy requires people to work hard and use their talents, then it also requires that they are motivated to do so. Without ‘high aspirations’ there is no motivation to strive. For this reason, successive governments in the UK have focused on ‘raising’ young people’s aspirations, and this approach is key to oiling the wheels of the great meritocracy.

Neoliberal foundations
The policy focus on ‘raising aspirations’, and the underlying meritocratic ideal that outcomes are governed by hard work and ability, both have their roots in neoliberal thinking. As an ideology, neoliberalism demands that young people take responsibility for their life outcomes, they exercise free choice in governing those outcomes, and are willing to move freely in order to find the best use for their talents. However, despite their ideological unity there are fundamental tensions between each of these tenets of neoliberal meritocracy and the ‘raising aspirations’ agenda it has given rise to. These tensions are thrown into stark relief when we consider the experiences of white working class boys – a group singled out by Prime Minister May as demanding particular policy attention. My fieldwork with a group of white working class boys in an outer-urban estate in Manchester aimed to directly explore these tensions.

Mobility vs. identity
Firstly, the imperative to ‘raise aspirations’ often involves overriding young people’s place-based identities. For most young people, attending university and engaging with high-status professional, managerial and technical occupations requires some form of movement away from spatial, social, and cultural familiarities such as family, friends and neighbourhood. However, white working class boys often voice a strong attachment to their locality. Despite this, the neoliberal imperative to be ‘footloose’ is strongest for those in the most deprived contexts: young people attending school in areas with few highly skilled jobs and no nearby university face the greatest pressure to transcend their place-based identities in order to “get out” and “get on”.

‘High aspirations’ vs. individual choice
Secondly, a narrow definition of ‘high aspirations’ undermines the sanctity of individual choice. The neoliberal meritocracy holds that young people should be free to decide where they want their talents and hard work to take them. However, in reality the aspiration-raising agenda is highly prescriptive, with “high” aspirations defined narrowly in terms of pursuing higher education or high status professional occupations. This delegitimises aspirations that young people might have for local work, or to enter employment as soon as possible after completing compulsory education – a common thread linking the white working class boys that participated in my research.

‘Success for all’ vs. opportunities for the few
Thirdly, the neoliberal notion of meritocracy puts forward a vision of “success for all” with unlimited space at the top for people to fill, as long as they have sufficiently high aspirations, hold the requisite talents and are willing to work hard enough. However, this underplays the reality that there are finite positions at the top of the educational and occupational hierarchy and that ruthless sorting will necessarily take place. This sorting process favours those from middle class backgrounds, who have access to particular forms of social and cultural capital such as unpaid internship experience.

A harmless discourse with harmful consequences
The neoliberal meritocracy is based on principles that are, at face value, laudable and uncontroversial: the importance of seeking opportunities wherever they might lie, the sanctity of young people’s individual choices and the belief that all young people can achieve success. However, the ‘aspiration raising’ agenda which lies at the heart of this neoliberal view of meritocracy sits in stark tension with these underlying principles. It also exposes how an outwardly innocuous discourse can impose particularly negative side effects on the most disadvantaged young people. The aspiration-raising agenda opposes key elements of individual identity, discredits aspirations for material security and family life, and paints a mirage of “success for all” even though educational and labour market outcomes continue to be largely dictated by socioeconomic background. These effects are arguably felt most starkly by white working class boys. They are the group who will benefit least, not most, from the neoliberal notion of meritocracy and its aspiration raising agenda.

Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education is available here.

This blog was reblogged on The Sociological Imagination, where you can find summaries of the other chapters in the book.

Low-income pupils’ progress at secondary school

One of the great injustices of the British education system is that pupils from low income backgrounds are less likely to make good progress at secondary school compared to better off peers. The gap between low income pupils’ attainment at the end of primary school and the end of secondary school has widened; since 2012 low income pupils have been making less progress year on year compared to their more affluent peers. Even when low income pupils out-perform their more advantaged peers at primary school, they are often overtaken during the next phase of their education. The implications of low income pupils’ poorer progress are most visible as children finish secondary school; when they are often left without the qualifications that might create opportunities for them later in life.

As teachers, school leaders and policy makers, we hope that schools can be engines of social change. However, the stalled progress of pupils from lower income families – especially the most vulnerable; those with SEND or mental health issues, or who are looked after – suggests too few lives are being transformed at a system level. Indeed, in some cases schools may be actively (though unintentionally) perpetuating the injustices that they hope to challenge.

This report, co-authored with Bart Shaw and Loic Menzies at LKMco, and Meena Parameshwaran and Rebecca Allen at Education Datalab, sheds light on the barriers to progress that low income pupils face at secondary school. Part One reveals the magnitude of the gap in progress between low income pupils and their peers at GCSE, and highlights the differing nature of the ‘progress gap’ for pupils with different levels of attainment at the end of primary school. Using data from the National Pupil Database, it goes on to explore how a range of factors influence the progress gap.

Part Two of the report brings together findings from the existing literature to explore the range of causal factors that contribute to the progress gap at secondary school. Throughout the literature review, we draw on eight case studies of secondary schools where low income pupils make varying levels of progress to exemplify how the causal factors identified in the literature create barriers for pupils, as well as the steps schools have taken to reduce the progress gap. These case studies also ensure that we do not overlook any issues or factors not currently explored in the literature.

The report is available to download here.

Youth, education and lifelong learning

‘Education’ and ‘youth’
It’s impossible to think of ‘youth’ without thinking of ‘education’ because young people spend so much of their time in nurseries, schools and colleges and the education they receive there plays such a formative role in their lives. Likewise, it’s impossible to think of ‘education’ without thinking of ‘youth’ – there’s something fundamental about the learning we do when we’re young which sets us up for our lives ahead and lays the foundation for us to make fulfilling transitions into adulthood.

But the risk is that we overlook the importance of lifelong learning. Adult skills budgets are facing drastic cuts and rates of part-time and mature study at university are flagging. This is despite increasing need for opportunities for lifelong learning in order to react to a range of social changes, from an increasingly precarious labour market to an ageing population. Today’s report from University Alliance, Lifelong Learning: Ladder and Lifeline, is a timely reminder of the case for lifelong learning, and of the need for schools to prepare young people to continue learning well after they finish compulsory education.

Why does lifelong learning matter?
Education is inherently valuable – that’s why we have compulsory schooling, and we should apply the same sentiment to adult education. As I’ve evidenced in research for the Local Government Association, investment in adult skills is vital for supporting local economies, and should be held on a par with compulsory education. However, a perfect storm of social, economic and demographic shifts mean that formal opportunities for continuing education will be particularly crucial in the century ahead:

  • At least twenty years of research have identified the gradual ‘extension’ of young people’s transitions from youth to adulthood, with young people taking longer than in the past to secure stable employment, buy a house and clear their debts. Ideas of ‘finishing education’ and ‘beginning adult life’ have eroded.
  • We live amidst a more precarious labour market, with fewer ‘jobs for life’, fewer salaried jobs with stable hours, the encroaching role of automation and ever-increasing demand for retraining. Young people’s only hope of navigating this instability is to have opportunities to continuously supplement their knowledge and skills throughout life. Without these opportunities for continuing education, they will fall through the net.
  • Our population profile is ageing, we’re living longer and, going by recent adjustments to the state pension age, we will also be expected to work for longer. Not only do today’s young people face greater instability in the labour market; they must also have the skills to adapt to this instability for 60 years or longer.

As well as addressing the challenges of social change, lifelong learning could also play a much more instrumental role as a lever of social mobility. Speaking at the launch of RECLAIM’s Educating All report on working class students’ experiences of higher education last week, I heard compelling arguments that students from poorer backgrounds, who tend to see HE as a higher-risk decision, would be more likely to take up opportunities to go to university if it was held up as a genuinely life-long opportunity rather than a time-limited chance.

‘Lifelong learning’ in disarray
Despite its crucial importance, the current picture of continuing education in the UK is a rocky one. Spending on core adults skills fell by 41% in real terms between 2009 and 2016, and the most recent HESA data reveal a continuing decline in part-time and mature HE study, as highlighted in today’s University Alliance report:

What can the youth sector do?
The way we educate young people could contribute to their success as adult learners later in life in at least two ways:

  • Firstly, careers advice needs to move away from a simple ‘aspirations raising’ mantra, which focuses on moving young people bluntly towards specific ‘high status’ educational and career paths, and instead embrace the notion of ‘planned happenstance’. This approach encourages young people to have a range of aspirations, to work as hard as they can to achieve them and, as a result, be ready and resilient for change if ‘plan A’ doesn’t come to fruition.
  • Schools are the crucible in which people’s lifelong attitudes to learning are forged, as any parent who shudders at the sight of the school gates or the thought of a classroom will testify. Undue focus on high-stakes testing and a narrowing of the school curriculum risk an ‘across the line!’ attitude to learning, rather than imbuing young people with a love of learning and a confidence for independent inquiry – skills that are crucial in the modern economy.

As a society, we tend to see ‘learning’ as something that takes place when we’re young. Besides, compulsory education ends when we finish our teenage years. Nothing symbolises this more than current debates around education spending, which have focused almost exclusively on school budgets and largely glossed over the far-larger cuts to adult skills spending. Social change demands that we shift this perspective and embrace compulsory education as an opportunity to prepare young people for a lifetime of learning, rather than a period of training which ends abruptly at 18.

This is a reposting of a blog I wrote for LKMco.

Ethnicity, gender and social mobility

British families are told that if their children go to school and work hard, they will be rewarded with good jobs and opportunities. But for many groups this promise is being broken. In recent months, the low educational attainment of White British boys has gained significant attention. However, when it comes to the transition from education to employment, this group is less likely to be unemployed and to face social immobility than their female counterparts, black students and young Asian Muslims. Why is this the case?

This report, co-authored with Bart Shaw, Loic Menzies and Eleanor Bernardes at LKMco and Philip Nye and Rebecca Allen at Education Datalab, explores the complexities of adding ethnicity and gender to an analysis of socioeconomic Status (SES) gaps. It considers some of the ways in which gender, ethnicity and SES interact with education to produce or reduce social mobility. It then explores a vast body of research into how young people’s longer term social mobility depends on how educational outcomes at schools translate into participation and achievement in Higher Education and the labour market. For each of our key findings, we recommend questions for future research and areas in urgent need of policy interventions.

The report is available to download here.

What makes an effective middle leader?

This summer, teachers around the country will be preparing to step into new roles. Many will be taking their first step into management as Heads of Department, a role that is often overlooked and which is generally under-researched. Yet as James Toop, Chief Executive of the charity Teaching Leaders argues, ‘no school can be a great school without getting middle leadership right’. So what does it mean to be a great middle leader? That’s what this report, co-authored with Meena Parameshwaran, Loic Menzies and Charleen Chiong on behalf of LKMco, and commissioned by Teaching Leaders, sets out to explore.

You can download the full report here. The report also received coverage in Schools Week and the TES.

Infographic © Impact Wales

The underrepresentation of white working class boys in higher education

Only 10% of the most disadvantaged white British males progress to higher education. Not only is this significantly less than the most advantaged white males, it is also significantly less than the progression to HE of disadvantaged males from all other ethnic backgrounds. Almost twenty years after the Dearing Report highlighted the underrepresentation of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in HE, and emphasised the role of widening participation in addressing the problem, this report, co-authored on behalf of LKMco with Ellie Mulcahy and Eleanor Bernardes, considers:

  • How to define white working class boys
  • Why they are less likely to enter higher education
  • The degree to which they are underrepresented in elite institutions and alternative routes through higher education
  • The challenges and barriers faced by widening participation practitioners in tackling the problem
  • How widening participation practitioners can work best with white working class boys

The report responds to the government’s call, in February 2016, for universities to specifically target white working class boys in order to increase their participation in higher education, as part of a wider drive to improve the social mobility of disadvantaged groups.

The report aims to provide widening participation practitioners with a comprehensive overview of white working class boys’ underrepresentation in higher education, from its causes to its potential solutions. In order to do so the report draws together findings from a literature review, an academic and practitioner roundtable and a set of university case studies, allowing insights from academic research and the perspectives of practitioners from primary through to HE to be brought together in one place.

You can download the full report here. The report received international coverage in Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Independent, The Times, Huffington Post, Schools Week, Times Higher and the TES. I also discussed our findings on Dubai Eye radio:

There’s also a video of our launch presentation at the Brilliant Club Annual Conference, which gives a detailed summary of our findings and recommendations:

How “space” and “place” contribute to occupational aspirations as a value-constituting practice for working-class males

The March 2016 special issue of Education + Training, focusing on gendered spaces and subjectivities, carried a paper I co-authored with Garth Stahl. In the paper we look at how “space” and “place” contribute to occupational aspirations as a value-constituting practice for working-class males, drawing on fieldwork I conducted in South Manchester for my PhD.

The purpose of the paper is to consider how working-class boys constitute themselves as subjects of “value” through a close examination of their occupational aspirations. Garth and I consider two significant influences on the aspirations of these young men: “space” and “place”; and neoliberal discourses which privilege a particular concept of individualized personhood. Contending with neoliberal conceptions of personhood and aspiration (that are primarily competitive, economic, and status based), we argue that working-class and working-poor young men either align themselves with the “entrepreneurial” or “aspirational” self or face the label of “low aspirations”.

Employing space and place as conceptual lenses allows for a nuanced understanding of how aspirations are formed (and reformed) according to immediate locale. To explore the identity negotiations surrounding the occupational aspirations of working-class males, we draw on two qualitative research studies in deprived neighbourhoods located in South Manchester and South London.

Based on the evidence as well as the wider research concerning working-class males and occupational aspirations, we argue that aspirations are formed in a contested space between traditional, localized, classed identities and a broader neoliberal conception of the “aspirational” rootless self.

Our paper problematizes the literature generated by government bodies and educational institutions regarding working-class youth as having a “poverty of aspirations”. Additionally, value lies in the cross-reference of two specific geographic areas using the conceptual lens of space and place.

Platform 3 for childminders evaluation

In 2015 I authored an evaluation of The Communication Trust‘s pilot of Platform 3 – a model of delivering the Level 3 qualification ‘Supporting Children and Young People’s Speech, Language and Communication’ via e-learning and assessment over two years for early years practitioners, on behalf of LKMco.

The Trust was granted further funding in 2015/16 to tailor the existing delivery mechanisms of the qualification to address the specific needs of childminders, whilst also remaining relevant to the wider workforce and enhancing their ability to identify and support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), including SLCN.

This evaluation, written with my LKMco colleague Eleanor Bernardes, considers the extent to which Platform 3 impacted on the following four outcomes:

  1. The quality of early years speech, language and communication provision
  2. Practitioners’ effectiveness in working with children to support their speech, language and communication
  3. Practitioners’ effectiveness in working with parents to support their child’s speech, language and communication
  4. Early identification of children with delayed speech, language and communication

In addition the evaluation considers the effectiveness of the online delivery model used for Platform 3, in order to identify the factors that have supported and hindered the programme in achieving its outcomes. The report concludes with a set of recommendations arising from these findings.

You can download a copy of the report here.