Aspirations, education and social justice: applying Sen and Bourdieu – book review

The August 2015 issue of the British Journal of Educational Studies carries a book review of Caroline Sarojini Hart’s Aspirations, education and social justice: applying Sen and Bourdieu that I wrote with Loic Menzies at LKMco.

In our review we reflect on how Sarojini Hart’s combination of theoretical and empirical work encourages us to unpack the notion of ‘aspirations’ that increasingly forms the focus of education policy in the UK. In particular, the book illuminates how young people exercise varying levels of agency in the formation of their aspirations, and that this agency is often stratified by class, ethnicity and geography. We reflect on Sarojini Hart’s critique of the ‘widening participation’ agenda in UK Higher Education and her compelling case that educational outcomes – from GCSE grades to attending university – have limited utility as measures of social justice within the education system.

Platform 3 pilot evaluation

The Communication Trust support everyone who works with children and young people in England to support their speech, language and communication. Their work focuses on supporting children and young people who struggle to communicate because they have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) as well as supporting all children and young people to communicate to the best of their ability.

In the summer of 2015, on behalf of LKMco, I evaluated the 2013-15 pilot of Platform 3 – an innovative online learning route for the Level 3 accredited qualification Supporting Children and Young People’s Speech, Language and Communication.

You can read the evaluation here.

A history of baccalaureates and diplomas

Although their history stretches back more than two centuries in some European countries, baccalaureates are a relatively recent innovation within the English education system. Our attempts to move away from separate ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ routes to a single, broad-based curriculum can be traced back at least thirty years. Yet three substantial reviews of post-16 qualifications later and our own fledgling ‘baccs’ are still far from achieving this aim.

As part of the Schools Week Build a Better Baccalaureate supplement, I briefly chart the history of baccalaureates and diplomas in the English education system.

You can download the guide here.

The inner city success story: how diverse urban schools lead the pack

This is an extended version of an article I wrote for the New Statesman, based on analysis I conducted for LKMco.

New analysis of data from the ONS and the Department for Education reveals that educational outcomes vary considerably between different types of area. Pupils attending schools in ethnically mixed, often deprived inner city locations achieve, on average, more than a grade better in every GCSE they sit, compared to those attending schools in more peripheral urban locations. Meanwhile, pupils attending schools in ethnically diverse inner-urban areas progress significantly faster than their rural peers.

Beyond the inner city

The map of educational disadvantage is steadily being redrawn. Until the late 1990s, the focus tended to be on deprived inner city areas – particularly inner London, which consistently came bottom of the regional school league tables in England. In the wake of the City Challenges in the capital, Manchester and the Black Country during the 2000s, alongside high profile urban-focused recruitment schemes, the fortunes of some of our previously struggling inner city schools have been raised, if not transformed. In turn, those working to reduce educational disadvantage are now beginning to shift their attention away from deprived inner city areas to new contexts. As Ofsted’s 2013 Access and Achievement report argues, “the areas where the most disadvantaged children are being let down… are no longer deprived inner city areas, instead the focus has shifted to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country.”

Beyond deprivation

This transition away from the inner city reflects a wider shift in education research: away from a narrow focus on deprived areas, towards particular types of deprived area. The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) has become a staple tool when it comes to describing how social outcomes – from educational attainment to wellbeing – are linked to particular neighbourhood contexts. However, the IMD ultimately classifies areas along a single dimension (their level of deprivation) and this is where an alternative, but little used, method of classifying areas has a distinct advantage.

Rather than defining areas as simply more or less deprived, the Output Area Classification defines a given area as belonging to one of eight different ‘area types’, based on a host of Census data – from the age of residents, to the types of homes they live in, to the types of jobs they do. The real power of this area typology is that it distinguishes between deprived central London and the deprived fringes of Southampton; between the affluent suburbs of south Manchester and the affluent villages of the home counties. OAC’s eight main area types range from Cosmopolitans and Ethnicity Central, which cover the vast majority of London’s spatial area, to Constrained City Dwellers and Hard-Pressed Households which constitute a large proportion of places like Basildon, Plymouth and Sunderland.

From the perspective of education research, the OAC allows us to explore how educational outcomes vary between a range of different spatial contexts – some of which may have similar levels of deprivation. Merging the 2011 OAC with 2013 GCSE attainment data from the Department for Education reveals that educational outcomes vary significantly between different types of area, and not just because they’re more or less deprived.

How diverse urban schools the lead the pack

Pupils attending schools in cosmopolitan areas outperform those in hard-pressed areas by the equivalent of almost 1.5 grades in every GCSE they sit. This is despite the fact that cosmopolitan areas are often highly deprived. In fact, the cosmopolitan inner-urban advantage is so sizeable that the performance of schools in the most deprived cosmopolitan areas is broadly in line with the performance of schools in the least deprived places in all other areas of the country:


Meanwhile, students attending schools in the most ethnically diverse areas make the most progress at school, while those in rural areas make the slowest progress. This disparity opens up further still amongst pupils with low prior attainment:


These data demonstrate that when it comes to area-based variation in educational outcomes, it’s more useful to talk in terms of different types of area than simply ‘more or less deprived’ areas. While on average results are better in less deprived areas, ethnically diverse inner-urban areas come top of the pile for attainment and pupil progress, and by some distance, despite being some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Looking for explanations

Opportunities and aspirations

Recent research based on data from the Understanding Society survey shows that young people from inner-urban, more ethnically mixed areas of deprivation are between 2 and 5 times as likely to have aspirations for professional, managerial and technical jobs as those from outer-urban, less mixed areas of deprivation. There are well-documented links between aspirations and attainment: higher occupational aspirations in more ethnically mixed inner urban areas could well be driving higher attainment. But this begs the question: what is causing these area-level differences in aspiration? Higher aspirations in more mixed, urban areas could be linked to the more dynamic, higher-skill labour markets that tend to be concentrated in inner cities. Some suggest that aspirations in inner city areas might also be bolstered by the concentration of universities in these locations. However, educational aspirations (to go on to college and university) are no lower in hard pressed areas at the edge of cities than in multicultural inner urban areas.

Forms of parental support

Data from Understanding Society show that young people from less mixed, outer urban areas of deprivation are the most likely to feel broadly supported by their family, and around 85% of young people from all area types feel their parents are interested in how they do at school. However, when it comes to the practical ways in which parents offer support for their children’s education, differences begin to open up. Around 40% of parents in inner city and multicultural areas help with homework almost every day, compared to around 30% elsewhere, and dipping to around 25% in deprived, traditionally white working class areas. So parents in some types of area appear to be less able to support their children’s education, even if they support them in their lives more broadly and hold a strong desire for them to do well at school.

Redrawing the map

It seems that those working to tackle educational disadvantage are right to be expanding their horizons beyond the inner city, and beyond simple distinctions between more and less deprived areas. However, talking in terms of ‘coastal towns’ and ‘rural regions’ is unnecessarily vague when we have access to data that allow us to identify the specific types of area where educational outcomes appear to be weakest. Paying more attention to specific local contexts also puts us in a better position to understand the conditions that produce such large disparities in educational outcomes between different neighbourhoods.

The alternative should not be inferior: What now for ‘pushed out’ learners?

The latest Department for Education statistics reveal that only 1% of pupils in ‘alternative provision’ and PRUs (pupil referral units) achieved five good GCSEs in 2013-14. Furthermore, of those entered for a GCSE in Maths or English, only one in ten achieved a C or above.

This report, co-authored for Inclusion Trust with my colleague Loic Menzies at LKMco, focuses on these pupils and those that sit on the margins within mainstream schools. We argue these young people are entitled to a high quality education designed around their needs, and that alternative provision is a crucial element of our education system that should be valued and invested in.

In the report, we argue there are three broad but overlapping approaches to catering for the needs of ‘pushed out’ learners:

  1. Bringing ‘pushed out’ learners into the mainstream structure
  2. Innovating within the mainstream structure
  3. Working outside of the mainstream structure

The launch of the report was covered by the TES and the BBC. You can read and download the report here.

The history of league tables

School performance tables have become such a central part of the education system it is hard to imagine a world without them. However, league tables did not materialise until the early 1990s. Well into the 80s the school system was seen by many as a ‘secret garden’ in which outcomes were neither measured nor communicated. Fast-forward to 2015, and anyone with an internet connection and a copy of Excel can compare school performance in forensic detail.

As part of this guide to the new KS4 and 16-18 headline measures for Schools Week, put together by my colleagues at LKMco, I briefly chart the birth and development of the school league table, and reflect on the significance of this 40-year journey.

You can download the guide here.

How young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in

During the course of the last decade successive governments in the UK have placed young people’s aspirations at the core of their attempts to address poor outcomes within the education system and the labour market. An area-based approach to policy has come to the fore which links ‘low aspirations’ with particular community- and neighbourhood-level factors, in particular area-level deprivation. This area-based focus on the determinants of aspirations has faced intensifying critique from the academic research base. Responding to this policy and research debate, my PhD thesis examines whether, and how, young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in.

The thesis is based on a mixed methods research design and has two sections: an extensive phase and an intensive phase. The extensive phase of the research consists of logistic regression analysis of data from the Understanding Society Youth Questionnaire, and considers whether the types of occupations young people aspire to vary between different types of area. The intensive phase of the research consists of phenomenographic analysis of semi-structured interviews conducted with young people in a deprived, outer-urban neighbourhood in Manchester, and considers how young people’s subjective orientations towards the area they live in produce different forms of aspiration.

My thesis finds compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, but does not corroborate the claim at the core of current government policy, that aspirations are lower in more deprived areas. The extensive phase of the research instead identifies area type, rather than deprivation, as the primary area-level factor shaping young people’s aspirations, with young people from particular inner city area types almost five times as likely as their peers from deprived outer-urban areas to aspire to ‘higher’ professional, managerial and technical occupations. Meanwhile, the intensive phase of the research finds evidence that experiences of neighbourhood and family life in an area of concentrated deprivation can lead young people to adopt particular forms of aspiration that require lower levels of skill and further training, but on closer examination of the motivations for these forms of aspiration, finds little evidence that these aspirations are straightforwardly ‘low’.

Above all, the research demonstrates that young people produce multiple different senses of place, and myriad forms of aspiration, from within the same deprived spatial context: they do not simply reproduce what they see around them when imagining their futures. While there is compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, these area effects demand more nuanced research alongside policy approaches that are more receptive to young people’s constructions of place.

My thesis is available for open-access download here.

While I was writing my PhD I kept a research blog, which charted my progress, presented preliminary findings, and laid out the problems I was grappling with at each stage of the process.

Sustainable transitions from education to employment

Sandwell Council recently announced the Sandwell Guarantee, which aims to help up to 4000 young people aged 16-24 who are currently on benefits or NEET to find paid jobs, apprenticeships, internships or work experience with local businesses. Sandwell’s scheme demonstrates the central role local authorities can play in supporting young people’s transitions from education to employment, deploying a range of the levers I flag up in my recent review of the levers of local economic development for the ESRC, the LGA and Solace. For instance, Sandwell is:

  1. Bringing together a range of local agencies who work with young people from a variety of angles such as Job Centre Plus, schools, colleges and the third sector
  2. Acting as a bridge between labour demand and labour supply, as demonstrated elsewhere by the Essex Employment and Skills Board
  3. Looking to local solutions by incentivising local businesses with a contribution to wage costs

However, the key question for schemes such as these is: will young people find sustained employment when their subsidised placement ends? Larger national programmes have had wildly different outcomes in this respect:

  • Jobs Growth Wales provides young people aged 16-24 with a 6-month job opportunity paid at minimum wage, with a view to then moving them into longer term employment. According to written evidence from the Welsh Government, as of April 2013 (one year into the programme), of those who completed the scheme, 79% had entered sustained employment.
  • The Work Programme works with a range of providers to support people into work over a period of two years. According to DWP data, as of April 2013 43% of 18-24 year-olds participating in the Work Programme in Wales had achieved a ‘job outcome’ (had been in work for at least 13 weeks).

Each scheme has its own definition of ‘sustained employment’, and the Work Programme does not support 16 and 17 year-olds. However, these figures demonstrate how programmes to support young people into employment can differ dramatically in terms of one of their most important outcomes: achieving lasting integration into the labour market. On the face of it, The Work Programme’s outcomes for young people compare poorly to those being achieved across the border in Wales. There’s a strong case for a more localised skills agenda which better understands the shape of the local labour market and can work more closely with local agencies that support all aspects of young people’s lives. All eyes should be on local authorities such as Sandwell and Essex, to see if these local schemes can achieve more sustainable outcomes for young people looking to navigate their way into fulfilling employment.

Lessons from London schools: investigating the success

Informed commentators both in the UK and internationally increasingly reference the remarkable improvement journey of London’s schools since the turn of the century. If the claims made for educational improvement in London are true they represent an important case study in urban school reform.

This report, co-authored with Centre for London, CfBT and colleagues at LKMco, seeks to investigate the claim that London schools have improved dramatically since 2000. We review the evidence of transformational change and explore possible reasons for the development in London’s schools. The research is guided by three questions:

  1. Is the success of London’s schools as real as has been suggested?
  2. If the success is real, in what ways have schools improved and for what reasons?
  3. What can we learn for the future of school improvement, for London and beyond?

The report provides teachers, school leaders and policymakers with a detailed review of what has happened across London. It provides a comprehensive synthesis of previous evaluations of the London schools’ journey and of the distinctive elements which are perceived as contributing to improvement. Most importantly, it draws conclusions intended to inform current debates on educational policy reform in a very practical sense, providing an agenda for action.

You can download the report here.