Category Archives: society

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.

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.

Mapping school exclusions

5170 pupils were excluded from state-funded primary, secondary and special schools in England in 2011/12. Since peaking in 2003/4, numbers of school exclusions have been falling for the last decade, although other trends have been more persistent: the vast majority of permanently excluded pupils are boys, and Black Caribbean pupils are around three times more likely to be excluded than the school population as a whole. A 2007 report estimated the cost of each exclusion, to the individual pupil and to society, as just under £64,000.

Using the latest data from the DfE, I’ve mapped permanent exclusions in England to see what geographical trends exist.

At a local authority level, the highest rates of exclusion are in North East Lincolnshire, Reading, Central Bedfordshire and Bury. At a regional level, the highest rates of exclusion are in London and the Midlands, with the lowest rate in Yorkshire and the Humber. Interestingly, there’s no correlation between an authority’s exclusion rate and its GCSE performance.

Questioning the ‘culture of worklessness’

My spatial analysis of young people’s occupational aspirations, using data from the Understanding Society dataset, reveals a surprising result that directly questions the current policy discourse which puts forward an intergenerational ‘culture of worklessness’ as an explanation for youth unemployment.

My analysis shows that even when a variety of individual- and household-level factors are accounted for (such as household income, parental qualifications, gender, ethnicity, and area-level deprivation), young people whose parents have never worked are the most likely to voice ‘high’ aspirations for professional, managerial or technical (PMT) occupations. Compared to young people whose parents work in non-PMT occupations, those with parents in PMT occupations are 70% more likely to voice a PMT aspiration. However, young people whose parents have never worked are more than twice as likely to voice a high aspiration.


This supports the findings of a recent JRF report, which finds little evidence that an intergenerational ‘culture of worklessness’ is a good explanation of unemployment. It also corroborates the findings of a 2013 paper by Ralf St. Clair and colleagues, which “challenge the idea that people growing up in low employment areas tend to reproduce what they see around them” (2013: 9). Likewise, my fieldwork with young people in Wythenshawe  revealed that young people whose home backgrounds were most marked by material hardship – unemployment, low pay, and benefit dependency –  were the most likely to prioritise good pay and job security when talking about their occupational aspirations. As one of my participants explained:

“Near enough every single person I know that lives round here, their mum’s on benefits and they don’t work. And if they do work they’ve not got money to give out to their sons and that, because they’re too busy paying the rent on the house. You don’t get nowhere, you’re just about surviving. My mum struggles to even survive. And I don’t want that life for my kids.”

Perhaps, then, the finding that young people whose parents have never worked are the most likely to have ‘high’ aspirations for professional, managerial and technical occupations, isn’t that surprising at all. Far from reproducing what they see around them, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds appear to be motivated by their context not to replicate the material conditions their parents have lived with. The challenge is to work with these young people to ensure they achieve the qualifications, information and guidance they need to turn these aspirations into reality.

‘Low aspirations’ – rhetoric without evidence

In a speech today on the barriers to social mobility in the UK, the Prime Minister singled out the “low aspirations” of young people from poorer families, deprived areas and ethnic minorities as a key factor in their relative lack of success in attaining the best jobs. The way to increase the social mobility of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, Cameron claimed, is to “get out there and find people, win them over, get them to raise aspirations and get them to think that they can get all the way to the top.”

If the Prime Minister took a few minutes to review the latest evidence on young people’s aspirations, he’d realise that he’s made the wrong diagnosis. The social mobility of young people from poorer areas is still limited, despite decades of government intervention? Yes. This is due to the fact that these young people aren’t aiming high enough? No.

Evidence from the Youth Questionnaire of the Understanding Society dataset – the UK’s flagship social survey – which captures the occupational aspirations of thousands of young people from up and down the country, including many from the backgrounds Cameron complains are sites of ‘low aspiration’, indicates that young people have high aspirations across the board:

  • 81% of young people aspire to professional, managerial or technical occupations:


  • Young people from families with below average income have only marginally lower aspirations than their peers from more affluent households:


  • The aspirations of young people from deprived areas are just as high as those of young people from less deprived areas:


  • And the aspirations of ethnic minorities are, in fact, higher than those of White British young people, whose aspirations are lowest.


It’s important that the government gets its diagnosis right when it comes to the lack of social mobility in the UK today. Bemoaning a lack of aspiration on the part of young people puts the problem at their feet when, in fact, the reality seems to be that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have their sights  set high. The problem comes later down the line, when they come to translate their aspirations into outcomes.

Counter-deprivational outcomes

The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) is one of the core area-level measures in my research, which is looking at how young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in. IMD scores are a composite of several specific deprivation ‘domains’, which separately measure a range of types of deprivation, from an area’s income deprivation and health deprivation to its education and skills deprivation. Lots of research and policy is based on analysis which links outcomes with area-level deprivation, based on overall deprivation scores. Indeed, current government aspirations policy is based on analysis which contends that young people’s aspirations are lower in more deprived areas. But much of this analysis, based on overall deprivation scores, overlooks two important points about the way deprivation is measured by the IMD:

  1. A high level of overall deprivation doesn’t necessarily mean an area is highly deprived on all deprivation domains
  2. Area-level outcomes may be due to particular forms of deprivation rather than overall deprivation

This throws up two interesting types of target area for deprivation-based research like mine: areas that have high overall deprivation scores, but low scores for specific deprivation domains; and areas that have have low overall deprivation scores, but high scores for specific deprivation domains.

I’m interested in one deprivation domain in particular – the Children and Young People domain. This deprivation domain measures an area’s Key Stage 2, 3 and 4 results, progression rates to further and higher education, and school absences. Essentially, then, it represents area-level educational deprivation. So far my analysis suggests that aspirations don’t seem to be lower in more deprived areas, when measured by their overall IMD score. Young people in the most deprived areas seems to have aspirations that are just as high as those of their peers from less deprived areas, and this finding runs contrary to the thinking behind current government policy. However, it does seem that educational deprivation is linked with lower aspirations.

So, I was interested to see whether, and where, the following two types of area existed:

  1. Areas with high levels of overall deprivation but low levels of educational deprivation
  2. Areas with low levels of overall deprivation but high levels of educational deprivation

I decided to focus on London because it’s a large city with a wide range of area types, including some of the most and least deprived areas in the country. The map below shows the geographical distribution of these two area types:

The north and east of the city contain many deprived areas which nonetheless have low levels of educational deprivation. Meanwhile, the more affluent south west and south east, along with a number of more peripheral suburban areas, contain areas with low levels of deprivation but relatively high levels of educational deprivation. The map demonstrates the existence of deprived areas with relatively strong educational outcomes (and, based on the initial findings from my research, probably sites of high aspiration), alongside less deprived areas with relatively weak educational outcomes (and therefore probably sites of  low aspiration).

I think of these areas as exhibiting counter-deprivational outcomes. They’re particularly interesting sites for research, but they’re all too easy to overlook.

Mapping the housing shortfall

There’s been a lot of discussion today about the housing shortfall in the UK, and in particular whether the restrictions of the planning system or the cap on councils’ housing spending is to blame. Whatever lies behind the low present rate of house building – and there are a range of possible explanations, including the shape of the mortgage market and the economy more broadly – it’s clear that the rate at which we’re building new homes in England has some way to go until it returns to pre-crash levels:


It’s difficult to calculate exactly how many new houses we need to build. Firstly, on the supply side, homes can be created by renovating existing, empty properties – not just by building new ones. Secondly, on the demand side, housing need isn’t just embodied by those who are homeless but by those living in overcrowded homes, temporary accommodation or in housing which is unfit for habitation. While in the private market, housing need doesn’t always become apparent until individuals or households decide to try and buy or rent a new property, in the social rented sector there is a definite number attached to the shortfall between housing demand and supply: the housing waiting list.

The map below shows the extent of the housing waiting list in each of the 364 local authorities in England, according to the latest data which dates from April 2012.

Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of variation, with waiting lists ranging from below 100 to the tens of thousands. This is because the numbers are counts rather than proportions, and some authorities have much larger populations than others. However, there’s a power to keeping the data in this form, as raw numbers: if you’ve never looked at the housing waiting list before it’s quite staggering just how large it is, and how quickly it’s growing. Ten years ago there were just under 1.1 million people in the queue; today that figure has risen to over 1.8 million. In metropolitan authorities such as Sheffield, where the housing waiting list is over 68,000, the extent of housing need is astounding.

Priced out

Housing Benefit was introduced in 1988 as a subsidy to both social-rented and private-rented tenants as a way of increasing access to affordable housing for those on low or no incomes. HB arose in response to the shrinkage of the social housing sector caused by a reduction in new social housing construction and the sale of social houses through the Right to Buy. Since its introduction, the government bill for HB has increased from £2.5 billion in 2001 to £20 billion in 2010, leading to efforts by successive governments to bring HB spending down. In April 2011 the coalition government introduced a number of reforms to HB with the aim of saving £1.8bn in expenditure by 2014/15. The two main measures in the package of reforms were a reduction in the basis for setting the Local Housing Allowance from the median of local market rents to the 30th percentile of local market rents, and the introduction of nationwide caps on LHA, with specific caps for each size of dwelling.

The Local Housing Allowance is used to calculate how much Housing Benefit someone can claim. LHA rates vary across the country according the level of local market rents, and are calculated by Broad Rental Market Areas. Before April 2011, LHA was set at the median of market rents in a given BRMA; since April 2011 LHA is set at the 30th percentile. Setting LHA in accordance with the 30th percentile of market rents as opposed to their median means that, in theory, in any given local housing market, an individual claiming Housing Benefit is restricted to the bottom third of the rental market, as opposed to the bottom half (unless they’re able to top up from their own funds). In real terms, the recalculation of LHA based on the 30th percentile of local rents translates into an average loss of £9 a week for someone in a 2-bed property, £12 a week for someone in a 3-bed property and £18 a week for someone in a 4-bed property. These losses are substantially greater in London, where market rents are higher across the board: the recalculation of LHA equates to weekly losses of £37, £56, £72 for 2-bed, 3-bed and 4-bed properties respectively in Islington and £58, £91 and £161 in Kensington and Chelsea.

The 2011 reforms also introduced a nationwide cap on LHA rates of £250 a week for 1-bed properties, £290 a week for 2-bed properties, £340 a week for 3-bed properties and £400 a week for properties with four or more bedrooms. In BRMAs with market rents below the national average these caps are less significant, as the level of LHA in these areas will likely come out below the level of the cap for each size of dwelling. However, in places like London with high market rents the LHA caps are significant. Indeed, capping the level of LHA was specifically intended to deal with the problem of very high Housing Benefit claims in places like inner London, and this much becomes clear when we map the data.

Since April 2011 LHA data from the Valuation Office Agency have only been available in capped form, so it’s possible to see where 30th percentile market rents are equal to or greater than the new capped LHA rates, but it’s not possible to see by how much. In other words, we can see which areas are subject to the cap but not to what extent they’re subject to the cap. This data is shown in the map below, and what’s clear is that the impact of the new LHA caps is currently only felt in London. In theory, in those parts of London shaded red below, the new LHA caps restrict people on Housing Benefit to below the bottom third of the private rented housing market. Here’s the map in fullscreen.

Using slightly older data from 2011, just before the introduction of the new LHA regime, we can get a better idea of the extent to which different areas of London are affected by the new caps. The map below shows, for London BRMAs, the amount by which the January 2011 30th percentile market rent for a 3-bed property falls above (red) or below (green) the new LHA cap of £340 a week. In Inner West London, people on Housing Benefit face a shortfall of £5 a week if they want to live outside the bottom third of the housing market and  aren’t able to top up with their own resources. In Central London the shortfall is over £300 a week. Here’s the map in fullscreen.

These maps show that people on Housing Benefit are being ‘priced out’ of large areas of central and inner London, and in many cases the stock of property in inner London that remains affordable to those on Housing Benefit is restricted to well below the bottom third of the market. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions (Table 9) show that only 7% of private rented accommodation in central London is now affordable for those on Housing Benefit, as opposed to 52% before the 2011 reforms.

Data and debates

Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equality, recently stated her support for reducing the legal time limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 20, reanimating the debate between those who believe the time limit should be reduced and those who believe it should remain as it is. The debate on lowering the legal time limit for abortions involves several different types of argument: moral arguments against ending life, existential arguments about the point at which a foetus attains the status of a human being, rights-based arguments about women’s freedom of choice on matters affecting their health and wellbeing and utilitarian arguments about the impact of late term abortions on the women who have them.

What role can empirical data play in debates like these, which include appeals to absolutes such as rights, morals and values? When it comes to the argument that it is always morally wrong to end a human life, empirical data can provide little by way of counterargument. However, when it comes to Maria Miller’s case for lowering the legal limit, empirical data can offer an instructive rebuttal. Miller’s case is based on two arguments: firstly, medical advances in recent years have increased the odds of survival for premature babies born before 24 weeks; secondly, late-term abortions carried out after 20 weeks have a significant negative impact on women’s wellbeing.

Taking the first argument, The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists use data from recent studies to argue that advances in medicine have not, as Miller contends, made it easier for premature babies born before 24 weeks to survive. In the case of the second argument, data from the Department of Health represented in the graph above show that only 1% of abortions in England and Wales in 2011 were carried out after 20 weeks. A change in the law to reduce the time limit for abortions to 20 weeks would therefore prevent what is only a handful of late term abortions from taking place each year. And it is far from clear that preventing these abortions from taking place would lead to an improvement in women’s welfare. The decision to have a late term abortion can only be interpreted as a judgment on the part of the woman concerned that aborting, as awful as it may be for her, is preferable to one or more alternatives: the risk that continuing with the pregnancy could kill both mother and child; that the baby will be born with severe impairments, and so forth. The decision to have a late term abortion is one that, in the abstract, no woman would want to have to take but, in reality, some do when faced with no conceivable alternatives. The welfare effects of a change in the law are far from clear, not only because of the small proportion of abortions that take place after 20 weeks but also because of the individual welfare judgments that lie behind them. Data, and what they represent, can be instructive in even the most intractable of debates.

The reality of young people’s aspirations

Adults often complain that young people today aspire to fame and wealth rather than traditional skilled occupations: approaching the end of compulsory education, today’s 15 and 16 year-olds want to be footballers or singers, not teachers or lawyers. Not according to data from the final wave of the British Household Panel Survey, which asked 1222 young people 80 questions on everything from their leisure pursuits and alcohol intake to their social attitudes and friends. Towards the end of their interviews, young people were asked what job they’d like to do when they leave school or finish their full-time education, and these are the results among those aged 15 and 16. Aspirations to be actors and sports players come high in the list – 6th and 7th respectively – but are less popular than aspirations to be motor mechanics, officers in the armed forces and the police. Aspirations to be secondary school teachers, solicitors and lawyers top the table. A click on the bubble graph reveals the data in more detail.

Data from the British Household Panel Survey 2009, visualised using Many Eyes