Impetus Insights - September 2023

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Welcome to Impetus Insights... a place where we discuss ideas, articles and interesting reading about education and employment policy - and what we think it means for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We'll be sharing this every month alongside news and updates about our own policy work. We’d love to hear what you think of this edition, and what you’d like to see in future newsletters.

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After the lull of summer, it feels like everything has been coming thick and fast over the last month or so. One of the challenges of bringing you this newsletter once a month is that sometimes that “month” is four weeks, and sometimes it’s five. Generally, more happens in a five week month. And when you chunk in party conference season… suffice to say, there’s a lot to talk about.

To start with, we’ve concluded our big releases for the year with the new Young Person’s Guarantee from the Youth Employment Group – five policy proposals to support a guarantee that, within four months of leaving employment or education, all young people aged under 25 will receive support to access employment, training, or education opportunities. Hats off to Phoebe on my team for all the corralling to get this brilliant piece of work agreed by all the co-chairs.

And it seems unlikely the fast pace will slow down any time soon as we start the long countdown to an election expected in November 2024 or October 2024, or maybe May, or maybe… this December? I’ll eat my hat if it’s the latter. Famous last words.

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Enjoy reading,


In this issue

    • Our thoughts on the last month’s news and announcements, from school attendance, one million days of lost learning, and who should go to university
    • Some things we enjoyed reading on curricula, attendance, and rolling out proven programmes
    • Some things to look forward to over the next month, from party conference events to stats releases
    • If you get to the end, there’s something on reversing coups

News and views

Our focus here, as at Impetus, is on the outcomes that we know work to improve the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – educational attainment, access to higher education and sustainable employment.

  • It’s been quite the month for stats, with the major release being this summer’s GCSE results – the first based on proper exams and standard grading since 2019. Somewhat unsurprisingly given the pandemic, attainment gaps for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have increased since before the pandemic, although by relatively small amounts – they are still around 40% less likely to pass key GCSEs English and maths. This is a very longstanding problem which will require longstanding solutions.
  • These results underscore why proven interventions like tutoring are so important. The last month started well with the Lib Dems using their conference to announce their tutoring policy and Labour making positive noises about improving the tutoring offer in schools. We’ve also seen NFER’s attempt to evaluate the second year of the National Tutoring Programme when it was being mismanaged by Randstad – the lack of meaningful comparators makes it all a bit of a mess, frankly. Our charity partners Action Tutoring and Tutor Trust explained in detail for SchoolsWeek.
  • Back on the DfE stats train… absence. If you read our report last month looking at why absence has shot up in recent years, you’ll probably have clocked that the reasons aren’t shifting and so the data is unlikely to. Well, the latest data shows a small headline fall (from 7.4% to 7.3%, and 22.3% to 21.2% for persistent absence), though absence for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is actually up, to 10.9%. This was a good time for the Education Select Committee to publish their report on these issues – and it was welcome to see them recommend schools should focus on support before fines, chiming with our earlier research.
  • Party conference season wasn’t packed with major announcements (for a while I had “mobile phone ban – what to say?” written in my notes). But then Rishi Sunak pulled a surprise by announcing a ten-year plan to totally revamp 16-18 education and abolish A levels, T levels, and, well, everything. Away from the headlines there is good stuff happening rather sooner (£150m extra to support GCSE resit students is a really big win). There’s also a surprising amount of detail on what the entirely new system – the Advanced British Standard – would look like. It will be interesting to see how much progress the government makes over the next year in laying the groundwork, and which bits Labour ultimately supports in principle.
  • One last trip back on the DfE stats train for the destination data, which as always shows young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to make transitions at the end of each stage of education. In key stage 4, we see 87.7% of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds make a sustained next step compared to 95.7% of their better off peers. Bear in mind that effectively means around one in eight of these young people are missing out on education and training at 16-18, which is technically illegal. For 18 year olds progressing to further or higher education there is a smaller gap overall (63.4% vs 69.5%), though they are only about half as likely to go to the best universities (12.2% vs 21.6%). July’s longer-term destinations data never made the cut for Impetus Insights but is worth a look if you want to know what happens to young people more than six months after they leave school.
  • Of course, it’s not just education that has been newsy this last month. The Youth Employment UK Youth Voice Census results are out. I found the findings that 43% of young people have changed their study choices in the last year and 52% of young people currently in work changed their career plans and choices in the last 12 months particularly interesting – I suspect these levels of uncertainty are higher than pre-pandemic, but nonetheless it’s a reminder that relatively few young people stick to set paths. Only one in eight young people think quality employment opportunities are available where they live.

      Top reads

      Here’s our roundup of some of the most useful and thought-provoking reads across a range of interesting areas...

      • More research on the impact of covid. This paper looks at 8 and 9 year olds and finds that while maths and reading scores have recovered on average (i.e. are similar to what we saw pre-pandemic) a) young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are further behind than pre-pandemic and b) there’s been a doubling in the proportion of very low attaining pupils. This is one of those occasions where an overall average masks important variation – like the old joke where the statistician sticks his head in the freezer, his feet in the oven and says “on average this is just right”. Averages are not always helpful.
      • It’s not Impetus Insights unless we include several interesting things from Education Datalab. This month has been full of good blogs on exclusions. Our analysis in September of the 2021/22 data on exclusions showed a significant rise in suspensions, and the Datalab’s analysis on the data they have suggests we should anticipate the official data for 2022/23 showing another rise. There are also two blogs on risk factors for exclusion in secondary schools and for permanent exclusions (from last month). Previous exclusions, coming from a disadvantaged background, and having social and emotional needs are all big factors, alongside gender and ethnicity.
      • Very little excites me at the moment (I still haven’t recovered from party conference) but there’s going to be an official skills classification by early 2025 (with a beta version in six months). If you think we need to get everyone on the same page in using a common language around skills, this is the tool you’ve been waiting for. Nerdy but important.
      • For the general public, the most high profile higher education policy is tuition fees, and almost all roads to substantial HE reform lead through this thorny debate. Public First have some interesting research on public opinion about tuition fees. Basically, people don’t like fees, don’t think cutting them should be a priority right now, and don’t want to make up any shortfall in their taxes – probably not a huge surprise, but not exactly fertile ground for major reform. But people are also aware of the need to support students with their living costs in the here and now, and would support the reintroduction of maintenance grants. Impetus has supported this for several years, and it’s nice to know that. Another July item that did not make the cut is this IFS briefing on the current tuition fee system and options for reform.
      • The Ofsted review of careers guidance is out and mostly points to things heading in the right direction. There’s been a lot of behind the scenes focus on this over the last decade or so and it feels like an area where progress has been made, largely due to worthy but non headline grabbing reports like this. Dr Tristram Hooley has blogged about it if you want a bit more analysis.
      • While Impetus isn’t a charity that exists to alleviate poverty, understanding poverty is pretty central to understanding the challenges the young people we are about are facing. The Poverty Strategy Commission do excellent work on this, and their interim report is a good one. An effective anti-poverty strategy would cover more than just incomes – “we must look to reduce costs (including for housing, childcare and disability) and debt and increase assets and resilience”. Absolutely!

        Look ahead

        Monday 2 October – Conservative Party conference

        • Youth Employment Group reception – 5.45-7.15pm – Tea Room, Midland Hotel
        • Education reception with AQA and EPI – 7.30-9.30pm – Central 8

        Monday 9 October – Labour Party conference

        • Youth Employment Group reception – 4.00-5.15pm – Skills Hub
        • Education reception with AQA and EPI – 7.30-9.30pm – ACC Room 13

        Thursday 12 October sees the Key Stage 1 outcomes statistics released by DfE

        Tuesday 17 October is the labour market stats release, and also the next meeting of the APPG on oracy

          And finally...early years matters

          The new blog Statecraft offers really deep insight about what it takes to actually get stuff done in government, and I think it’s going to become my new favourite blog (even though it’s a bit US centric). This piece about reversing coups is full of detailed, useful stuff. Here are some choice quotes:

          • On evidence for policy: “The big questions that policymakers care about are not randomizable.”
          • On communicating: “the specific words that you use to describe what you're trying to do really matter. You can sometimes use the wrong term because you don't realize how it's being interpreted.”
          • On the value of outsiders: “When you’re working on the inside you could never work on a big problem, because you’re putting out fires every day. Yet as an outsider, you’re able to have the blue sky idea and use the knowledge of how the interagency process works to try to get a new idea through the system.”
          • On coalition building: “it's important to get people around goals around what the promised land looks like. We can debate who does exactly what after everybody's agreed on the promised land.”

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          Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus.

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