Impetus Insights - May 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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May 2023 is a month that will live long in my memory. First, as a long-enjoying Eurovision fan, I was delighted to nab tickets to the dress rehearsal of the second semi-final. I am still periodically humming about Edgar Allan Poe. Second, as a long-suffering West Ham fan, I was delighted to see the team make a European final. If we win, believe me I will mention it in the June newsletter.

May was also a big month for our friends at Football Beyond Borders (how’s that for a segue?) who released their latest impact report. One of the challenges they face working with a population of young people identified as “at risk” by teachers is it’s hard to find benchmarks to compare their performance to, but the team are committed to doing so. I was particularly impressed by the finding that social and emotional learning skills improve the longer young people work with them, which bucks the normal trend identified by the OECD. 

And keeping up the celebratory theme, we’re delighted to be partnering with excellent tutoring charities Action Tutoring, The Tutor Trust and Get Further to hold a parliamentary reception on tutoring in July. The Education Secretary has agreed to speak, and there’s a new report in the works to mark three years since the original tutoring announcements.
You are welcome to join us – tickets on Eventbrite.

Enjoy reading,


In this issue

  • Our thoughts on the last month’s news and announcements, from attendance to tuition fees to (checks notes) Andy Burnham
  • Some things we enjoyed reading on the Apprenticeship Levy, What Works, and 86 pages of Labour policy stuff
  • Some things to look forward to over the next month – including the return of our CEO, tutoring related receptions, and of course it’s exam season 😬
  • If you get to the end, there’s a Greek tragedy for you

    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.

    • Impetus ensures young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get the support they need to succeed in school, in work and in life. A big part of that is English and maths qualifications by age 19 – and we got new statistics on that vital outcome this month. 74.9% of 19 year olds achieved Level 2 in English and maths, the highest on record. This breaks out at 81.5% of non disadvantaged groups and 56.7% of disadvantaged groups, an attainment gap of 24.8%pts. This is actually a smaller gap than normal, but of course, they are driven by covid grading policies rather than any real change in reality. So, while this is good news for these young people, we must not lose sight of the need to support the sector to deliver better outcomes.
    • Fans of evidence based policy making love an international comparison. You probably saw the headlines about England's improved performance in reading on the international assessment (PIRLS), which was covered in national media. Peeking behind the curtain, our progress compared to other countries is mostly due to their performance dropping over the pandemic period while we held steady - which is still an achievement. Disadvantage was the third best predictor of performance in the tests (at age 10) behind "reading performance at age 6" and "number of books at home". More in the report!
    • There’s been lots of chatter about university tuition fees, as Keir Starmer seemingly moves away from the 2019 manifesto pledge scrapping them. Blogs on both left of centre LabourList and right of centre CapX broadly welcomed this, though in the interests of balance we should flag it wasn’t a universal welcome. As always, Impetus lets out a sigh when everyone talks about tuition fees and asks why no one is thinking about increasing maintenance support.
    • Attendance in schools is one of the live issues in education right now (more from us on this in the near future) so the release of new persistent absence research from government was interesting. Though free school meals eligibility was the fourth biggest factor in persistent absence, experience of exclusions came first (fixed term) and third (permanent). We often talk about our exclusions work as a distinct workstream, but in reality, exclusions, disadvantage, attendance, life skills… it’s all interconnected.
    • Interesting interview with Jean Gross in TES. Lots to agree with, like her point about focussing less on how to target disadvantage better and more on how we can spend money better also resonated. Jean also mentioned an EEF report she co-wrote, which highlighted that "children need self-awareness, they need to manage their feelings and they need to be able to empathise and get on with others" - which links closely with our work on essential life skills.
    • Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester is proposing a Greater Manchester Baccalaureate or “MBacc” which will provide an alternative pathway to the traditional GCSE to A-Level to University route. The MBacc will encourage students who don’t plan to go to university to take subjects such as Engineering, Computer Science or creative subjects at 14. At 16, they will be steered towards T Levels in the most in-demand areas, and at 18, higher-level apprenticeships. Improved technical options is definitely a good thing, but there’s a risk young people shut the door to university at age 14, which would not be a good thing. This is likely to disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, so it’s definitely one to keep an eye on as it develops.

    Top reads

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

    • LabourList got hold of Labour’s 86-page policy handbook - the most comprehensive blueprint yet for what a Starmer government would look like. While this is just a draft to inform election manifestos, it’s a useful primer on the direction of travel. Lots of positives such as a national strategy with clear targets to close the attainment gap; a greater focus on life skills; and reforms to university funding, ensuring that people from every background have the opportunity to go to university. The detail of how to deliver these things is obviously vital, and we’re in touch with the Labour team to share our thoughts.
    • The latest EPI research on learning loss is now out. While primary reading has basically recovered (consistent with PIRLS data – see previous section), learning loss in maths remains around 1.5 months, which again is consistent with SATs results. As you would expect, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been hit hardest - the gap between primary schools with high and low levels of disadvantage has grown by about 6% since the start of the pandemic (admittedly it had grown by 12% at one point). The pandemic reminds me of my favourite Tears for Fears song: memories fade but the scars still linger.
    • Somewhat meta, but is the “What Works” movement working? Interesting blog from Dan Corry (NPC) for LSE. "Complex questions rarely yield simple solutions and getting those in power to act on findings remains an uphill struggle." The point about making better use of administrative data is one we wholeheartedly endorse (alongside NPC, we've been on the advisory group for DWP's employment data lab for precisely this reason.) As a political beast, I worry most about the political angle. "There is a fundamental issue here about the degree to which any of us make evidence-based decisions, let alone politicians seeking re-election. If the evidence says one thing and the opinion polls another, which would you choose?" Big challenge.
    • Great op-ed in SchoolsWeek picks up on another one of those underdiscussed things that would make a real difference to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Stop making them claim free meals they are entitled to! Just use the data you already have to make it happen automatically! Auto enrolment, as it’s known, is sort of obvious.
    • The Apprenticeship Levy, like the current tuition fees system, is one of those things that’s been around since the David Cameron era and feels due for some kind of review in the next few years, regardless of who wins the election. But where the debate surrounding the Levy often misses out the most important element for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds: a new Policy Exchange paper is a rare exception. It explicitly talks about the need for pre-apprenticeship training and makes proposals about how to fund this: an unexpected delight (even if, as always, I might quibble about detail). Even the proposal to scrap English and maths as an entry requirement is accompanied by a requirement to keep working towards those qualifications. Nice.
    • The University of Exeter has published a new guide on university-led tutoring, encouraging other universities to take up the practice, including practical lessons around quality and scale. Obviously, it’s great that this is now happening – one of the reasons we got involved in the National Tutoring Programme was to try and make tutoring more widely available – but I am slightly cautious about attempts to conscript students as part of their course, rather than using students who want to tutor. Commitment matters as much as training.

    Look ahead

    1 June - our CEO Eleanor Harrison is back from maternity leave

    6 June - is the Tutor Trust’s annual reception in Manchester

    7 June - is Get Further’s birthday event in Parliament

    12 June - we’re organising the next Office for Students' Third Sector forum

    15 June - we're hosting a panel discussion as part of our Impetus Leadership Academy, exploring what it means to be a truly diverse organisation. Register for the event here.

    And of course, the whole month is full of exams and tests and things – good luck to everyone!

    And finally...

    Part of the joy of keeping an eye on educational research is the occasional esoteric study that comes across the desk. This Italian one looks at whether classical studies in high school – that emphasise the study of ancient languages such as Latin and Greek - affect personality traits. It compares individuals who did classical studies in high school with similar individuals who completed a more scientific academic curriculum. It finds that having done classical studies does not affect conscientiousness and openness - but increases neuroticism and self-reported unhappiness.

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    Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus.

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