Archive for December, 2010

The season of goodwill

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Sarah Smith

Charities might rightly feel that they have had a tough year. First the recession which many charities claim hit their donations. Then, the announcement of public spending cuts which will affect thousands of charities which rely on government funding.

The festive season should therefore bring a brief respite and provide a temporary boost to charity incomes as this is the time of year when people really do dig a little deeper and give more to charity than during the rest of the year. The chart below shows average weekly household donations to charity for each month in the year – there is a spike in march/april, coinciding with the end of the tax year, but a greater spike in December. Santa, it appears, has a greater effect on giving than the tax man. These averages are for households that actually give to charity; the proportion of households who give is also slightly higher in December than at other times of year, but it is the amounts that people give that show the biggest increase at Christmas. The average weekly amount given is nearly £12 in December – more than twice the average amount over the preceding three months.

Source: Living Costs and Food Survey, 2008

It is hard to say exactly what accounts for the festive increase – other than it being the season of goodwill to all men. Some of it may be religiously motivated; the evidence shows that religion is strongly associated with charitable giving and that people who are religious are more likely to give to charity and to give more. Yet as religiosity has declined in the UK over the past thirty years, Christmas giving has remained high and, if anything ,has increased over time. In 2008 (which is the latest year for which we have data) giving in December was 60 per cent higher than the average over the rest of the year; thirty years ago (over the decade 1978-88) it was roughly 16 per cent higher.

As part of the Big Society, the government is keen to encourage charitable giving. Research that we carried out on behalf of HM Treasury showed that tax incentives are not particularly effective at encouraging people to give more. The majority of people do not respond to changes in tax incentives by changing how much they give, although this does mean that Gift Aid style incentives that allow the charities to claim back the tax paid on donations can help to boost charities incomes (more than rebate-style incentives which rely on donors to adjust their giving). Understanding the December effect could give insights into what motivates people to give and be used to design more effective policies. As charities enter 2011 facing up to the reality of cutbacks in public spending both they and the government will be keen to ensure that higher giving is not just for Christmas.

Response to Education White Paper I: Teachers and teaching

December 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess


The focus of the new Education White Paper (WP) is advertised in the title: “The Importance of Teaching”. Teachers are rightly lauded as the most important single factor in creating a good education. The reforms relate principally to training new teachers, with additional discussion of the constraints and bureaucracy that teachers face.  The White Paper calls for shifting the emphasis of teacher training from university-based to school-based training, the argument being that this is where the “craft” of teaching is better learnt, and that this will generate more effective teachers.

We believe that the WP presumes more robust evidence on this issue than actually exists. It is hard to legislate on the best way to train teachers when we are not really sure what makes a good teacher, or what effective teachers do. We need to be realistic in terms of what we know, and also in terms of the wider context around teacher development.

There are a number of prior questions that need more robust answers than they currently have to properly address this policy issue. For example: To what extent are good teachers born or made? What do effective teachers do? What motivates teachers? We discuss new teachers first and then existing teachers.

The two key issues around new teachers are recruitment and training. The research evidence suggests that the recruitment of teachers matters a great deal. This evidence can be used to design the ideal personnel policy, the ideal contract for teachers. The facts are that teachers are very different in effectiveness but that this is hard to spot pre-hire as it does not appear to be well correlated with characteristics such as degree class or subject; and that this level of effectiveness tends not to increase with experience after the first two or three years. The current teacher entry system involves making the sharpest selection before training (to be raised to a good university degree), giving training, but thereafter only mild selection: that is, most people pass their training, and then passing probation (achieving QTS) is relatively straightforward in most schools. The evidence suggests a better policy would be exactly the reverse: a much more open and inclusive approach to who can begin teacher training, coupled with a much tougher probationary policy.

It is hard to give strong advice about a model for teacher training, given only a sketchy idea of how effective teachers operate. But in practical terms, students on teacher training courses already spend about two thirds of their time in school rather than in the university lecture hall; the scope for major gains from further time in school does not seem large. Furthermore, a timely OFSTED report on initial teacher training found more outstanding university-based teacher training courses than outstanding school-based ones. The implications for schools of taking a larger role in teacher training also need some consideration, particularly given the squeeze in resources that is coming.

There are about 400,000 teachers in England, and the turnover is about 20,000 per year. So even if the average effectiveness of new teachers can be significantly improved, this will only have a marginal impact on overall effectiveness for at least a decade. Increasing the effectiveness of existing teachers offers much greater scope for rapid improvements in standards.

The counter-part to focussing initial training on schools is to emphasise and enhance training on the job, continuing professional development (CPD). The picture painted by the economics evidence suggests a model of informal, small-scale, within-school or even within-department groups would work well, with colleagues learning from the most effective teachers.   Whilst CPD is discussed at some length in the WP, it has not been the focus of interest and discussion that it should be.

The broader question is why this has to be pushed towards teachers, why there isn’t much of a demand for it from most teachers. Raising the value of being an effective teacher might help fuel this demand. We know that teachers do raise their teaching effort given incentives, and it seems likely that they would also be keener to invest in their own capability to be effective. This incentivisation could be very simple and need not be personal financial gain. It could be simple pride and satisfaction from being top of a list of teachers in the staff room, or additional resources for a project chosen by the teacher, or it could be a pay bonus for the teacher.

The focus on teachers and teacher effectiveness is to be applauded. It is less clear that the right policies have been selected to enhance this.


EMA and good evidence-based policy making

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan


Young people leaving school at age 16 with few or no qualifications face a bleak future. As with high school drop outs in the US, employment rates are low for most of their working lives, as are earnings when they work. So a programme that encourages people from low income families to stay on in school at age 16 would seem to be sensible policy making.

The Educational Maintenance Allowance is a benefit that 16 and 17 year olds from low income families can receive only if they continue in full-time education. To receive it, students are required to regularly attend college or the weekly payment is stopped and there are bonuses for course achievement encouraging completion. Unusually in the UK, EMA was fully trialled with a good study design to give clear answers to how much it changed behaviour. The study carried out by the IFS suggested that among those eligible, those staying on in school increased by 6 to 7 percentage points.

However, from January the government is going to abolish EMA for new starters which will have its main effect next September for new school leavers. The government argues that that 90% of EMA is deadweight and this justifies its abolition based on qualitative evidence that this 90% would have continued in education regardless of the payment. However, just because it changes the behaviour of just 1 in 10 of those eligible, this doesn’t mean it is not cost effective if the benefits to this group are large enough.

The IFS research shows that in areas where EMA was trialled, students as a whole were around 2 percentage points more likely to reach the thresholds for Levels 2 and 3 of the National Qualifications Framework and they also had A Level grades around 4 points higher on average. This was probably because of the attendance requirement and achievement incentives.  The benefits went wider than those who just attended school as a result of EMA. The value of these qualifications in terms of future earnings was greater than the cost of the programme. The IFS argue that even if this increase in participation is relatively small, the longer-term benefits to those affected by the policy in terms of future productivity more than out-weigh the cost of the scheme. Yet this doesn’t include the impact on reduced unemployment, greater well being and even the potential impact on the next generation of having better educated higher earning parents. An interesting piece of research by Leon Fienstein and Ricardo Sabetes  showed that in EMA areas crime generally fell and youth convictions for burglary fell significantly.

So all the evidence is that EMA was a well design policy that improved life chances and had wider ranging benefits. But the greatest paradox is that the government has kept payments for children attending college which go to nearly all children (Child Benefit) whilst slashing the targeted support for the poorest to attend school. Yet all the evidence is clear that it is those from the poorer families for whom the incentive effects are greatest and the longer term value to society is greater.   If the Government wants to save money in this area then reducing Child Benefit for post-16s would achieve the savings without the wider adverse consequences for the life chances of Britain’s poorest children.  As the one of the governments buzz words of the time is responsibility, it is counter-intuitive to dismantle a policy that encourages responsibility for these young adults, who face the biggest opportunity cost of further education, by making a direct payment, conditional on full attendance at school. It is heartening to see so many young people demonstrating against the abolition of EMA and it is important for academics to stand up for good evidence based policy making.

“Systemic failure” in Welsh Education

December 10, 2010 1 comment

Simon Burgess

The release this week of the latest round of international comparative education results produced some fascinating results. Not least of these was the outcome for Wales, characterised by the Wales’ Education Minister as alarming and “unacceptable”.

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results derive from a standardised international assessment of 15-year-olds, run by the OECD. They show that Wales has fallen further behind since the last tests in 2006, and scored worse than before in each of reading, maths and science. Scores in Wales have fallen relative to England and are now “cast adrift from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland”. The Wales Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, described the results as reflecting “systemic failure”.

What might that systemic failure be? One leading candidate is highlighted in our recent research on accountability mechanisms for state schools. We argue that the decision in 2001 by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) to stop the publication of school performance tables or “league tables” has resulted in a significant deterioration in GCSE performance in Wales. The effect is sizeable and statistically significant. It amounts to around 2 GCSE grades per pupil per year; that is, achieving a grade D rather than a B in one subject. This is a substantial effect, equivalent to the impact of raising class size from 30 to 38 pupils.

Although our results are based on a study of the GCSE scores school-by-school, Figure 1 gives a very stark impression of the overall effect. Students in England and Wales were performing very similarly up to 2001, but thereafter the fraction gaining 5 good passes has strongly diverged.

We take each secondary school in Wales, and match it up to a very similar school in England. This “matching” is based on pupils’ prior attainment, neighbourhood poverty and school funding among other factors. We then track the progress (or value added) students make in these schools before and after the league tables reform, comparing the Welsh school with its English match. Our analysis explicitly takes account of the differential funding of schools in England and Wales, and the greater poverty rates found in neighbourhoods in Wales.

Why should the removal of school league tables lead to a fall in school performance? Part of the effect is though the removal of information to support parental choice of school. The performance tables allow parents to identify and then apply to the higher scoring schools, and to identify and perhaps avoid the low scoring schools. This lack of applications puts pressure on the latter schools to improve. But this is not all of the story. Perhaps as important is the simple public scrutiny of performance, and in particular the public identification of the low scoring schools. This “naming and shaming” means that low scoring schools in England are under great pressure to improve, whereas the same schools in Wales are more able to hide and to coast.

Our work has attracted criticism, including a charge of using an “ideological theory” from teacher unions . A more thoughtful critic has accused us of a “howler” in the analysis: not noting the introduction of the original GCSE-equivalent qualifications. In fact, since these were introduced equivalently in both countries they simply net out of the comparison.

Responding to our research, the Welsh Assembly Government said “wait for the PISA results”. These results are now in, and do not make happy reading. No doubt there are many factors underlying the relative performance of Wales and England, but the diminution of public accountability for the country’s schools is surely one of them.

What is the value of education?

December 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Rich Harris


The UK education system has been firmly in the headlines. Whether it’s the Coalition Government’s Schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, or students protesting against the Government’s response to the Browne report (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in London) the critical issue of whether education is a public or private good is being discussed and debated rigorously, though not necessarily in those terms.

Of course, it’s both. Though one might question the (historic) figures bandied around to assert the wage premium a higher education degree is said to attract, and certainly discount the idea it will apply to everyone who passes through a University, it must be true that one of the motivations that attracts students to University study is the prospect of a well-paid job. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is often the transferable skills and training that Universities offer that make them an attractive proposition for internal as well as overseas students. On the other hand, at a time when the talk is of ‘the Big Society’ and about measuring happiness not merely economic output as a measure of the country’s progress, it would be odd to stop valuing learning as a social and cultural good in its own right. There may not always be an immediate and tangible economic return but were Universities ever intended to be just the training partners of industry, business and commerce?

Meanwhile, the new academies and free school programmes outlined by Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, have reignited the debate about social polarization if the best performing schools opt-out of local authority governance and, it is assumed, begin to attract the better (meaning middle-class) pupils who then receive a better funded educational experience than those left “trapped” in the less desirable schools. Here again, we encounter the question, who is education for? The individual recipients? Society as a whole? Or, both (in which case, how are they balanced?).

In A Journey, Tony Blair staunchly defends the New Labour policy of promoting school choice. The basic argument is who is government to hold back those who want to innovate, to be successful, to want the best for their children? It’s compelling but critics of those and current policies might argue they are individualistic. They miss the broader social point that it is not a level playing field: those with the resources and influence to do so, it is alleged, are best able to capitalise on the system. They will be the “winners” and inequalities will grow. And inequalities, according to the authors of the much publicised and debated book The Spirit Level are socially damaging.

But is it true? Have policies of school choice, partial marketisation and competition actually raised levels of social polarization? For schools the evidence remains unclear: see past CMPO papers and a forthcoming CMPO working paper reviewing the literature to date. In Higher Education, University education is not the preserve of the elite and the wealthy. In fact, the traditional image of the ivory towers where fresh-faced young students travel from the Home Counties along the M4 to study for three years away from home increasingly is misleading. Many students are part-time, mature and live at home. And, though young people from more affluent areas are still more likely to attend University, young people from disadvantaged areas have been substantially more likely to enter higher education since the mid-2000s (see Trends in young participation in higher education: core results for England, HEFCE, 2010). It would also not be unreasonable to suggest that the professionalization of teaching with Universities, though still not as strongly valued as it should be, is driven in response to the raised expectation of fee-paying students.

Yet, that was before a near three-fold increase in fees that will see the Aimhigher programme (promoting widening participation) axed and which will make the English University system the most expensive in the world, saddling students with a debt for up to 30 years. Quite what the effects on the housing and mortgage markets will be when graduates must first pay a fixed proportion of their salary to repay their student fees can only be guessed at. Will it be the case that only those from the “best schools” will be able to afford to go on and attend the “best universities”? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, the debate continues. What is that value of education? And who or what gains from it?


Is there more to life than satisfaction?

December 1, 2010 1 comment

Sarah Smith


David Cameron has launched a quest to find a measure of well-being that can be used as an indicator of our national performance – and be used as a measure of the success of government policy. Economic growth, it is argued, is too narrow, and we need to think about other indicators. Fair enough. But I would like to add a note of caution about focusing on many of the measures of subjective well-being that are commonly used in household surveys and question whether they really capture what people care about. The following example, which focuses on the relationship between children’s births and their parents’ well-being, helps to illustrate this.

A number of household surveys in the UK now include questions intended to capture individuals’ subjective well-being. These will typically ask people how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 10, or how satisfied they are with various aspects of their life and with their life overall. These may be the kind of questions that David Cameron is thinking about including in his measures of well-being.

The graphs below plot the relationship between individuals’ reported life satisfaction (on a scale of 1 to 7) over time and the birth of their first child. They are derived from the British Household Panel Survey which follows the same individuals over time – and can measure life satisfaction before and after the big event, which takes place in year 0 in the graphs. What they clearly show is that individuals’ reported life satisfaction falls at birth (after rising during pregnancy) and does not return to its previous level at least for the first five years of the child’s life. Basically, having children makes people “worse off”. This finding is consistent with studies from other countries which find the same thing.[1]











Now we all know that young children can be hard work; that their arrival may increase financial worries and place relationships under strain and that people may struggle to balance work and family life. More work is needed to understand why people’s life satisfaction falls when they have children – and to make life easier for new parents where possible. But, another take on this result is that there is more to life than satisfaction.

Put another way, people’s reported life satisfaction may have fallen but I doubt that many parents would say that they regretted having children, nor would they think they would be better off if their children were taken away from them.  So, one conclusion is that questions about life satisfaction (and happiness) do not capture everything that matters; people care about other things, including their children. Further evidence of this comes from new research findings[2] that people’s choices are not exclusively determined by what maximises their well-being, they also take account of factors such as sense of purpose, control, family relationships and status – suggesting that these too need to be taken into account in developing indicators of the really important things in life.


[1] Lags and Leads in Life Satisfaction: A Test of the Baseline Hypothesis”, (Andrew, Clark, Ed Diener, Yannis Georgellis and Rich Lucas, Economic Journal, (June 2008), Vol.118, no.529, pp.F222-F243.

[2] Benjamin, D., Heffertz, O., Kimball, M. and Rees-Jones, A. (2010) Do people seek to maximise happiness? NBER working paper 16487