What do you hope for in life? More specifically – and perhaps more mundanely – what did you hope for educationally? Were you always intent on going to university? Determined to leave school as soon as you could?
Students’ aspirations now feature in current education policy debates. This has formed an important part of the debate on social mobility. It is generally believed that having high aspirations is an important factor behind good performance in school. Whether it then follows that it is a good policy idea to attempt to raise students’ aspirations across the board is less obvious, but that is not the subject of this comment.
How are aspirations formed? Why do some students have higher aspirations than others? To make things concrete, one of the first big decisions that students have to make is whether to stay on at school at 16. Students continuing in school open up the possibility of university and a graduate career. Finishing education as soon as possible closes those possibilities down, at least in a straightforward way.
We can see a few straightforward patterns from a simple data analysis.
We studied responses to the question: ‘What do you want to do when you are 16?’ in the Next Steps dataset. The question was asked of 14 year olds in schools in England, and we focus on the simple distinction of whether they wanted to carry on at school or not. Figure 1 shows some simple raw means of educational aspirations by ethnicity and gender.
Figure 1: Percentages Aspiring to Stay at School at 16
The first point to note is that staying on at school is by far the most common aspiration for both male and female pupils across all ethnic groups.
Within this there are, however, huge differences between the different ethnic groups. For female pupils there is a ten point gap between White students at 85% and the South Asian and Black Caribbean groups at 94 or 95%. The proportion of Black African girls wanting to stay on at school is even higher, at 99%.
There is generally a similar pattern for male students across the ethnic groups. Again, over 90% of boys in the South Asian and Black African groups want to stay on, and again the proportion of White boys staying on is the lowest of all the ethnic groups at only 73%. Black Caribbean boys display a slightly higher proportion on average, at 81%.
It is interesting to briefly note that the aspirations of the respondents in this survey reflect actual activity at the age of 16 of a previous cohort: a higher percentage of students from Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black African heritages stay on at school than do white British students.
Very similar large ethnic differences can be found in the students’ views regarding how likely it is that they will apply to university.
What influences this decision? Clearly, a full answer to this would involve a number of approaches including at least psychology and sociology as well as economics. Research evidence, including our own, suggests that the student’s prior attainment matters (the more able have higher aspirations), and that more broadly the students’ perceptions of their talent also matters; this is called “academic self-concept”. Some aspects of family circumstances matter, for example the qualifications of the students’ parents are correlated with their child’s aspirations, and some studies find that community or neighbourhood factors also matter.
However, the most important single factor is the aspirations of the student’s parents. Parental aspirations are a very strong correlate: 89% of students whose parents want them to stay on at school express the same wish.
The overall average hides differences across ethnic groups, however. In Figure 2 we plot differences in parental aspirations and differences in the students’ aspirations conditional on their parents’ views for each ethnic group in our sample. The group percentages of parents wanting their children to stay on at school are displayed along the horizontal axis. The vertical axis shows the group percentages of students wanting to stay on specifically for the group of students whose parents also want this. The figure illustrates the great disparity in parental aspirations between White and Mixed White-Black Caribbean and the South Asian groups.
There are marked differences in parental aspirations across the groups: just under 60% of low-income White boys’ parents want their sons to stay on at school, compared to around 90% or over for Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black African boys. There are high parental aspirations within these ethnic groups across the income distribution.
Figure 2: Student and Parent Aspirations
It seems that the passing on of high aspirations from parents to children is another dimension of the complex and multi-faceted transmission of opportunities and assets from one generation to the next.
In 2008 the previous Labour government introduced a new benefit for the sick and disabled called the Employment Support Allowance (ESA). The new benefit replaced two existing benefits for new claims on its introduction but at its heart were two major differences. First, was a new test called the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), to determine eligibility for the benefit and for the majority of claimants, called the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) there was to be a new regime of personalised support and engagement to help people back to work (which I designed). The new regime initially applied only to new claimants but this week existing claimants are starting to be re-tested under the new WCA test and may potentially be reclassified as Fit for Work.
There are two major reasons why getting this transition process right is critical. First, this is a large and vulnerable group and thus the introduction of the new benefit eligibility test has the potential to cause huge anxiety and distress to people. Many, especially those with mental health problems, may well fall into the sizable crack between ESA and JSA (unemployment benefit) and end up destitute, homeless or worse. Second, those denied access to the benefit are likely to end up on unemployment benefits which are not designed to help sick people back to work. Under the new Work Programme providers are paid to get claimants into sustained work are divided into three groups, the first are mainly adult unemployed who receive help after 12 months claiming benefits. Here the payment to a provider for getting them into work for a year will be of the order of £3500. Those “being found fit for work” and hence signing on as unemployed rather than disabled will normally be allocated to this group, although if they were previously claiming Incapacity Benefit they will get the help after 3 months. For those on ESA the package of support starts immediately and providers will be paid about £14,000 if they get someone into work for two years. Getting the sick and disabled in the right category thus matters greatly in terms of the chances of helping them into work. Those on unemployment benefits with significant barriers to work may well be ignored by providers as offering little hope of a pay off given the high investment needed to get them back to work.
Given the imperative of getting people into the right category, common sense would suggest the Government should move slowly and check at each stage that any changes were working. So starting with new claimants makes sense and a five year review process was specified in the original legislation I believe. Yet the developments so far have been deeply flawed. Concerns with the WCA test emerged in late 2009/early 2010 with strong reports of major problems, especially around individuals with cancer, mental health problems and variable conditions. It also emerged that a huge number of cases were going to appeal, jamming the system, and often being overturned. The Government responded with changes to address these issues, but there were no subsequent checks that the problems had been dealt with. In fact, the cries of anguish continued unabated. In the summer of 2010, Prof. Malcolm Harrington was commissioned to undertake the first major review and it was quickly apparent that he saw the need for extensive changes to the process of the decision making after the test was undertaken. Furthermore, the DWP was also internally reviewing the medical test. Yet the first trial of the WCA test on existing disability claimants went ahead in Burnley and Aberdeen on the old test and the old decision process. So now as the medical test goes national the new regime outlined by Harrington and the DWP internal review is being implemented with no prior testing. The Government claims these changes have fixed the earlier problem and undoubtedly the Harrington Review will have made a difference, but surely it should be tested and checked before being applied nationally. It is baffling why the trials in Burnley and Aberdeen were not delayed just 4 months to test run the new regime. Likewise it is clearly essential to track the progress of those denied access to the new benefit, especially among those previously claiming Incapacity Benefits, to study what is happening to them. Are they moving to JSA, getting jobs or suffering acute deprivation without any financial support? By tracking people according to what conditions they are presenting with, we can assess which conditions are not being picked up well, if groups fail to move into work. But again no such research or tracking is apparently being undertaken.
The process seems to have been characterised by undue haste, a lack of testing and immediate assessment. It may be that this derives from a view that those denied benefit will be healthy and undeserving of support, rather than emphasising the risk of vulnerable people being treated inappropriately. This has become an interactive process of changes being followed by a chorus of complaints, revision, a wait to see if complaints diminish, and further revision when they don’t. The current national roll out will not be the end regime but just the latest iteration in my view. This is no way to introduce such a fundamental reform affecting so many vulnerable people.
The Work Programme is the Government’s replacement for Labour’s Flexible New Deal which in turn was preceded by various New Deal programmes. The new programme will have three new features which are distinctive and potentially positive. First, it will operate a single programme for multiple client groups but with three different major fee rates. Providers running the programme will receive fees for helping clients into sustained work with the regular adult unemployed forming the bulk of the cheapest group. The young unemployed are the main group in the middle tier and those with significant disabilities forming the most expensive tier. This step has been planned for some time with the move to Employment Support Allowance replacing Incapacity Benefits and the development of a welfare to work strategy for the disabled. However, this integration is the first time that the UK has operated a clear unified programme which offers real hope of reducing long-term marginalisation of this group from the labour market. The second major advance is that the full payment to providers for getting people into work will not be paid until a person has been in work for a year rather than 6 months, and two years for the sick and disabled. This will encourage providers to think more about job matching and indeed job quality as better paid permanent jobs have a far greater likelihood of paying out. Third, the programme is fully “black box”: there is no prescribed provision or minimum service agreement. This will facilitate use of new group/team based working rather than one-to-one fortnightly meets which dominated the minimum service agreements and are probably poor value for time and resources. Team or group based working has a good history of helping through peer support as well as being low cost.
What is missing, in my view, is discussion of a number of issues which have not been dealt with previously, and a couple which are particular to the new programme. For young people, even though youth unemployment is high, very few NEETs will be on the Work Programme. Only around half of 18-24 year olds not in work or education are signing on for Job Seekers Allowance and only a minority of these have a single spell of claiming that is sufficiently long to join the Programme.
Hence most will miss treatment because they get spells of short term work or training or don’t sign on. In terms of benefits spending this may appear acceptable, but we know that these individuals who fail to connect to sustained work go on to have very poor earnings and frequent spells of unemployment when older. A window based on the person’s recent history of worklessness is necessary for entry to the programme, rather than single spell duration and those not on JSA need to be identified and tracked to facilitate re-engagement.
A further long standing problem is that DWP contracts on a fixed price for all those in a group. The risk is that the provider will focus on the easiest to help and not invest in the hardest. This is sometimes called parking; parking is likely to occur within the three group bands, although there are small extra payments for some groups within bands but is probably most problematic among the disabled where the huge variation in conditions and costs associated with getting them back to work may mean many are written off as too costly to help. The fees on offer are tight for providers and the poor labour market conditions will mean providers will struggle to match cost. In many cases winning the current contracts may well prove to be loss leaders until the next round of contracts. This means DWP may be getting very good value right now but there has to be a risk that some providers may withdraw or need contract top ups to keep going, as happened in Holland when this structure was introduced in the 1990s.