University challenges: excellence, inclusion and the race to win more funding

In May last year, Manchester University announced plans to make 171 staff redundant. Cost savings were among the reasons for the staff cutbacks, but the university also highlighted other factors, including the need for improvements in the quality of its research and student experience to ensure financial sustainability, and to achieve its ambition to be a world leading institution.

Although Manchester was able to achieve its staff reductions through voluntary severance, other universities have also had to announce staff cutbacks,  including Portsmouth, Liverpool, Heriot-Watt and Southampton. And these institutions are not alone in facing such demanding challenges.

Higher education institutions across the UK are competing against each other and against international rivals to attract funding and students. At the same time, universities, particularly among the prestigious Russell Group institutions, are under pressure to increase participation by more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All of this is set against a background of debates about value for money in higher education, and concerns about Brexit. It’s no surprise that many universities are worried about their future.

Competition: national…

Recent changes to the higher education sector, such as the removal of the cap on student numbers, the entry of private sector providers, and the introduction of a teaching excellence framework have driven universities to become more competitive. Some have built new facilities, or joined forces with business to create technology parks, while others have closed departments that are expensive to run, such as modern languages. A growing number are also turning to financial markets to fund their expansion plans.

…and international

While UK universities have a world-class reputation, they face strong competition from overseas institutions. This year’s world university rankings reported that of the 76 UK universities in the worldwide top 1000, 41 improved their position since last year, while 14 remained in the same position. But while this was the best ever UK performance the compilers of the rankings warned that rising class sizes and the UK’s ability to attract overseas students post-Brexit could have a negative impact on future placings. It’s also becoming clear that global league tables themselves are having an impact on universities.

Added to this, the uncertainty over Brexit is already having an impact on university research funding. Official figures published at the end of 2017 showed that there had been a downturn in both UK participation in, and funding from, the flagship Horizon 2020 project. The need to find alternative sources of funding is pressing, as can be seen in the success of RESEARCHconnect, a tool to help universities identify and manage funding opportunities.

The struggle to widen participation

The proportion of people going to university has risen dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, five per cent of young people went into higher education; today, around half of young people do. Universities have committed themselves to widen participation, but the statistics suggest they are struggling to achieve this, particularly concerning students from BAME and disadvantaged communities.

Figures published earlier this year recorded a 0.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of state-educated students who started full-time undergraduate courses in the autumn of 2016, compared with the previous year. The statistics showed a slight rise in the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, but critics have argued that this was cancelled out by the fall in part-time students (who are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds). In nine out of the 24 Russell Group of universities, the proportion of state school pupils fell.

Further evidence of the country’s leading universities’ difficulties in widening participation has been brought to light by David Lammy MP. His enquiries on the number of ethnic minority students offered a place at Oxford and Cambridge Universities have found that more than a third of Oxford’s colleges admitted three or fewer black applicants between 2015 and 2017. For each of the six years between 2010 and 2015, on average, a quarter of Cambridge University colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.

Moving away from “one size fits all”

The government says it is determined to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background, has a fulfilling experience of higher education. In 2018, the new Office for Students (OfS) was launched, merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access. The OfS aims to regulate higher education in the same way that bodies such as Ofwat and Ofcom regulate the water and telecoms sectors. Its Director of Fair Access and Participation has a particular remit to ensure that higher education institutions are doing all they can to support under-represented groups.

A 2018 report has suggested that the OfS “has the potential to be an agent of profound change, particularly with regard to widening participation.” Among the reports contributors, there was a consensus that widening participation needs to be thought of with a broader scope:

“…‘one size fits all’ solutions will not work if we wish to make higher education representative of the diverse society it serves. Different groups such as care leavers, refugees or those with physical disabilities or mental health problems have different needs, and support should be tailored accordingly.”

Changing the face of higher education

Clearly higher education is facing enormous challenges. But for staff and students of universities, there are concerns about the forces of change that are transforming universities from communities of learners and scholars into businesses.  Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London, has commented:

“If the driving ethos, the thing which directs your behaviour day on day is maximising your income, maximising your position in the league tables in order to maximise your reputation and your fees, that means that you behave in a way that is very different from a traditional university where that wasn’t the driving force. You do get the sense that if that is 90 per cent of what is being thought about by central management, you are fundamentally changing the institution.”

Time will tell whether those changes are for better or for worse.


RESEARCHconnect supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

Read our other recent blogs on higher education:

Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

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It’s National Writing Day! But writing enjoyment is in decline, finds new survey

Today is National Writing Day, an annual celebration to inspire people across the UK to get writing. But this year’s annual literacy survey from the National Literacy Trust has found that children and young people’s enjoyment of writing and how often they write is in decline, suggesting that more action is needed to inspire this section of society.

Worryingly, the survey highlights that daily writing levels have been falling since 2014, and this year the Trust recorded the lowest levels of daily writing since they began asking this question in 2010 (27.0%).

What do the figures show?

Based on a survey of 47,786 children and young people aged 8 to 18 between November 2017 and end of January 2018, key findings include:

  • only half of children and young people enjoy writing very much or quite a lot (49.2%);
  • less than 1 child in 5 writes something that isn’t for school on a daily basis (17.3%);
  • more girls than boys enjoy writing (57.4% vs 40.9%) and write daily (19.9% vs 14.3%); and
  • younger children enjoy writing almost twice as much as their older peers (68.5% of 8 to 11-year-olds, 46.5% of 11 to 14-year-olds, 36% of 14 to 16-year-olds).

The percentage of children and young people who enjoy writing either very much or quite a lot decreased by 1.5 percentage points between 2016 and 2017/18, following the highest levels of writing enjoyment recorded in 2016.

Most children and young people do, however, write things on a regular basis with the use of digital technology. Most respondents said they write text messages (88.1%) and instant messages (77.8%) in their free time at least once a month, followed by short stories/fiction (44.1%) and song lyrics (35.8%). One in six children also engages in online fiction writing (such as Movellas, Wattpad) at least once a month.

This is perhaps no surprise, given the digital age we live in. However, concerns have been raised over the impact increasing use of digital technology is having on children’s ability to write. Could this be attributable, at least in part, to the declining enjoyment of writing?

Initiatives to inspire – can the World Cup help?

In an attempt to stem the decline and help inspire children and young people once again in the run up to National Writing Day, the Trust has launched a series of programmes. Drawing on the excitement surrounding the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, a range of football-themed activities, competitions, teaching resources and lesson ideas have been created to boost literacy this summer. These include:

The hope is these activities will inspire more children and young people to get writing, both within the classroom and outside it.

Previous years’ activities that have drawn on the influence of football and major sporting events suggest that these activities may well achieve their aim. Following a writing competition around the Women’s FA Cup last year, teachers said their students’ enthusiasm for writing (80%), motivation to write (76%) and confidence in writing (68%) had improved.

Similarly, the Premier League Reading Stars (PLRS) programme has had a significant impact on pupils’ reading attainment. In Christ’s School in Richmond upon Thames, 80% of pupils made more than expected progress after taking part. Commenting on the success of the programme in Girlington Primary School in Bradford, Assistant Headteacher, Daniel Walker, noted:

 “Two boys made two sub levels of progress, which is the equivalent of more than a year’s expected progress in one term. One boy made dramatic progress of a whole level (3 sub-levels) in a term.”

Final thoughts

There is universal agreement that writing is important, particularly for young people, in terms of engagement and development. Even the respondents to the Trust’s survey agreed with statements highlighting the functional aspect of writing – 77.6% of children and young people agreed that writing will help them learn more and 74.7% agreed that the more they write, the better their writing becomes. Over half also agreed that they will get a better job if they are good at writing.

The fun aspect of writing, on the other hand, fared less well. Only 41.6% agreed that writing is fun, and only 34.0% agreed that writing is cool. Indeed, it has been argued that there is a need for greater emphasis on writing for pleasure. With their focus on the more fun aspects of writing, perhaps the recent programmes from the Literacy Trust and other similar programmes can help turn these statistics around.

And when next year’s National Writing Day comes around, hopefully we will be highlighting a rise in writing enjoyment.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous post on writing and mental health.

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‘The great training robbery’ – one year on, is the apprenticeship levy having the desired effect?

It’s now been a full year in operation, but will the apprenticeship levy “incentivise more employers to provide quality apprenticeships” and “transform the lives of young people who secure them”, as the government hopes?

A new report from Reform, which has reviewed the available evidence, suggests that “significant reforms are needed”.

Purpose of the levy

Unveiled in 2015 as part of the government’s commitment to deliver three million apprenticeship starts by 2020, the apprenticeship levy aims to encourage employers to invest in apprenticeship programmes and raise additional funds to improve the quality and quantity of apprenticeships.

The levy mandates that employers in England with annual wage bills of over £3 million pay a tax of 0.5%, which can then be spent on apprenticeship training. Employers pay their levy contributions via the PAYE system into a digital account held by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Smaller employers can also access the funds generated through the levy, but they must pay a ‘co-investment’ of 10% towards the cost of the training.

According to the 2015 Spending review and Autumn statement, the levy was expected to raise £3 billion per annum by 2019/20. However, the evidence reviewed by Reform suggests the levy is instead leading to unintended consequences.

Lower quality apprenticeships and bureaucratic burden?

The number of apprenticeship starts following the introduction of the levy has continued to fall. Reform highlights that the number of people starting an apprenticeship in the six months after it was introduced was over 40% lower than the same period the previous year. The most recent figures are little improved – in December 2017 there were 16,700 apprenticeship starts compared to 21,600 in December 2016.

Reform also found that younger and less experienced people have been particularly badly affected with the focus now being towards Higher and Degree level apprenticeships. And many apprenticeships are now for low-skilled, low-wage jobs or for re-labelled management programmes and do not meet the original definition of an apprenticeship, thus diminishing the quality.

The OCED recently highlighted the importance of maintaining skilled roles in apprenticeships, noting that:

“In the long run, even just a small proportion of low-quality apprenticeships can damage the overall reputation and “brand” of apprenticeships.”

Skills, Knowledge, Abilities

The use of the levy to re-badge existing training courses as a way to shift the costs onto government is a particular concern. A CIPD survey of more than 1000 organisations in January 2018 found that:

  • 46% of levy-paying employers think the it will encourage their organisation to rebadge current training in order to claim back their allowance
  • 40% of levy-paying employers said it will make little or no difference to the amount of training they offer
  • 35% of employers will be more likely to offer apprenticeships to existing employees instead of new recruits

Commenting on the findings, skills adviser at the CIPD, Lizzie Crowley, said “this is not adding any additional value and is creating a lot of additional bureaucracy and cost.

Reform argues that the impact on the public finances of allowing employers to re-label courses in this way should not be underestimated. It is estimated that inappropriately labelled ‘apprenticeships’ represent 37% of the people training towards any apprenticeship standard – a figure that could become even higher if employers are allowed to continue to rebadge training as they see fit.

If current trends continue, the government could be spending almost £600 million per annum by 2019-20 on training courses that have been incorrectly labelled ‘apprenticeships’.

stacked pounds shutterstock_66808108

Concerns have also consistently been raised over the complexity of the levy for employers. It has been claimed that the slump in apprenticeship starts could be blamed on “a combination of confusion surrounding the Apprenticeship Levy and the ‘increased administrative burden’ it placed on employers”. The Reform report highlights that the substantial increase in bureaucracy, among other issues, has led business groups to brand the levy ‘disastrous’, ‘confusing’ and ‘broken’.

Despite this, however, there is still support for the levy. A recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) of over 1,500 managers found that two-thirds (63%) agree that it is needed to increase employer investment in skills. It has been suggested that employers have ‘fundamentally failed’ to prepare for the levy as the scale of the challenge was not recognised. And a lack of clarity from the government has also been attributed some blame.

Way forward

The evidence would suggest there is potential for the levy but not in its current form.

The Reform report recommends six significant changes if the objectives for funding apprenticeships are to be realised:

  • there should be a renewed focus on quality over quantity
  • a new internationally-benchmarked definition of an ‘apprenticeship’ should be introduced
  • the 10% employer co-investment requirement should be removed
  • a simpler ‘apprenticeship voucher’ model should replace the existing HMRC digital payment system
  • all apprenticeship standards and end-point assessments should be assigned a fixed cost
  • Ofqual should be made the only option for quality assuring the end-point assessments to maintain standards

If the necessary changes are made, the Reform report concludes that “apprentices, taxpayers and employers across the country stand to benefit for many years to come.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our other posts on diversity in apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships.

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Multiplying excellence: maths schools in the UK

In a report published for National Numeracy Day, it was revealed that innumeracy and poor numeracy skills costs the UK economy over £20bn. And despite there being no scientific research to support the idea of a ‘maths person’, more than three-quarters of children at secondary school surveyed ahead of National Numeracy Day believe that some people are naturally able to do maths better than others. Combatting these challenges by improving attainment and study of maths past GCSE (and STEM subjects more widely) has been a target for the UK government for some years, with the current government highlighting it as a specific objective in order to fulfil the aims of the Industrial Strategy.

The challenge of innumeracy

Public perceptions of maths are poor. Research suggests that it is far more socially acceptable for an adult to say “oh I can’t work this sum out” than to say for example that they can’t read a word. As we get older, while reading and writing, and general literacy, is seen as something that is essential, many do not hold basic maths and numeracy skill in the same regard. This is despite the fact that being innumerate can have just as significant an impact on someone as being illiterate.

The knock-on impact of poor numeracy skills can be seen throughout adult life:  poorer employment prospects; lower confidence and self-esteem, and as a result poorer mental health; increased risk of poverty; and an increased likelihood of having a poor grasp of personal finances and as a result higher risk of unsustainable levels of debt. In addition, poor parental numeracy, has been shown to have an impact on the numeracy and confidence around maths of children and young people who grow up in the same environment. While we can’t all be maths prodigies, it is thought that poor parental attitudes to numeracy is leading to children, particularly girls and those from deprived or lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to miss out on opportunities to advance their maths education. It is hoped that specific targeted interventions, such as the introduction of maths schools will provide an environment for these pupils to flourish, and then go on to inspire the next generation.

 

Lagging in the Pisa rankings

The latest PISA rankings (the new figures are due to be published later this year) show that the UK is, and has been, performing consistently poorer than a number of other developed nations. However, students from east Asia by far outperform most others. Schools are also being encouraged, as well as providing specialist maths teaching, to try to integrate some of the techniques used in Chinese and Singaporean schools in particular to drive improvement in the subject. In addition, the number of young people who take maths as an optional subject (once it becomes non-compulsory after GCSE level) is staggeringly low. Raising this, along with the general quality of maths teaching should be a priority of all schools, not just those which offer a specialist maths education.

From Russia with love

Back when Michael Gove was Education Secretary he had an idea to base maths free schools on the model seen in Russia, particularly on the Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics school in Moscow. The specialist school which allows young people aged 11-17 to complete their formal education in a maths-centred environment is part of Moscow State University. The association with the university means that students are taught by professors and research assistants, not only raising their attainment in the subject, but exposing them to quality teaching from professionals passionate about their subject, inspiring them to understand the professional routes that further mathematics study can bring. This is something that research has suggested is not widely available in UK schools.

Maths schools in the UK

There are two specialist maths schools in the country: Kings College Mathematics School, and Exeter Mathematics School. H callowever the government has released extra funding to try to encourage other universities to set up affiliated maths schools, making use of their teaching resource and providing an opportunity for those gifted and interested enough in the subject to excel.

In Scotland, a report published in 2018 titled Making maths count suggested that maths be made a national priority, highlighting that while there were pockets of exceptional practice in Scotland, there was a lack of co-ordination when it came to sharing expertise and best practice between schools. There are no plans to encourage a similar programme to maths schools in Scotland, but suggested improvements to raise levels of teaching in maths education in Scotland have included changing the requirements for teacher training, to require new teachers to have at least a higher qualification in maths (they already have to have a higher in English to teach and some have asked why it is not the case for maths too). Additionally, projects relating to “maths upskilling” of both the current and new teaching workforce in Scotland are designed to build confidence in using maths and applying it to real life situations so that it can be taught to a high standard with a good level of understanding (which the report found is not always the case currently).

Final thoughts

Future mathematicians  are vital for the future growth of the economy. And not just in the obvious areas like maths teaching, economics and statistics. The “age of digital” presents unprecedented opportunities for those with maths-based qualifications, with the demand for skilled workers with an expertise in maths far outstripping the availability of skilled maths graduates. It is hoped that the introduction (and the government hopes future further rollout) of maths schools in England will help to promote maths as a subject and raise attainment and standards in maths to encourage a new generation of maths learners to be developed.


Want to check up on your maths skills? Take the National Numeracy Challenge.

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If you like this article you may be interested in some of the other blog articles written by our research officers:

Research Online: an expert source of information on the Scottish labour market

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One of the Knowledge Exchange’s key aims is to support the use of evidence and research in public policy and practice. Our Information Service database has been recognised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in its Evidence Ecosystem which illustrated the diversity of organisations involved in supporting evidence use in the government and public sector. But we also support two other sector-specific research portals – Research Online and Evaluations Online.

Here we introduce Research Online, which first launched over 14 years ago and which we have worked with Skills Development Scotland to develop and update ever since.

Scottish labour market intelligence

Research Online is Scotland’s labour market hub. The portal provides an authoritative source of labour market research and analysis relevant to Scotland and supports evidence-based policy making in the Scottish labour market.

Before Research Online was created, research suggested that although useful labour market research and analysis was undertaken within Scotland by a large range of organisations, there was no single dissemination source.

Therefore, a requirement existed for a portal that clearly identified current labour market intelligence (LMI), provided a common understanding of current gaps and provision in areas including labour supply and skills, and focused action to ensure LMI met Scottish user needs.

Research Online was conceived to improve access to this wealth of intelligence.

The most comprehensive collection of labour market intelligence

The portal now contains thousands of documents on a range of labour market topics including:

  • Employment;
  • Skills and training;
  • Unemployment;
  • Entrepreneurship;
  • Vocational education and training;
  • Workforce development; and
  • Equal opportunities.

The material available on the portal includes research, policy, analysis, discussion and sectoral and geographic profiles. Our team sources the latest research and policy documents from a wide range of sources, including academic journals, government departments and agencies, labour market research centres and material sent in directly by key organisations in Scotland and the wider UK. The available material includes grey literature, government policy and up-to-date academic research.

Research Online also incorporates a current awareness service that alerts registered users to new material on a fortnightly basis. It also has integrated reading list functionality.

Free to access

Research Online can be accessed by anyone, free of charge. You can browse the material here without registering, as well as create reading lists to be accessed at a later date or shared with colleagues.

If you would like to sign-up for a range of current awareness alerts that keep you up to date on a variety of labour market topics, covering both Scotland and the wider UK, you can do so here.

Our shared vision is for Research Online to be recognised as a key dissemination mechanism by Scotland’s producers of labour market intelligence and to be at the centre of a community of practice for labour market researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.


You can find out more about the projects The Knowledge Exchange team has been involved in, and the consultancy services we offer, here.

Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Addressing social mobility through education – is it enough?

School children raising hands. View from behind.

We looked at the issue of social mobility and education last October, highlighting that although there has been continued investment by successive governments, the rate of progress is slow:

“it has been estimated that at the current rate of progress it will take 50 years to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils in England.”

Since then, it seems the situation surrounding social mobility has become even more precarious.

Key priority?

The issue of social mobility is an historic one and it is claimed to be a key priority for the current government, which is working towards addressing the issue through education via its recently published national plan and the work of the Opportunity Areas programme.

However, in December all four board members of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) resigned over the government’s lack of progress on social justice, and in January, Education Secretary, Justine Greening, who played a key role in both the Opportunity Areas programme and social mobility action plan, also resigned.

The resignation letter of the Chair of the SMC, Alan Milburn, praised Justine Greening for having “shown a deep commitment to the issue”, but noted that “it has become obvious the government as a whole is unable to commit the same level of support.”

The last publication of the SMC, published in November, highlighted the existence of “a stark social mobility postcode lottery” in Britain and substantial inequalities in educational attainment linked to social disadvantage and place. The derailment of the SMC and subsequent loss of an education secretary openly committed to the issue, can therefore only be cause for concern.

Nevertheless, the government continues to stress its ambition of ‘no community left behind’, with a continued focus on initiatives such as Opportunity Areas.

Opportunity Areas

Opportunity Areas are part of the government’s national plan for dealing with social mobility through education.

The programme targets £72 million of funding at 12 areas identified as the most challenged when it comes to social mobility. The first six areas were announced in October 2016, with a further six announced in January 2017. The aim is to bring together schools, colleges, universities, early years providers and employers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

The 12 areas will also have priority access to other government support including the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund worth £75 million, focused on supporting teachers and school leaders in challenging areas to develop. And a new £3.5 million programme will support the creation of a research school for each opportunity area.

While the programme has been welcomed by many, it has also been criticised.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has recognised it as a ‘good start’, but highlights that there are numerous other areas across the country that are not covered by the programme where social mobility is stagnating or even getting worse. It also suggests that the system continues to fail to meet the needs of certain vulnerable groups, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, those from Gypsy Roma or Traveller communities, and Black Caribbean children.

Concerns have also been raised over challenges facing the programme, which included capacity, including the risk of overloading the system.

Other concerns that have been recently cited have included school funding cuts, which could effectively cancel out the programme’s funding for some, and the criteria used to select areas, which could be an issue while there is a lack of clarity on the relationship between social mobility and disadvantage.

Education Datalab has argued that targeting through geography alone is inadequate and that both area-based and individual focused policies are needed.

Way forward

Much of the commentary on the social mobility issue has hinted at the need for a national, rather than or in addition to  a local focus. Indeed, the SMC recognised the need for a more wide-ranging government response in its assessment of policies on social mobility published last year.

And in its new report out last week, the Education Select Committee called for greater powers and resources for the SMC to enable it to tackle social injustices effectively. It also suggests, based on evidence from the former members of the SMC, that the government needs to co-ordinate the social justice agenda from the centre to ensure all departments are aiming in the same direction.

The government’s plan for addressing social mobility through education clearly acknowledges the scale of the challenge:

“this plan is only an important step in a long-term process to improve social mobility and spread equality of opportunity… To achieve this will take time, it will take an incredible amount of determination and focus, and it will take an unprecedented partnership. But, together, it is possible.”

But if the government fails to adopt a more wide-ranging response to promoting social mobility, as so many have advocated, perhaps it will take even longer to achieve than previously estimated.


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Better outcomes for children, parents and society – why ‘family learning matters’

mother reading to her son

Improving the circumstances of families from deprived backgrounds has been a key policy focus of government in recent years, with large amounts of resources and funding having been allocated to trying to improve families’ outcomes.

One approach to achieving this, which can lead to positive outcomes for both adults and children is family learning – the importance of which is receiving increasing attention.

What is family learning?

Family learning has been described as “any learning activity that involves both children and adult family members, where learning outcomes are intended for both, and that contributes to a culture of learning in the family”. It can involve both formal and informal provision, such as engagement with programmes such as Booksmart or attending events at libraries and museums.

Parents may not even be aware that activities such as reading to their children from an early age, or singing with them, constitutes a learning activity. Unfortunately, research indicates that a large number of parents do not engage in these activities at all, despite evidence that a home environment which encourages learning and communication is as important an indicator of a child’s achievement as parental income and social status.

Research from the National Literacy Trust, suggests that “parental involvement in their child’s reading has been found to be the most important determinant of language and emergent literacy”.

With real concerns raised over children’s basic skills in recent years, family learning could be part of the solution.

Lack of basic skills

Last year, the National Literacy Trust highlighted analysis which showed that 86% of English constituencies contained at least one ward with “urgent literacy need”.

The latest edition of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy showed there was a seven point drop in P7 pupils who can write well or very well between 2012 and 2016. And in November 2016, 79% of Reception teachers in Wales surveyed for Save the Children reported seeing children starting school without the ability to speak in complete sentences. One primary headteacher highlighted the huge need for parental awareness and engagement”.

In comparison, primary schools in Northern Ireland continue to rank among the best in the world in maths. The latest edition of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) shows that Northern Irish children are the best in Europe at maths, and sixth best in the world.

The education system in Northern Ireland prioritises a policy of Parental Involvement in Numeracy (PIN), and government policy is to impress upon parents the role that they must play in the development of essential basic skills. The government has also just launched its ‘Giving your child a helping hand’ campaign, which is aimed at increasing parental involvement in the education of their children.

As children spend only around 15% of their time involved in formal learning activities, i.e. in school, there is substantial scope for them to be involved in more informal learning activities that will benefit both their academic and personal development.

Benefits of family learning

Research has shown that family learning interventions could increase children’s overall development levels by up to 15 percentage points for those from deprived backgrounds, and induce an average reading attainment improvement of six months.

Survey findings published by Ofsted also found that participation in family learning courses improved children’s behaviour in class, as well as their relationships with their peers and teachers. Teachers also reported noticing improvements in their pupils’ confidence levels, and their communication and interpersonal skills.

For adults, family learning offers two key positive outcomes for parents: the development of their relationship with their child, and personal skills development.

As with children, the basic skills of adults in the UK remains a cause for concern. In 2016, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published analysis which suggests that around five million adults in England lack the basic reading, writing and numeracy skills required to complete everyday tasks. Similar deficiencies have been found in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Less quantitative evidence exists of the impact of family learning engagement on adult literacy levels. However, it has been found that the average portion of adult learners achieving a qualification on family literacy programmes is higher than those on standard programmes. An evaluation of the Family Learning Impact Fund (FLIF) found that 85% of learners taking part achieved some sort of progression through taking part in a FLIF course, such as going onto a higher level of learning, or new or improved employment.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has also highlighted a wider societal impact arising from adults taking part in family learning activities, in terms of participation in volunteering and community activities.

In addition to better outcomes for children, adults and society, family learning can also benefit the government. It is relatively low cost, as it draws on many existing resources such as libraries and museums.

Sheffield City Council, for example, has estimated that for every £1 they spend on family learning, a return on investment (ROI) of £7.58 is generated. This is down to the fact that family learning is a single intervention with the potential to achieve multiple outcomes – not only for parents and children in the present, but for future generations

Final thoughts

It could be argued that the socioeconomic benefits of family learning could help to ease the burden on government resources at the same time as improving families’ outcomes.

Clearly, the benefits of family learning to society and the government can’t be ignored – particularly with increasingly tight budgets.


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“Shifting into reverse” – the global gender gap

Gender equality

Image by GDJ via Creative Commons

By Heather Cameron

“Gender parity is shifting into reverse” – this was the finding of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) most recent annual Global gender gap report, published last month.

This is the first time progress, albeit slow, towards gender parity has stalled since the WEF started measuring it in 2006.

Widening gap

On current trends, the overall global gender gap can be closed in exactly 100 years, compared to 83 years reported in last year’s report.

The economic situation is even worse.

Last year, we reported on the gender pay gap, which highlighted the WEF’s 2016 findings that the global economic gender gap will take 170 years to close. This year’s WEF report indicates that women may now have to wait over 200 years to achieve equality in the workplace:

“given the continued widening of the economic gender gap already observed last year, it will now not be closed for another 217 years.”

According to the report, the gaps between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remain wide. Just 58% of the economic participation gap has been closed – a second consecutive year of reversed progress and the lowest value measured by the Index since 2008 – and about 23% of the political gap, unchanged since last year against a long-term trend of slow but steady improvement.

For the other indicators, the 144 countries covered in the report have closed 96% of the gap, on average, in health outcomes between women and men, unchanged since last year, and more than 95% of the gap in educational attainment, a slight decrease on last year.

Overall, an average gap of 32.0% remains to be closed worldwide in order to achieve universal gender parity, compared to an average gap of 31.7% last year.

The most challenging gender gaps remain in the economic and health spheres.

Country-level

The situation is more nuanced at the country and regional level, however. And the report highlights that a number of regions and countries have crossed “symbolic milestones” for the first time this year.

Countries that improved the economic gender disparity included France and Canada. The UK was one of the most improved this year in general, up five places on last year to 15th place. The report also notes that the UK has made notable progress on political empowerment and women in ministerial positions.

Despite this, the UK still performed more poorly than many other developed countries in a number of categories and things still need to be improved on economic and political participation in the UK.

The lack of any of the G20 nations within the top 10 has also been noted, suggesting that economic power does not necessarily equate to better gender equality. The WEF estimate that the UK could add $250bn to its gross domestic product (GDP) by achieving gender parity.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the importance of gender parity cannot be ignored, not only because it’s unfair but because it can also lead to better economic performance.

The WEF report argues that a key avenue for further progress is the closing of occupational gender gaps, which will require changes within education and business sectors and by policymakers.

It still appears to be the case that higher earning jobs are more commonly held by men. And with recent research suggesting that there is gender bias in job adverts across the UK, such changes can’t come soon enough.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our other posts on the gender pay gap and the place of women in the ‘changing world of work’.

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