Supporting those who serve – but what about the children?

By Heather Cameron

The valuable contribution made by the British armed forces is widely recognised and this Remembrance Sunday, thousands will pay an especial tribute to them.

In recent years, the government has taken encouraging steps to support Service personnel, particularly those returning to civilian life. However, there is also a need to address the effects of military life upon families and children, in particular.

Unique challenges

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) highlighted the many unique challenges that military families face, including extreme mobility, inflexible work regimes, frequent separations, and the consequences of mental illness on the entire family. Children can be particularly affected, with significant effects upon the way they lead their lives both during the time of service and in the future.

Evidence suggests the demands of serving in the armed forces can put relationships under strain, leading to substantial demands on both spouses and children.

Children can be particularly affected by frequent moves that can disrupt their education and affect their friendships.

The CSJ report highlights a number of worrying impacts on children, including:

  • increased behavioural, emotional and disciplinary problems;
  • having to grow up too early;
  • lower academic attainment; and
  • social isolation.

The number of children affected by mobility is sizable. According to a study by Ofsted, the average mobility for Service children in primary schools is around 70% every year. Indeed, this figure may be even higher as there is no accurate record of the number of Service children in the UK.

The study also indicated that many Service children who move frequently do not perform as well as their peers and are less likely to achieve higher grades if they miss or repeat parts of the curriculum. There was evidence to suggest that the learning of many children had slowed or receded by continual moves and that they needed additional support to catch up.

As the CSJ argues, “education is one of the most important factors that will help military children after their family leaves the Armed Forces”. It is therefore vitally important that they receive the support they need.

Support

Some positive steps have been taken to provide service children with additional support.

In June 2014, the government introduced a Pupil Information Profile (PIP), which provides some basic information for teachers about children from military families making the transition between schools. It is suggested that these, along with Moving Schools Children’s Activity Packs (filled in by the child and sent to the school) have gone some way to addressing the alarming lack of communication between schools.

However, it is also noted that the poor transfer of information between schools remains a problem as the PIP still only requires very basic information and both the PIP and Activity Packs rely on parents and teachers being aware of their existence.

A number of important outcomes have been achieved through the government’s Armed Forces Covenant, including a Service Pupil Premium (SPP) in England so that 60,000 Service pupils in state schools get extra support. The SPP acknowledges that Service children need more assistance. Thus, since 2013, in addition to the Pupil Premium, the government has also offered a SPP of £300 a year per child of Service personnel on the school roll.

Similarly to the PIP, this also relies on parents informing the school that one of them is in the Service. With no accurate record of the number of children in need, it is therefore not possible to know whether children and schools are receiving the extra assistance required.

Looking forward

Clearly, important steps have been taken and the CSJ applauds the government’s commitment to do more on children’s education. However, it is also clear that “the government has further to go to support the service family as a unit.

The report therefore sets out a series of recommendations for improvement in support for military families, including several targeting children’s education. In particular, it calls for increased stability of education for Service children and greater support for transitory children, their parents and the schools.

If implemented, the CSJ describe their recommendations as an opportunity for the government to build on the good work already done, which “would provide a great service to the men and women who, in turn, provide a great service to us.”


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The rhetoric of social mobility continues… yet disadvantaged pupils continue to fall behind

skills gap

By Heather Cameron

Despite continued investment to improve social mobility, 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.

Recent analysis of government data shows the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantaged peers has actually worsened over the past decade.

The research, conducted by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that while there has been some progress in closing the gap for disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for the Pupil Premium), this has been slow and inconsistent. The gap has also been shown to vary between areas.

And, perhaps most worryingly, for pupils described as ‘persistently disadvantaged’ (i.e. those that have been eligible for free school meals for 80% or longer of their school lives), the gap has widened – leaving these pupils over a year behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school and more than two years behind at the end of secondary school.

Widening gap

The attainment gap is evident in the early years, continuing to grow throughout school.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were found to be 19.2 months on average behind their peers at the end of Key Stage 4. While this represents a narrowing of the gap by 2.7 months since 2007, this is not consistent across the board. And the gap for ‘persistently disadvantaged’ pupils increased by 2.4 months over the same period.

The EPI analysis indicates that the disadvantage gap grows by five months between Key Stage 1 and 2, and by 10 months between Key Stage 2 and 4.

Persistently disadvantaged pupils are shown to fall even further behind at all phases. For them, the gap grows from six months at the end of Key Stage 1, to 12 months by the end of Key Stage 2 and 24 months by the end of Key Stage 4.

It is argued that the differential rates of progress pupils make need to be tackled to stop the gap from growing throughout the stages.

Indeed, the issue can’t be solved with a one size fits all approach, particularly as there is significant variation across the country.

Variation

The disadvantage gap between local authorities ranges from no gap to seven months in the early years, five to 13 months at the end of primary school and one month to over two years at the end of secondary.

The gap is generally smaller in London, the South and the East at around 16-18 months at the end of secondary. In comparison, the East Midlands and the Humber, the North and the South West experience a much larger gap of 22 months. The largest attainment gap was found on the Isle of Wight, where disadvantaged pupils were 29 months behind their peers on leaving secondary school.

The gap was also found to become worse in rural areas. In Cumbria and Northumberland, for example, the gap widens from nine months at the end of Key Stage 2 to over 25 months by the end of secondary.

But there is also evidence of particularly good performance and notable improvements made in recent years. In Newham, disadvantaged five year-olds perform as well as non-disadvantaged five year-olds nationally, on average. And in Richmond-upon-Thames and Windsor and Maidenhead, the gap for disadvantaged secondary school pupils has closed by over six months since 2012.

This would suggest that there is certainly potential for dramatic improvements in reducing the gap in other areas.

Government action

As an historic problem, successive governments have taken action to address it via investment and targeted interventions. The current government is also working to address the issue, including through Opportunity Areas.

The EPI suggests that while this may be a good start, there are other areas across the country that are not covered by these where “social mobility is stagnating or even worsening”. And it also highlights 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.

In addition, recent commentary from the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised concerns over schools focusing on exam results at the expense of the curriculum, leading to many disadvantaged children being shut out from acquiring a rich and full knowledge:

“It is a risk to social mobility if pupils miss out on opportunities to study subjects and gain knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life.”

It has been suggested that government pressure to improve performance has led to a focus on exam and test results. But Spielman argues that this is a mistake on the part of school leaders as it should “not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils”.

Final thoughts

Clearly, while it shouldn’t be forgotten that progress has been made, a lot more needs to be done if the disadvantage gap is to close any time soon.

As the EPI concluded: “If we carry on at this pace, we will lose at least a further three generations before equality of outcomes is realised through our education system.”


If you enjoyed reading this post, you may also like our previous blogs on education-related topics.

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University degrees – are they worth the cost?

college graduates group

By Heather Cameron

Often cited as the best path to a successful career, university degrees continue to come under the spotlight with questions over their actual value, particularly with tuition fees now starting to increase.

Millions of young people who received their exam results last month will be weighing up their options. But what was perhaps once a fairly straightforward decision for many, is made far more complex by the modern financial burden of undertaking a degree, coupled with the availability of alternative routes without the prospect of accruing tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt in the process.

Cost

It certainly isn’t a cheap option to pursue a university degree. For 2017, many colleges/universities across the UK will be able to charge tuition fees of up to £9,250. And this doesn’t include the living costs of student life. The National Union of Students (NUS) has estimated that the average annual cost of living in England (outside of London) for students is £12,056.

Recent YouGov Omnibus research, which surveyed more than 500 current students and recent graduates, found that one in three recent graduates disagreed that the “costs of going to university were worth it for the career prospects/learning I gained”. It also identified ‘significant pessimism’ among both graduates and students over loans and whether they will ever be free of the burden of repayments during their working life. A large proportion (41%) don’t expect to ever pay off their student loan.

However, it was also noted that many recent graduates may have false expectations about how much they will have to pay back. More than four in ten (41%) said they didn’t understand how the interest rate on student loans works.

Research into the number of ‘contact’ hours a student receives over the course of their degree has been suggested to support the opinion that it is not good value for money. The average humanities student will have around 10 hours per week of scheduled ‘contact’ time in lectures and seminars, although it is often less. And there is much variation across subject areas, which is not reflected in tuition fees. According to an economics lecturer at the New College of the Humanities in London, “It certainly seems like humanities students are subsidising Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] students.”

Job prospects

In addition to the cost of doing a degree featuring in the decision to pursue this path, the employment prospects following a degree have also received attention.

A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that there is a great deal of diversity among graduate earnings. While almost all institutions have graduates with earnings above the 20th percentile of the non-graduate earnings distribution, and most institutions have graduates with earnings above the non-graduate median, graduate earnings for men at more than one in 10 universities were lower than for non-graduates. And earnings for graduate women were found to be worse at nine institutions of the 166 included.

The findings also show that that graduates who came originally from wealthier backgrounds earned significantly more than their poorer counterparts ten years after graduation, even if they had studied the same course at the same institution.

This also raises questions over the value of a degree, particularly for those students from poorer backgrounds.

Having a degree certainly doesn’t guarantee a job with a competitive salary at the end of it, or indeed even a job at all as previous research has shown. Nevertheless, the IFS findings do highlight that higher education does pay for the majority, with graduates more likely to be in work and earn more than non-graduates.

Satisfaction

Satisfaction with degrees among students has shown to be relatively high overall. The latest annual Student Academic Experience Survey reveals that most students believe they are learning ‘a lot’ and perceptions of teaching quality are rising.

However, the survey also shows there continues to be a downward trend in perceptions of value, which has been highlighted as a particular concern. The percentage of students who think university is not value for money has almost doubled in the last five years.

The wellbeing of students also continues to be relatively low compared to the rest of the population and the majority oppose the high-fees model of funding.

Final thoughts

The cost of pursuing a degree along with the evidence on graduate earnings suggests that higher education may no longer be the leveller it once was perceived to be. Rather, it may appear that university degrees are once again becoming a path only for those from the richest households.

Clearly there is a lot for policy-makers to consider.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also like our previous post on graduate employment.

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Technical education – reformed for whose benefit?

by Stacey Dingwall

The expansion of grammar schools may not have made it into this year’s delayed and reduced Queen’s Speech but another education policy did – the government’s planned ‘major’ reform of technical education.

As Her Majesty set out, the government’s plan is to ensure that people “have the skills they need” for high-skilled, well-paid jobs, facilitated through “a major reform of technical education”.

A reformed system

The Chancellor detailed plans for a new ‘T levels’ system in March’s Budget, which is being created with the aim of equalising technical and higher education in order to improve the country’s productivity levels. The Budget announcement promised an increase of 50% in the number of hours students train, as well as £500m of funding per year to deliver the new system. The reforms will also simplify the system, reducing the currently available 13,000 qualifications to a mere 15.

The Budget announcement followed the April 2016 publication of the findings from Lord Sainsbury’s review of technical education. The review found “serious” problems with the existing system, noting that British productivity levels lag behind countries including Germany and France by up to 36 percentage points. It also highlighted that the country is forecast to fall to 28th out of 33 OECD countries in terms of developing intermediate skills by 2020.

The Sainsbury Review made a series of recommendations, including the introduction of a framework of 15 qualifications, which the government accepted in full (where possible within existing budget commitments) in its July 2016 Post-16 skills plan. The plan details how the government plans to deliver its reformed technical education system, by working closely with employers and providers, and ensuring that the system is an inclusive one, accessible no matter someone’s social background, disability, race or sexual identity.

Investing and cutting

Also included in the planned reforms is the construction of new ‘Institutes of Technology’, which are intended to “enable more young people to take advanced technical qualifications and become key institutions for the development of the skills required by local, national and regional industry”. At a time when schools and colleges are facing continued cuts and pressures on resources, this is one part of the reformed system that’s come in for criticism.

Speaking to The Guardian, Marcus Fagent from design and consultancy firm Arcadis stated that capital investment is essential to the new technical education system, in terms of space to teach the new curriculum. He also highlighted how addressing the issue of space for teaching has enabled countries like the Netherlands to deliver successful technical education provision.

The fact that our continental neighbours do it better with regards to technical and vocational education is something that keeps coming up. Even the new system has come in for criticism for its continued focus on leaving it so ‘late’ to try and promote technical education as a potential path for pupils. While Britain sticks with starting at 16, countries like Germany offer vocational routes to pupils from as young as 10.

Decentralisation and young people

This week, the Local Government Association will publish a new report that argues that previous reforms within the skills system have failed due to a lack of progress in the devolution of powers to the local level. Written by the Learning and Work Institute, the report will also recommend the creation of “one-stop” services covering apprenticeships, technical education reform, local adult skills planning, the successor to the European Social Fund and oversight of employment services.

In amongst all the arguments over reforms and provision, it’s telling and worrying that the voice of those who will be most affected by the new system is rarely heard – that of the young people trying to navigate a complex and ever-changing education system. With more reforms to GCSE grading also announced in the last week, they have every right to be anxious about navigating an education system that’s supposed to support them to deliver the productivity gains the country needs.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Smart Chicago: how smart city initiatives are helping meet urban challenges

Outside a Chicago theatre, with a huge 'Chicago' sign outside

By Steven McGinty

Home to former President Barack Obama, sporting giants the Chicago Bulls, and the culinary delicacy deep dish pizza, Chicago is one of the most famous cities in the world. Less well known is Chicago’s ambition to become the most data-driven city in the world.

A late convert to the smart city agenda, Chicago was lagging behind local rivals New York and Boston, and international leaders Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Singapore.

But in 2011, Chicago’s new Mayor Rahm Emanuel outlined the important role technology needed to play, if the city was to address its main challenges.

Laying the groundwork – open data and tech plan

In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order establishing the city’s open data policy. The order was designed to increase transparency and accountability in the city, and to empower citizens to participate in government, solve social problems, and promote economic growth. It required that every city agency would contribute data to it and established reporting requirements to ensure agencies were held accountable.

Chicago’s open data portal has nearly 600 datasets, which is more than double the number in 2011. The city works closely with civic hacker group Open Chicago, an organisation which runs hackathons (collaborations between developers and businesses using open data to find solutions to city problems).

In 2013, the City of Chicago Technology Plan was released. This brought together 28 of the city’s technology initiatives into one policy roadmap, setting them out within five broad strategic areas:

  • Establishing next-generation infrastructure
  • Creating smart communities
  • Ensuring efficient, effective, and open government
  • Working with innovators to develop solutions to city challenges
  • Encouraging Chicago’s technology sector

 Array of Things

The Array of Things is an ambitious programme to install 500 sensors throughout the city of Chicago. Described by the project team as a ‘fitness tracker for the city’, the sensors will collect real-time data on air quality, noise levels, temperature, light, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and the water levels on streets and gutters. The data gathered will be made publicly available via the city’s website, and will provide a vital resource for the researchers, developers, policymakers, and citizens trying to address city challenges.

This new initiative is a major project for the city, but as Brenna Berman, Chicago’s chief information officer, explains:

If we’re successful, this data and the applications and tools that will grow out of it will be embedded in the lives of residents, and the way the city builds new services and policies

Potential applications for the city’s data could include providing citizens with information on the healthiest and unhealthiest walking times and routes through the city, as well as the areas likely to be impacted by urban flooding.

The project is led by the Urban Center for Computation and Data of the Computation Institute  a joint initiative of Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago. However, a range of partners are involved in the project, including several universities, the City of Chicago who provide an important governance role and technology firms, such as Product Development Technologies, the company who built the ‘enclosures’ which protect the sensors from environmental conditions.

A series of community meetings was held to introduce the Array of Things concept to the community and to consult on the city’s governance and privacy policy. This engagement ranged from holding public meetings in community libraries to providing online forms, where citizens could provide feedback anonymously.

In addition, the Urban Center for Computation and Data and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ran a workshop entitled the “Lane of Things”, which introduced high school students to sensor technology. The workshop is part of the Array of Things education programme, which aims to use sensor technology to teach students about subjects such as programming and data science. For eight weeks, the students were given the opportunity to design and build their own sensing devices and implement them in the school environment, collecting information such as dust levels from nearby construction and the dynamics of hallway traffic.

The Array of Things project is funded by a $3.1 million National Science Foundation grant and is expected to be complete by 2018.

Mapping Subterranean Chicago

The City of Chicago is working with local technology firm, City Digital, to produce a 3D map of the underground infrastructure, such as water pipes, fibre optic lines, and gas pipes. The project will involve engineering and utility workers taking digital pictures as they open up the streets and sidewalks of Chicago. These images will then be scanned into City Digital’s underground infrastructure mapping (UIM) platform, and key data points will be extracted from the image, such as width and height of pipes, with the data being layered on a digital map of Chicago.

According to Brenna Berman:

By improving the accuracy of underground infrastructure information, the platform will prevent inefficient and delayed construction projects, accidents, and interruptions of services to citizens.

Although still at the pilot stage, the technology has been used on one construction site and an updated version is expected to be used on a larger site in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. Once proven, the city plans to charge local construction and utility firms to access the data, generating income whilst reducing the costs of construction and improving worker safety.

ShotSpotter

In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department commanders announced the expansion of ShotSpotter – a system which uses sensors to capture audio of gunfire and alert police officers to its exact location. The expansion will take place in the Englewood and Harrison neighbourhoods, two of the city’s highest crime areas, and should allow police officers to respond to incidents more rapidly.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson highlights that although crime and violence presents a complex problem for the city, the technology has resulted in Englewood going “eight straight days without a shooting incident”, the longest period in three years.

ShotSpotter will also be integrated into the city’s predictive analytics tools, which are used to assess how likely individuals are to become victims of gun crime, based on factors such as the number of times they have been arrested with individuals who have become gun crime victims.

Final thoughts

Since 2011, Chicago has been attempting to transform itself into a leading smart city. Although it’s difficult to compare Chicago with early adopters such as Barcelona, the city has clearly introduced a number of innovative projects and is making progress on their smart cities journey.

In particular, the ambitious Array of Things project will have many cities watching to see if understanding the dynamics of city life can help to solve urban challenges.


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What’s happening in the English education system and how does it compare to Singapore’s system?

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last year, we looked at the state of the Scottish education system following the publication of some disappointing Pisa results for the country. In this blog, we focus on some of the issues recently highlighted within the English education system, and how the system compares to that of Singapore – a system that is frequently identified as a model for other countries.

Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment)

Although there was no significant change in England’s absolute score in the 2015 OECD survey of maths, science and reading, or in the country’s performance relative to other countries, England’s rankings did not experience the same decline seen in Scotland and Wales. While Scotland’s scores across all three areas were the lowest they had recorded in any other Pisa survey, pupils in England performed slightly above the OECD average in reading for the first time.

After a similar stagnation in scores were achieved in the previous Pisa survey, the Minister of Schools for England, Nick Gibb, promised reforms and funding in order to ensure that the country was able to better compete with the top performing countries. The 2015 results show that East Asian countries including Singapore continue to dominate the rankings, and are continuing to make advances.

Teaching

The success of Singapore’s education system has been attributed to its investment in its teachers. All of the country’s teachers are trained at its National Institute of Education and are selected from the top 5% of graduates. Teachers are required to commit to the profession for at least three years and are mentored by ‘master teachers’ at the start of their careers.

As we highlighted on the blog recently, the House of Commons Education Committee raised concerns about teacher training and recruitment in England in the report of their inquiry. The evidence the Committee received suggested that the government is failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what is described as “significant” teacher shortages in England. The report highlights data that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year.

Teacher workload was also highlighted as a significant issue, and the Education Policy Institute gave evidence to the Committee that 60% of respondents to a survey they carried out identified it as a “key barrier” to accessing continuing professional development. EPI analysis also found that teachers in England average four days of CPD per year, compared to 12 in Singapore. Teacher CPD was identified as important for not only professionalism during the inquiry, but also for pupil outcomes.

The schools landscape

The quality of the teaching workforce in England is not the only area in which concerns have been raised over the impact on pupils. The education system in England is a complex one, and has become even more so in recent years with academies, free schools and the reintroduction of grammar schools. Government policy has not been consistent: the Education Bill and the academisation of all schools in England were both abandoned shortly after their announcement.

Last week’s Budget included the announcement of a one-off payment of £320m for 140 new free schools to be created, in addition to the 500 already pledged before 2020. However, there’s still no evidence that significant improvements at the primary level are associated with academy status, and differences at GCSE level between converter academies and other similar maintained schools are not statistically significant. At the end of last year, the EPI found that grammar school pupils’ higher GCSE attainment is not actually a result of better grammar school performance, but can actually be attributed to the high prior attainment and demographic of pupils at selective schools.

The EPI concluded that grammar schools are more likely to widen the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils. It was further reported earlier this month by the Sutton Trust that a policy of ‘social selection’ is being operated in admissions to the best performing schools.

Research from the NFER has indicated that parents are confused about academies, and the different types that exist. A preference for schools to be accountable to local education authorities was also indicated, which conflicts with the government’s focus on expanding academies/free schools.

Singapore operates a centralised schools system, which is integrated and characterised by a prescribed national curriculum. English academies are not required to follow the national curriculum.

Funding for schools

Despite the Budget announcement, recent news in the education world has been dominated by claims from schools that they are underfunded. As we noted in a blog from last year, when the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Even though the policy has been abandoned, the cuts have not been reversed.

Analysis for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found that under the government’s new ‘fair funding’ formula, 98% of schools would see cuts by 2020. Responding to the consultation on the formula, representatives from over a dozen Conservative-led councils said that they were “extremely concerned” over what they see as inadequate levels of funding.

At last week’s Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference, headteachers told education secretary Justine Greening that current funding levels have resulted in them having to cut some subjects and support services, and increase class sizes. The day before the conference, the heads of over 1,000 schools in England wrote to parents and MPs to report the same issues.

The government insists that funding for schools is higher than ever before, at £40bn for 2016-17 and rising to £42bn in 2019-20 to take account of rising pupil numbers. However, Labour argue that as the budget does not provide for funding per pupil to increase in line with inflation, it actually represents a real-terms reduction in the funds spent for every pupil. In December, the National Audit Office published a report which said that as the government was only offering flat cash funding per pupil over the next five years, “Schools have not experienced this level of reduction in spending power since the mid-1990s”.

The latest data from the World Bank indicates that Singapore allocated a lower percentage of its GDP in 2012 than the UK: 3.3% vs 5.6%.

The future?

In an article published just before the Budget, Theresa May published an article which spoke of her government’s ambition to “make Britain the world’s greatest meritocracy”. Meritocracy is a key policy of the Singapore education system, and is identified as one of the main reasons for the system’s success. With evidence continuing to point towards disadvantaged pupils being denied the opportunities of their peers, and schools declaring that they don’t have enough funding to provide vital services, it’s clear that there is still some way to go before this ambition can begin to be realised.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

 

 

Making science fun … 12 great STEM apps for primary and secondary pupils

british-science-weekBritish Science Week 2017 is in full swing and the theme this year is change. Whether it’s climate change or the changing seasons, transformative new materials or energy, there are changes happening all around us, all of the time. And British Science Week is also a chance to encourage young people to consider the changes they can enact to have a positive impact on the future. This may include choosing a career in STEM – science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Getting children and young people interested in STEM can be tricky, though. The British Science Week website includes lots of resources, and this year is promoting a citizen science ‘penguin-spotting’ project. Parents can also help, and what better way for kids to learn about STEM than through a fun interactive game on a tablet, phone, or other device?

There are some great examples of apps and computer-based games to help young people explore STEM concepts while experimenting, networking with other students, and sometimes even creating products.

We’ve highlighted some of these below – hopefully teachers, and parents, will have a look, be inspired and think about using them in school or at home.


Note: Many of the apps cover multiple areas of STEM. They are listed in order of recommended age of user from youngest to oldest. The apps are described by age and subject(s): Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. So (4+) SEM means that the app is suitable for ages four and up, and students will learn about science, engineering, and maths.

  • Simple Machines by Tinybop
    (4+) SEM
    Students discover how simple machines work by conducting their own experiments and investigating invisible forces. Available in 40+ languages.
  • Endless Numbers by Originator Inc.
    (-5) M
    For children up to the age of five – this app is designed to set the stage for early numeracy learning. Although it is technically for kids below primary school age, it can be used to help older pupils who struggle with numeracy.
  • Blokify by Noquo Inc.
    (6+) SEM
    3D modeling software. Children can create toys that they can play with virtually, or physically via 3D printing.
  • Toca Lab by Toca Boca
    (6+) S
    Children explore the ‘colourful and electrifying world of science’ and interact with all 118 elements from the periodic table.
  • DoodleMaths by EZ Education
    (7+) M
    This app is designed to be used for only a few minutes daily. It identifies a child’s maths level and allows them to progress at their own pace. Teachers and parents can quickly and easily monitor a child’s progress. It’s also aligned to KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum for England and Wales.
  • Tynker for Schools by Neuron Fuel
    (9+) TE
    Kids learn to program and can build games, control drones, create apps, and more.
  • Learn Python by SoloLearn
    (9+) T
    A social and fun way for kids (and even adults!) to learn how to write Python code.
  • Tinkercad by Autodesk (Browser-based)
    (12+) SEM
    Pupils create 3D digital designs of toys, prototypes, home décor, jewellery and more.
  • 3D Brain by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories
    (12+) S
    Pupils discover how the brain works using a 3D brain structure. They can also learn through interactive case studies about how brain damage, mental disorders and mental illness impact the physical structure of the brain.
  • Dragonbox Algebra 12+ by WeWantToKnow AS
    (12+) M
    A maths game that “levels up” based on pupil’s mastery of each concept or skill. Provides a balance between challenging children to advance their knowledge and understanding and allowing them to master concepts at their own pace.
  • Molecules by Theodore Gray by Touchpress Ltd
    (12+) S
    Students explore molecular dynamics. Also includes the full text of the book Molecules by Theodore Gray.
  • Ozobot
    (14+) T
    The app is used in conjunction with corresponding robots. Students learn to program an actual, tangible robot that they can control and then reprogram using the app.

The research for this blog was originally done by April Bowman, who joined us in July 2016 for a voluntary work experience placement, while studying for a Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Stirling, where her policy specialism was education policy and teaching practice.

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Back to the classroom – teacher training and recruitment

Adult Ed - Study Partners

by Stacey Dingwall

Earlier this week, the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report on the recruitment and retention of teachers in England. Announced in October 2015, the Committee took evidence on whether there was a ‘crisis’ in teacher recruitment, including by region and subject; what the “root causes” of the present situation with regards to teacher recruitment were; and what action the government should take to address issues with teacher recruitment.

“Significant shortages”

The Committee’s report suggests that at present, the government is failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what it describes as “significant” teacher shortages in England. It is noted that the targets for initial teacher training (ITT) courses have been missed for the last five years and that Geography, Biology and History were the only subjects in which the targets for new entrants to postgraduate and undergraduate ITT courses were exceeded. Targets for all other secondary level subjects were missed, with only 68% of Computing ITT places filled, and only 41% of Design and Technology places.

While the report acknowledges the importance of recruiting new teachers to the profession, it also emphasises the importance of retaining the teachers that it already has. Government data shows that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year, and 30% leave within five years. Giving evidence to the enquiry, the National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that the number of teachers leaving rose by 11% between 2011 and 2014.

“Unmanageable” workloads

The Education Committee identified workload as a key driver for those teachers who choose to leave the profession. Last year, 82% of the 4,000 respondents to a Guardian survey described their workload as “unmanageable”. Analysis published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in October found that teachers in England work longer hours than their peers in 35 other developed countries, working an average of 48.2 hours per week.

When Nicky Morgan was Education Secretary, three review groups were set up to provide recommendations around the three biggest areas identified by teachers as those that add to their workload unnecessarily: marking, planning and data management. The groups’ recommendations have yet to be progressed following their publication in March 2016 (and Morgan’s replacement).

In Scotland, Education Secretary John Swinney announced his intention to “declutter” the Scottish education system at last year’s Scottish Learning Festival, by reducing teachers’ workload around assessments. In response, teaching union EIS suspended their programme of industrial action over teacher workload in relation to examinations.

Teaching as a second career

Swinney also announced plans to develop new routes into teaching, using funding from the Scottish Government’s Attainment Scotland Fund. These plans were followed by the launch of the ‘Teaching Makes People’ campaign at the start of the month, which is targeted at recruiting more teachers in the STEM subjects.

As well as undergraduates, the campaign is also aiming to attract people from the STEM industries into the profession. In particular, the Scottish Government hopes that it will convince former oil and gas industry workers to retrain as teachers.

The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) reported in January that more than 6,200 people aged 30 and over started ITT in 2016-17, the highest number since 2012-13.  Entering teaching as a second career has become more common in recent years. In November, Financial Times associate editor and columnist Lucy Kellaway announced that she was leaving her role to become a maths teacher after 31 years in her role.

At the same time, Kellaway set up Now Teach, a charity which works to encourage senior professionals in the business industry to retrain as teachers. Aside from helping with the issue of teacher recruitment, headteachers have also welcomed the benefits of having former professionals in the classroom in terms of their leadership skills and ability to provide careers advice.

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Talking to children about poverty: why education needs to get in on the act

boy with bear

1 in 5 children in poverty

Scotland has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the UK. The latest figures from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that 1 in 5 children in Scotland live in poverty, with the figure rising to 1 in 3 in the urban centre of Glasgow. With more and more families falling into relative poverty and the numbers of working poor rising, the newly branded “JAMs” (just about managing) are, in some cases not managing, having to decide between heating their house or feeding their families.

People are affected by poverty in many different ways. For adults it can lower self-esteem, increase levels of stress, and can have consequences for mental and physical health. However, it’s sometimes forgotten that many children can feel these same effects from growing up in a family living in poverty.

In the same way as adults, many children suffer from low self-esteem and feel the invisible burden of the stigma that the label of “poverty” places on them. In addition, children affected by poverty:

  • are more likely to be victims of bullying;
  • tend to have lower attainment at school;
  • have fewer social networks or groups of friends;
  • suffer from poorer physical and mental health;
  • have less chance of leaving school with a full set of qualifications and going on to further or higher education (despite the best efforts of various governments to change this); and
  • are more likely than “affluent children” to spend their adulthood in poverty too.

How children understand poverty

Many children have an understanding of poverty as meaning “poor” or lacking in money. Concepts such as heating a home, building personal debt or not being able to afford to travel to work are not things they yet associate as being part of the cost of living, despite many of them seeing their own parents face these struggles on a weekly basis.

They associate poverty with foreign, particularly third world nations, as well as with homelessness, loneliness, a lack of familial support and a reliance on donations. Many children, even from the poorest backgrounds do not recognise themselves as being in poverty. This is something highlighted in research conducted by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute (SUII), which looked at child perceptions of poverty, and expressing these through alternate methods such as art.

In the study, children from schools in less affluent areas of Glasgow and Aberdeen were surveyed and many regarded notions of poverty as a distant, “third world” concept. However, when they were engaged in more creative methods, such as drama, or art, expressions of their experiences of poverty became more acute.

School children raising hands. View from behind.

Engaging education professionals in the poverty discourse

In Scotland, the overarching framework of Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is designed to bring services and professionals with whom children come into contact closer together to create a complete model of care for a child. It is interesting that in the latest commitment to tackling child poverty in Scotland there is no commitment to including teachers or education in general, in the same way as health professionals or social workers.

We know that poverty can have an adverse impact on wellbeing and on learning, and that children who live in poverty are more likely to be absent from school. However, education professionals are largely excluded from the discussions which child welfare officers, social workers, doctors and third sector colleagues are already having around the health and wellbeing of children who are living in poverty.

In a practical sense schools do, to a degree, already engage in reducing the impact of child poverty by providing financial and practical help. This could include subsidies for school meals or trips, the donation of free uniforms, breakfast clubs and tutoring after school classes. There have even been cases of individual teachers giving children clean clothes, meals or allowing them to sleep in the staff room at break and lunchtimes to allow them to catch up on sleep lost because of a disruptive lifestyle at home. However, talking about poverty with children is often neglected. This is something that academics are keen to see schools do more of – use their position to engage children in talking about poverty in order to help identify children at risk, but also to help raise the issue with other children who may not have experienced it or know what it is.

Using creative methods in schools to talk about poverty

Many academics argue that statistics on attainment can be misleading – while poverty has a significant impact, it does not correlate directly to cognitive ability. As one researcher at a seminar suggested, “just because you were born poor does not mean you were born without the ability to learn”. While there is evidence to suggest the slower development of children who live in poverty is acute in the early years, there is also evidence that the attainment gap is closing – what children in poverty miss out on is opportunity, variation and experience, and a chance to develop, rather than having lower overall cognitive function. This is one of the reasons, academics argue, it is so vital to engage teachers in wider discussions on child poverty.

For example, the vocabulary of children in poverty is often smaller in range than that of their more affluent peers. But, rather than this being the result of reduced cognitive function, researchers have found that this is primarily because they have not had the need to learn new words. Unlike children from more affluent backgrounds, they tend to remain within their community unit, using more colloquial language and a more limited number of words; they also often have less access to books or exposure to cultural experiences. That is not to say that they could not learn or have learnt all of the words that a child from a more affluent area knows; it’s just that they have not had the need or the opportunity to learn them yet. With this in mind, alternative methods of communication such as art, dance and storytelling could prove useful in explaining poverty to children, and helping them to discuss their experiences and understanding of what it means to be in poverty.

künstlermaterial

Using creative ways of communicating and engaging with children has already been found useful in helping them to talk about other issues personal to them, such as trauma or abuse. Researchers from the Scottish University Insight Institute-funded research team employed similar methods, using art, drama and play to help children express their feelings on poverty, and how it could be tackled in their communities. Children acted out scenarios, wrote poems, and created a number of pieces of tactile artwork, including sculptures and drawings. It was thought that these same methods could be used by teachers as a way to allow children to communicate their feelings about poverty and express issues relating to their own personal experiences without feeling stigmatised or singled out by other members of the class.

It is clear that the education profession has an important role, not only in helping to alleviate the effects of poverty on children through schemes like breakfast clubs, but also in a teaching and learning role. Many teachers and schools are averse to raise issues of money or poverty with children for fear of placing unnecessary distress onto children. However, sensitive and context-aware teaching on the issues around poverty should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden to teachers.

Effective discussion could go a long way to helping children to open up about experiences of poverty and also help them to be more understanding of other children who are living in poverty, reducing stigma and encouraging positive action within their local communities.


This blog reflects on research from the Scottish Universities Insight Institute and seminar participation at the Centre for Child Well-being and Protection at the University of Stirling.

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Modern language learning in a globalised world

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

In November, the Teaching Schools Council published Ian Bauckham’s Modern foreign languages pedagogy review, which looked at modern foreign languages teaching practice in key stages 3 and 4 in England.

The EBacc and modern languages

The review was announced in May last year by schools minister Nick Bole, shortly after it was indicated that 3,500 more language teachers would be needed in order to realise the government’s desire for 90% of pupils to sit the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language component.

Only 40% of English pupils currently take the EBacc. The Education Datalab’s estimate of the number of additional language teachers needed to increase this to 90% represents an increase of almost 40%. The government has missed its recruitment target for language teachers for the last four years, achieving just 87% of its target in 2015.

The Education Datalab’s latest data on the EBacc, published in October, suggests that the number of pupils who sit the qualification has stalled because there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of entries in languages.

The Bauckham review

Ian Bauckham’s review emphasises the “clear educational, personal, cultural, social, cognitive, career and business benefits in being able to communicate confidently in another language”. However, it notes that the latest edition of the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that over 50% of employers were not satisfied with their employees’ foreign language skills.

Although this is problematic for the country on a variety of levels, the Bauckham review points to the difficult context in which schools find themselves with regards to teaching foreign languages. Aside from recruitment issues, teachers are also dealing with some negative attitudes to foreign language learning from pupils and their parents, who may have had a poor language learning experience themselves. The review highlights that it is much easier for non-native English speakers to acquire the language due to its global dominance.

Schools also have to juggle the competing pressure of increasing the number of pupils taking STEM related subjects. The issue of a shortfall of people with STEM skills in the UK has received a great deal more attention from researchers and policymakers in recent years than a lack of those with language skills.

Language learning in Scotland: the 1+2 approach

In 2012, the Scottish Government published “Language learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach”. Intended to be rolled out across two parliaments, the approach was included in the government’s 2011 manifesto, which stated their intention to “introduce a norm for language learning in schools based on the European Union 1+2 model – that is we will create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their own mother tongue”.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for the approach is that by 2020, all children will start to learn an additional language from P1 that they will continue studying until at least S3. They will also be given the opportunity to start studying a third language no later than P5. This ambition also fits in with the government’s focus on closing the attainment gap during its term, with the language approach working to achieve key goals such as increasing the employability of school leavers.

Overall, the Scottish Government says its key aim in improving and expanding language learning in schools is that “young people are equipped with the skills and competencies they need in our increasingly globalised world” – a prudent ambition in increasingly uncertain times.

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