Friday Five: extracurricular activities and employability, Skills Improvement Fund, school repairs, poorer pupil mental health and building public policy resilience


25th May 2023

Hello! It’s been another eventful week in the world of education and youth policy. Catch-up on some of the key reports, analysis and commentary with this handy round-up, courtesy of our policy team.

This week, our Friday Five covers the relationship between extracurricular activities and employability, the Skills Improvement Fund, funding for school repairs, the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of children from lower-income families and how to plan public policy that is resistant to systemic shocks.

New Demos research looks at the relationship between extracurricular activities and employability

New research from Demos looks at the relationship between extracurricular activities and employability. The authors used a literature review, polls, interviews, and focus groups to better understand what employers are looking for and make recommendations for how current issues (such as skills deficits) may be addressed.

The UK’s youth unemployment rate was 10.8% in the first quarter of 2023. This is significantly higher than the 3.7% rate for all UK adults. This has severe economic consequences, with the cost to the UK economy over the next decade estimated at £28bn. There are also high costs at the individual level – unemployment can cause pay scarring and have wider impacts such as on mental health. It is therefore worth examining how we can ensure young people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the world of work.

The authors find a ‘double skills gap’ among young people – a lack of technical and transferable skills that are key to the workplace. They suggest that a narrow curricular focus on academic subjects has been at the cost of various skills, such as teamwork, leadership and communication.

The report makes several recommendations, with an emphasis on extra-curricular activities and careers education. These include:

  • LAs and MATs should provide financial support to schools to allow volunteer extracurricular organisations to use their space after school for regular activities
  • Researchers should aim to fill the evidence gaps on the links between extracurricular attendance, employability and inequality
  • The government should reintroduce the statutory requirement for Key Stage 4 pupils to undertake work experience

Read the full report here.

FE providers invited to apply for share of £165m Local Skills Improvement Fund

This week, the DfE launched its Local Skills Improvement Fund, which looks at addressing ‘skills black holes’. FE colleges can apply for funding that responds to priorities set out in Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIP), which have been created by employer representative bodies and married to local labour market needs.

With local needs varying considerably, the funding has quite a broad remit, including areas such as improvements to facilities (e.g. updated equipment), upskilling of teachers, and new courses in key subjects that meet local employer needs. It builds on the £157m Strategic Development Fund.

Given the youth unemployment issues identified in this week’s Demos report (see above), this sort of local investment is welcome, and it’s good to see the emphasis on partnership between FE and employers. However, given controversies surrounding the allocation of ‘levelling up’ funding, it will be interesting to see the geographical distribution of this new fund when bid results are announced in October 2023.

Read the DfE press release here.

Fewer schools get money for building repairs

On Monday, the government published its 2023/24 funding outcomes for its Condition Improvement Fund – a £450m pot available to support repair work in schools in small academy trusts, sixth form colleges and voluntary-aided schools. New analysis from Schools Week raises serious concerns that this support does not go far enough.

Firstly, there has been a 25% fall in the number of repair bids getting approved, from 1,405 last year to 1,033 this year. There has also been a fall in cash given out (from £498m last year to £456m this year) and number of schools benefiting (from 1,129 last year to 859 this year). With sky-high inflation, individual project costs have likely increased too. Indeed, there was a 10.4% rise in the cost of building materials in January compared to the previous year.

The government also published information on the geographical distribution of bids. Just 24% of bids from schools in the South West were successful, compared to 44% in the North West. It is also worth noting that around one in eight successful bids were those where schools were covering over 30% of costs themselves.

Read the Schools Week article in full here.

COSMO study finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has widened economic gap

The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) study that surveyed more than 13,000 young people in England has found that the pandemic has served to widen economic gaps, with the greatest harms suffered by those who were relatively less well-off in the first place.

The study gathers evidence on multiple areas of people’s lives that were impacted by the pandemic.

  • 52% of disadvantaged households reported worse financial health over the pandemic as compared to 34% of others.
  • Pandemic financial stresses were closely linked to mental health. Among families finding it very difficult to get by financially, rate of psychological distress was 82% among parents – four times higher than those living comfortably
  • Rates of psychological distress were substantially higher in households using the foodbanks in the pandemic (53% among young people and 63% among parents), compared to 41% and 33% for those not using foodbanks.
  • One in ten young people (10%) were living in households classed as food insecure, with many reporting running out of food, skipping meals, and some (5%) parents reporting going a whole day without eating. It is worth noting that the majority of households (57%) where children went hungry and 37% of those that used foodbanks were not eligible for free school meals
  • Even though significant efforts were made during the pandemic to provide children with school meals during school closure and holiday periods, the study shows that many children were left out of this ambit of support.
  • Existing social and economic disadvantages contributed to higher food insecurity. Social renters were six times more likely to experience food insecurity than those who owned their homes. Rates of food insecurity were the highest in the North East and North West and the lowest in the South East and East of England.
  • Pupils in families who reported using food banks during the pandemic received lower GCSE grades, by almost half a grade per subject.

The report makes recommends that the government take more concerted action to give utmost priority to alleviate material deprivation. In particular, it recommends that the calls for extending free school meals to all families on Universal Credit need to be addressed seriously.

Read the full report here.

Report explores how to integrate resilience with public policy and spending

A new report from CfEY’s former CEO and founder, Loiz Menzies, pulls together discussions from a roundtable convened in January 2023 at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, to explore how a better balance can be struck between efficiency and resilience in public policy making.

With CfEY head of policy, Baz Ramaiah, a participant in the roundtables, the report authors argue that narrow focus on efficiency in determining public spending makes public systems vulnerable to shocks, which became particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHS due to myopic focus on efficiency alone was already running near capacity and came dangerously close to breaking point during the pandemic. With many other public services similarly stretched and vulnerable, experts in the roundtable make an urgent case for shifting policy towards ensuring prevention and resilience.

The report is organised around four themes corresponding to the different parts of the governance system.

  1. Departments and local delivery: The report argues for the need for a more joined-up approach between different public services, aligning budgets and goals between them, instead of setting them up in competition with one another. To ensure continuity of preventative services, authors point to the need for going beyond individual champions and investing in leadership, and ensuring continuity of management, relationships and information.
  2. Centre of government: Treasury’s decisions on spending classifications are known to prioritise everyday services and short-term goals over long-term preventative programmes. Experts in the roundtable argue for a need for more transparency in Treasury classifications, enhanced public scrutiny, as well as improved processes that can enable preventative spending.
  3. Evidence community: Research on measuring the efficacy of preventative programmes is often seen as more difficult than measuring effectiveness of interventions tackling existing problems. This research gap can be effectively filled, the report argues, by increasing evidence-gathering in not just “what works” but “how to make programmes work”, by building evidence for preventing low-probability but high impact events such as wars and pandemics, and by improving the absorption of relevant evidence across government, among others.
  4. Political community: Investing public money upfront to reduce acute needs in the long-term does not secure political wins in the short-term. Thus, the report contends that it is crucial to improve narratives that communicate the need for national resilience by using powerful metaphors, challenging misconceptions, and tapping into multiple value sets.

Read the full report here.

That’s all for this week! If you found this blog useful, please be sure to share/tweet it and follow @theCfEY@Barristotle and @billyhubt for future editions.