Friday Five: ‘low-value’ degrees, two-child benefit cap, universal early years, teacher autonomy, and school sport


21st July 2023

1. The government wage war on so-called ‘low-value’ degrees

This week, the government waged a war on so-called ‘low-value degrees’, proposing to cap numbers on courses offering poor prospects in terms of moving into professional jobs, engaging in postgraduate study or starting businesses. In an interview with The Guardian, Josh Freeman, policy manager at the Higher Education Policy Institute, spoke about how the government might define ‘low-value’ degrees and what the possible consequences of the policy might be.

The definition of ‘low value’ will likely be based on the Office for Students B3 framework, which looks at continuation rates, completion rates and graduate outcomes. There are a few issues here:

  • These measures look at how graduates are doing 15 months out of university, whereas young people’s lives may involve multiple careers.
  • Young people may be looking for different things from their careers. For instance, performing arts graduates will often work multiple jobs and continue to engage with their field of study (e.g. music) throughout their career.

It is, of course, important that students gain knowledge and skills through their time and investment in higher education, and that this may guide them towards a satisfying and rewarding career. However, the government’s framing presents a narrow view of what ‘value’ is.

There are several other issues:

  • There is a danger that the institutions that will be disproportionately affected by this policy will be those with more students from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • Some ‘low value’ careers are those in the public sector, such as social care, where wages are set by the government. To imply that these careers are ‘low value’ is to do a disservice to what this work contribute to society.

If the government is serious about ensuring young people have great outcomes and fulfilling careers, they could shift their focus to creating job opportunities, helping young people into the world of work, and tackling issues that affect their living standards, such as extortionate and precarious housing in the private rented sector.

Read The Guardian article here.

2. Keir Starmer says Labour would not scrap the two-child limit on benefits

As the country nears a general election, we’re keeping a close eye on what parties say they will do to support children and young people. Last Sunday, in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, Labour leader Keir Starmer explained that a Labour government would not scrap the ‘two-child limit’, which restricts child tax credit and universal credit claims to the first two children in a family, with a few exceptions.

While Starmer later explained that he is trying to avoid the unfunded spending promises that led to Liz Truss’s demise, this policy position seems untenable for a party that is supposedly serious about tackling child poverty. Child Poverty Action Group estimates that removal of the limit would lift 250,000 out of poverty at a cost of £1.3bn per year. As our former CEO, Loic Menzies, wrote back in 2021, “the cost of lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty is relatively small, because it’s the flaws in the design of our security system that cause many of the issues”.

Scrapping the limit would make a dramatic difference to the lives of disadvantaged children and young people across the country. Schools, youth services, and voluntary and community sector organisations do their best to deal with the consequences of child poverty – hunger, sleep deprivation, and mental health challenges to name a few. However, as Loic has argued, we must attend to the elephant in the room – eradicating child poverty itself. Labour has missed a big opportunity to show eliminating child poverty is a key part of its policy agenda. We hope that backlash from those within and outside the party will see its leadership reconsider.

Read the BBC article here.

3. NEF modelling suggests that investing in universal early years education pays for itself

In light of the announcement made in March 2023 that promised the expansion of the 30 free hours of childcare to cover children from nine months to the start of school by 2025, the New Economics Foundation analyses the economic implications of expanding that offer as universal coverage. The current offer of full support is limited to circumstances where both parents are working at least 16 hours a week at the minimum wage and where neither parent earns more than £100,000. NEF’s analysis shows that the 30 free hours offer for families with children under five years old benefits richer parents and excludes almost all of those on the lowest incomes.

NEF makes the case that high-quality, universal early years education is likely the highest-returning investment a government can make. To analyse the case for borrowing to invest in early years education, they modelled the fiscal costs and benefits of funding a universal early years offer entirely through an index-linked gilt (a government bond whose return is not eroded by inflation). Calculations show that the cost of paying these bonds off when a child reaches 60 is around £105,000 per child. They model the fiscal benefits of high-quality early years education derived from maternal employment, maternal earnings, child earnings (as adults), productivity, and reduced crime rates among others. The analysis shows that the fiscal benefits are the highest for low-income children. However, they advocate for universal coverage because means-tested systems often tend to be complex to navigate and particularly exclude low-income households from deriving its benefits. 

Read the full article here

4. UCL research investigates the impact of teacher autonomy on pupil outcomes and teacher satisfaction

As the debate around teacher autonomy grows, with the National Education Union criticising the increasing central control of teachers and the relaunch of Oak National Academy having come under criticism, researchers from the University College of London have carried out an academic study to investigate the relationship between teacher autonomy and pupil outcomes. The study utilises the TALIS video study observation system, as it draws upon a sample of mathematics teachers from across eight countries. Teachers completed a questionnaire asking about how much control they think they have over various aspects of their classroom; these responses were then correlated with pupil test scores, academic interest and self-confidence. The study also investigated how content and happy teachers are at their jobs and whether that is correlated with the autonomy they have in their jobs. 

The study found no evidence that links teacher autonomy and pupil outcomes. Similar results were found for both novice and experienced teachers, when outcomes were compared against the self-reported level of autonomy experienced by the teachers. With regards to teacher satisfaction, the study found no discernible difference in job satisfaction; teachers with average versus high levels of autonomy report being equally satisfied in their jobs. However, teachers with very low levels of autonomy do report substantially lower levels of job satisfaction. 

The findings of the report suggest that the general presumption should be against introducing significant constraints on autonomy. However, in certain circumstances, evidence-based guidance on teaching that constrains teacher autonomy, for example in the case of early career teachers or in teaching reading using synthetic phonics, is justified. 

Read the full report here.

5. DfE, DCMS and DHSC release an update on the School Sport and Activity Action Plan

This plan provides an update to the 2019 action plan that set out a cross-government commitment to collaborate at a national level to ensure PE and sport are integral to schooling. The update focuses on further work to improve the quality of PE and school sport provision, ensuring equality of access to sport, increasing the number of children playing sport in school and meeting curricular expectations, including for swimming and water safety. The action plan encourages all schools to deliver a minimum of two hours of PE time during the school day every week alongside equal access to sport for girls and boys. 

This action plan is intended to align with the government’s new sport strategy that will set the long-term strategy for sport in the UK and focus on addressing inactivity levels at all ages and making the sport sector more sustainable. The government also plans to publish non-statutory PE and sport guidance by the end of 2023. To help ensure the action plan delivers on its aims, DfE plans to conduct research into the state of current sport and PE provision particularly in the Primary PE and Sport Premium and Opening School Facilities Programme to inform future policy development. 

Read the full report here.


That’s all for this week. Please do share this blog if you found it useful and follow @Barristotle and @billyhubt for further commentary. You can keep up to date with all things CfEY through our our News and Events page and by signing up to our mailing list.