Friday Five: non-specialist teachers, public service spending, social mobility, AI, and mental health


18th August 2023

It’s results week, which means the headlines have been dominated by stories of grades, qualifications, attainment gaps, post-18 destinations, and other related topics. In this week’s Friday Five, we cover some of the stories that you might have missed, spanning teacher workforce, public service spending, social mobility, AI, and mental health.

1. Analysis of school workforce data shows growing numbers of non-specialist teachers 

A Labour Party analysis of the school workforce census figures finds that over the last five years, half of secondary subjects saw a rise in the number of hours taught by non-specialist teachers. In 2017-18, 25.2 hours of all secondary subjects were taught by non experts, compared to 25.3 in 2022-23. Design and technology subjects and French saw the biggest rises. The subjects most often taught by non-experts were engineering and citizenship, nearly 80% of all hours of both subjects taught this year were by non-specialists. More than two-fifths (45.9%) of computing hours were taught by non-specialists in the last year. Another subject hit by the shortage of specialist teachers is physics; the DfE only met 20% of its target for trainee physics teachers last year. Despite the deteriorating conditions for many subjects, 12 subjects have seen the percentage of hours taught by non-specialists fall in the last five years, and these include core subjects like English, history, and geography. 

Read the full article here.

2. IFS report analyses spending on public services at local authority level

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, in their recent report, analysed how much funding each area of England receives for key public services including health, school, local government, and public health. The report compares the funding that each area received with the funding it would have received if the total funding available for each service nationally was allocated to areas in proportion to the estimated relative spending needs. The report takes into consideration latest available government estimates of the relative spending needs of different places, which capture the priority that governments placed historically on different drivers of needs and on narrowing inequalities between places. These are some of the key findings from the report: 

  • In the year 2022-23, a total of more than £245 billion was spent on these public services, accounting for more than 40% of total government spending.
  • More-deprived and more-urban areas receive more funding per capita across all services, although this is the starkest for public health and least strong for local government. NHS spending is relatively well-targeted to estimated needs, whereas local government funding is much less so. Public health funding is particularly poorly aligned with estimated needs, with some of the widest gaps in percentage terms.
  • Areas with higher funding for one service also typically received higher funding for all other services.
  • While there are large gaps between funding and need for different services, it is not the case that some areas appear to be systematically disadvantaged across all services. In particular, areas that receive lower shares of NHS funding than their share of estimated need typically receive more funding than their share of estimated need for local government services. 

Read the full report here

3. New Onward report tackles the ‘social mobility penalty’ in local government funding

Sticking with the theme of local funding, a new report from Onward looks at how local government funding often misses areas with fewer opportunities, with some LAs paying a ‘social mobility penalty’. The Settlement Funding Assessment (SFA) is the main component of non-ringfenced grant that LAs receive from central government. It is based on deprivation, with the logic that this accounts for the differences in cost of service provision in more deprived areas.

On the surface, there is a clear justification for this, given deprivation is often associated with poorer outcomes in areas like education and employment. However, while many LAs are both deprived and have low social mobility, there are others that have high deprivation but high social mobility. This means some LAs pay a ‘social mobility penalty’, where after accounting for deprivation, an area in the top decile for social mobility receives 50% more in Whitehall grants than an area in the bottom decile.

Given that social mobility scores are driven by outcomes for the poorest children and young people, there is therefore a danger that areas with weaker outcomes for children and young people are not getting the funding they need. For instance, places that are <20% rural average 44 ranking places higher on social mobility conditional on deprivation, while those >80% rural average 70 ranking places below on social mobility.

In response, Onward propose a Balanced Model, which targets funding to both high deprivation and low social mobility areas in equal measure (rather than a Social Mobility model, which would shift towards low social mobility areas, at the expense of areas of high deprivation). More broadly, the report is a useful reminder of the problems that can arise from determining funding by any one indicator.

Read the full report here.

4. Educationists deliberate on the future of AI in education

Academics and educationists from the Cognition Learning Group, UCL and the University of Melbourne reflect upon the questions of the trajectories that rapidly advancing AI is likely to take in the future, what are its implications for the education system, and what can be done to minimise the potential damage. The authors posit that AI systems are likely to greatly surpass human reasoning capabilities in the near future, having already exceeded the average human in a number of domains. They predict that advanced AI is likely to considerably amplify the abilities of experts, at least initially, but novices could become forever stunted. As AI capabilities grow, they think, our incentives to learn might diminish, almost to the point where many of us might lose the ability to read and write as these skills may not serve a very useful purpose in day-to-day living. They speculate that there are four likely long-term scenarios for the future of AI: AI is banned, AI and humans work side-by-side, Transhumanism where AI is used to upgrade human brains, and one where humans are able to decouple from economy leaving machines to develop all products and services with support from universal basic income. As the report delves deeper into each of these scenarios, it also proposes a number of recommendations to slow down the growth of AI, in order for humanity as a whole to be able to collectively think and agree upon which of these scenarios might suit humanity’s needs the best.  

Read the full report here

5. UCL researchers find link between academic pressure and mental health problems in adolescence

New research led by academics at UCL has found a link between academic pressure and mental health problems in adolescence. The report involved a review of 52 studies of primary, secondary and sixth-form college students across the globe, covering work published between 1991-2022.

Across 48 studies, they found a positive association between academic pressure or proximity to exams and mental health issues. For instance, a study in England found that teenager stress-related emergency admissions were highest during term-time and lowest during holidays.

However, they acknowledge a key issue around causality here. It might be that experience mental health issues could drive feelings of academic pressure rather than (or in addition to) academic pressure leading to mental health problems. Moreover, most studies were carried out at a single time-point and there were inconsistencies in the use of the term “academic pressure”.

The authors have called for larger cohort studies to shape the interventions that might be developed, evaluated and implemented to support adolescent mental health throughout their education. It is vital that policymakers have robust research and evidence at their disposal to consider any impact of academic pressures on adolescent mental health.

Read a summary of the 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.