What’s the opportunity? Why policy makers need to understand the options that education unlocks

by Loic Menzies, 22 March 2022
Woman climbing a ladder to get through a door

In their seminal 1997 paper, Explaining educational differentials: Towards a formal rational action theory Breen and Goldthorpe set out a model to explain the link between socio-economic background and educational participation. The authors argue that the choices young people and their families make are shaped by i) the cost of further education; ii) perceived probability of success; and iii) the expected benefits.

Disadvantaged young people who defy the odds by achieving highly at school face very different prospects - and therefore expected benefits - depending on where they grow up. For example, the Social Mobility Commission has compared long term outcomes for disadvantaged high achievers in ‘left behind areas’ such as the disadvantaged ‘Fenland’ area near Cambridge, with other disadvantaged areas, such as the North East. 

Disadvantaged young people who defy the odds by achieving highly at school face very different prospects - and therefore expected benefits - depending on where they grow up.

Availability of well-paid, ‘knowledge economy’ jobs in and around Fenland mean that disadvantaged young people who do well at school have far more options for translating their achievements into congruent careers - and salaries - than their similarly disadvantaged peers in areas where fewer professional jobs are available. 

In other words, the labour market returns of working hard at school differ depending on where you grow up. 

“In the most socially mobile areas, gaps in educational performance explain virtually all of the earnings gap. In the least mobile areas, however, relative educational performance explains only two-thirds of the adult pay gap.”

Social Mobility Commission 2020

It is no surprise that this has a washback effect on educational engagement. In fact, it’s just what you’d expect based on the Breen and Goldthorpe model[1] - yet discussions about labour market opportunities tend to take place in a separate silo to those about educational equity. 

Where education policy makers do look at labour market information, this tends to be as part of ‘skills policy;’ primarily to identify what employers want, rather than to understand what might be shaping young people’s educational journeys. The difference is subtle but important: are we thinking about the supply of skills for employers, or the supply of opportunities for young people - and the associated motivation?

Roundtable participants noted that in the US many schools (including high profile charter schools), have used access to college as a simple marker of how education translates into opportunity. Yet despite attempts to import the “everyone’s going to university” mantra to some English schools, this does not always translate smoothly into a UK context, due to historic and social differences. This leaves an undefined and less compelling pay-off. As one Deputy Head put it:

“The really big problem is that our society as a whole is narrowing, we're getting these bottlenecks of opportunity. So there's fewer of the kind of aspirational opportunities available…They don’t buy into the transaction; they don’t buy into education.”

Of course, once education policy-makers start to pay more attention to information about the availability of opportunities, they have to decide what to do about it. On one hand the British Government’s focus on ‘levelling up’ means policy makers may be increasingly willing to use the power of the state to stimulate local labour markets, but there are softer implications too: for example, identifying the differences between Fenland and the North East must surely yield a recognition that different approaches to improving disadvantaged young people’s achievement might be needed in each. 

This is part of the rationale for devolving more decision making to localities. Teachers and schools may need to develop different narratives about the benefits of education, or might need to do more to show what professional opportunities are available in cities that are nearby but outside of the school’s immediate vicinity. As the Social Mobility Commission notes there are “deprived areas with limited opportunities adjacent to more affluent areas with greater opportunities, throughout England.” 

Greater recognition of the ‘opportunities’ part of the education cost-benefit calculation might encourage policy makers to support area-based initiatives that respond to what makes different places unique. 

Teachers and schools may need to develop different narratives about the benefits of education, or might need to do more to show what professional opportunities are available in cities that are nearby but outside of the school’s immediate vicinity.

A greater focus on the supply of opportunities doesn’t just have implications for place-based equity. One policy maker at our recent roundtable explained that efforts to support young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities into adulthood often falter because attention is given to support, but not to opportunities. Directing more resources towards specialists working with employers to provide supported internships - and long-term jobs, would create the pipeline of opportunities needed to ensure these young people flourish. 

Failing to focus sufficiently on opportunities can mean young people receive training and support but do not get to put their learning to good use. This is not something that ‘the market’ will step in to provide. Education policy makers therefore need accurate information about the availability of opportunities both nationally and locally so they can step in and enhance supply as necessary - whether directly, within the public sector, or through support and incentives in the private sector. 

Directing more resources towards specialists working with employers to provide supported internships - and long-term jobs, would create the pipeline of opportunities needed to ensure these young people flourish. 

If policy makers want to understand what doors education is opening for young people, they need to pay far more attention to information that tells them what opportunities are available. This shouldn’t be about bluntly shaping education around current, local labour-market conditions, but about recognising and responding to local economic conditions that inhibit educational equity.

[1] It’s worth noting that the link between SES and educational participation - and achievement is almost certainly more complicated than the rational actor model suggests and in a recent paper, Wojtek Tomaszewski and his co-authors provide a helpful summary of alternative or complementary theories.

Over the coming months, Loic Menzies and Cambridge Assessment Network will be convening a series of expert round tables and discussion seminars on the topic of equity in education. Our first event in February asked, 'What information do policy makers need to help them map the way to educational equity?’

This is the third in a four-part blog series setting out the key considerations to come from the event. Parts one and two focused on the need to look at young people across the distribution and how building a fuller picture of young people’s lives can inform more nuanced approaches to improving outcomes

The aim for the series is to build an incredibly rich body of thinking, which participants will have played a critical role in helping to develop.

You can catch up with the latest event over on our YouTube channel and make sure you're signed up to our mailing lists to be find out how you can get involved in the next one.

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