23 SES 03 B, Choice in Education
This paper argues that applying a combined ‘choice set’ and spatial methodology can help advance our understanding of the ways in which young people are experiencing the transition from secondary to upper secondary education and vocational training. In particular it focuses on the transitions of 16 year-olds in England who are labelled as ‘low attainers’ due to their performance in national examinations taken at the end of secondary education. Youth transitions across Europe are becoming more complicated and extended, and the variability in the type, quality and accessibility of post-secondary programmes creates local and regional inequalities (cross-cut by gender, ethnicity and social class) that can be hidden at a national level (see inter alia, Tarabini and Ingram, 2018; Schoon and Eccles, 2014; Lahelma, 2009). In England, these inequalities affect all young people, but ‘lower attaining’ students are particularly affected.
The English post-secondary system comprises a complex mix of providers including schools, sixth form colleges (academic post-16 institutions), general further education colleges and apprenticeship and traineeship providers, who form an education market. Similar institution types do not always offer similar programmes. The system lacks the concept of upper secondary education, as understood in most other European countries, preferring instead to use the term ‘participation age’. This means that 16 year olds must be in some form of nationally recognised education or vocational training until the age of 18, though this can include a mix of part-time education and/or training together with employment. Policy changes are frequent and, hence, even those studying this area admit that the system can be difficult to understand and analyse (Hupkau et al., 2017).
A well-established international education policy trope is that the marketised approach offers ‘choice’. There is a well-established ‘school choice’ literature focusing on the English primary and secondary phases (see inter alia, Burgess et al., 2015; Taylor, 2018). Though the measured quality of schools around England is different, the courses they offer in the pre-16 phase are generally the same. Given the complexity of the post-secondary education and training market and young people’s shift from childhood to emerging adulthood, the meaning of ‘choice’ necessarily changes. However, the school choice literature offers a valuable methodological approach – that of ‘choice sets’ - that is applicable to the post-secondary phase.
This paper presents findings from a study in which we used national and local administrative data to create ‘choice sets’ to analyse what choices exist for ‘low attaining’ young people at 16. We argue that these young people’s choices can be constrained because of a combination of geography and their prior attainment – something which existing research into post-16 travel-to-learn patterns (Watson and Church, 2009) has not explored in depth. To create these ‘choice sets’, we incorporate ‘travel to learn’ times to identify the possible education and training providers that are accessible by public transport in a reasonable amount of time. This aspect is important because young people do not always have access to coordinated transport to their place of learning and may be travelling independently on public transport. We then incorporate information about entry requirements to refine these ‘choice sets’ for different types of prior attainment profiles. As entry requirements also differ locally, we focus on two case-study areas to illustrate this approach. Incorporating real travel times and prior entry requirements is an innovative extension to the ‘choice sets’ approach. Analyses that focus only on the national level are likely to miss important local aspects that shape choice.
We analyse data from two large administrative datasets in England – the National Pupil Database (NPD) and the Individual Learner Record (ILR) – to construct a dataset containing information about the attainment and characteristics of young people between 16 and 18. From this, we construct types of ‘lower attaining’ young people. Though the group without grade 4 in English and/or Maths is treated in the same way by policy, we know that there are important differences in attainment patterns within this group that affect which opportunities they have access to. Then, following the approach of those interested in school choice, we construct choice sets for the different types of lower attaining young people – focussing on two specific regions of England: Greater Manchester and the North of Tyne. We extend the usual approach for calculating choice sets in important ways – to account for the real complexity in the English system. First, we incorporate ‘travel to learn’ times which allows us to exclude providers from choice sets if it would take an unreasonable amount of time to reach them on public transport – an important extension to the simple distance assumption. Young people in England theoretically have a variety of options in their post-16 phase and whilst some of these (such as schools with sixth forms) can be found in most areas others, such as apprenticeships, are less evenly distributed and may require considerable travel to reach. Second, we incorporate entry requirements for providers and courses which allows us to exclude providers from choice sets if a young person’s prior attainment is not of the standard they ask for. Any post-16 provider can set their own entry requirements and these differ by provider type but also within provider type, depending on the demand for places locally. Our choice sets will incorporate this local variation in provision, transport links and entry requirements leading to a more realistic analysis of the choices available to young people with low prior attainment. We will also discuss how we calculated and incorporated local information into this choice set analysis and how this presents practical challenges both for our analysis and for anyone who wants to replicate this approach.
This paper presents a methodological approach that can be used to analyse choice in post-secondary education and training. Although the research focuses on the English case, we argue that the approach has relevance for other countries given international concerns about inequalities in youth transitions. In addition, all countries exhibit differences in the configuration of education and training at regional and local levels, even though they may not be as stark as in England. As a result, understanding the realities of ‘choice’ for young people today demands rigorous methodological and conceptual attention. Our approach, based on ‘choice sets’, offers a way of understanding the constraining effect that local factors such as transport links and entry requirements can have. We have thus significantly expanded a ‘choice sets’ approach as a way to overcome the limitations of national-level analysis, which is increasingly likely to miss important aspects of local difference. From our analysis, we can see which areas have gaps in provision for some types of learners which makes it potentially very useful to policymakers. However, our approach relies on the collection and analysis of large amounts of local information which presents methodological challenges and may limit how widely our approach could be adopted.
Burgess, S., Greaves, E., Vignoles, A., Wilson, D., 2015. What Parents Want: School Preferences and School Choice. The Economic Journal, 125, 1262–1289. Hupkau, C., McNally, S., Ruiz-Valenzuela, J., Ventura, G., 2017. Post-Compulsory Education in England: Choices and Implications. National Institute Economic Review. 240, R42–R57. Lahelma, E., 2009. Dichotomized Metaphors and Young People’s Educational Routes. European Educational Research Journal, 8, 497–507. Schoon, I., Eccles, J.S. (Eds.), 2014. Gender Differences in Aspirations and Attainment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Tarabini, A., Ingram, N. (Eds.), 2018. Educational Choices, Transitions and Aspirations in Europe: Systemic, Institutional and Subjective Challenges. Routledge, Abingdon. Taylor, C., 2018. Geography of the “New” Education Market : Secondary School Choice in England and Wales, 2nd ed. Routledge, Abingdon. Watson, J., Church, A., 2009. The Social Effects of Travel to Learn Patterns - A Case Study of 16-19 Year Olds in London. Local Economy 24, 389–414.
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