Why does employer engagement make a difference to young people?

Note: this piece was originally published here by Anthony Mann (Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce) & Steven Jones on February 11th 2016. The academic paper on which the blog is based appears in the Journal of Education and Work.

 

It is now more than fifty years since the British state first acted to enable schools to bring workplace experience into the schooling of young people. The 1963 Newsom Report paved the way for the first formalised work experience placements aimed at young people intent on going into work during their mid-teens. In the half century that followed, experience of workplace has moved from a marginal activity, affecting fewer than 5% of pupils in the 1960s, to a universal expectation. Through the rolling waves of government, charitable and business initiatives, a tidal change has been witnessed in both the UK and in countries around the world.

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The policy push for closer ties between schools and employers has been primarily driven by an expectation that employer engagement will enhance young people’s labour market prospects. This was an explicit rationale behind the reforms of both the Labour Party in the 2000s and of the Conservatives in the 2010s. Historically, with little evidence available on impact, policy makers were required to trust their instincts. In recent years, however, a growing body of US and UK research literature has tested whether school-mediated exposure to the workplace can be linked to improved outcomes in the early labour market. While some studies raise reasonable questions about methodological approaches, a compelling story emerges of improved employment outcomes: notably, in terms of wage premiums (found up to age 24) accruing to young adults who, as teenagers, engaged in higher volume levels of employer engagement through their schools than comparable peers.

bourdieuWithin research and policy debates, increasingly it has been asked not whether employer engagement makes a difference to the prospects of young people, but why it does so and how it can be optimally delivered. Stanley and Mann (2014), for example, draw on insights from three inter-related concepts commonly used in academic and public policy literature to explain relative advantage and disadvantage experienced by individuals within the labour market: human, social and cultural capital.1024 Drawing particularly on work by sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Mark Granovetter, Stanley and Mann offered ‘a theoretical framework that can comprehend accounts of how employer engagement is experienced and how it provides resources that aid progression in the labour market.’ In new research, this framework is tested for the first time.

Steven Jones (University of Manchester) and colleagues have analysed 488 responses to an open question in a 2011 YouGov survey exploring young adults’ experiences of schoolmediated employer engagement: for example, work experience, careers talks, enterprise education, business mentoring. They look at answers to a broad question which invited respondents to reflect on ‘what [they] got out of employers being involved in [their] education.’ Participants were prompted to consider whether the involvement was responsible for ‘changing the way [they] thought about school or college, providing useful information or encouragement for thinking about possible jobs or careers, helping to get actual jobs either through people [they] got to know or giving [them] something useful for job applications or interviews, or in getting into a course at college or university.’ A reassurance was added that ‘maybe [they] got nothing out of it at all.’ In the analysis, responses from 190 young people providing sufficient information relating to personal benefit of some type were considered. Not all young people reported positive benefits, it should be noted. As one individual reported:

“I worked in a bookshop doing the jobs no-one else wanted. This did not affect my decision to become a diagnostic radiographer.”

Using textual analysis of the statements, the researchers explored whether any evidence was apparent of different types of capital (human, social or cultural) being accumulated through experiences.

Perhaps, the most striking finding from the study emerged from its attempt to find evidence of human capital accumulation. It is a theory at the heart of most educational policy – that the more young people know and can do, the better their employment outcomes will be. In the field of employer engagement, considerable attention is devoted to the idea of ‘employability skills’, or the abilities that allow an individual to act effectively in a workplace. It has long been posited that exposure to authentic workplace situations in some ways serves to improve communication, problem solving, team working skills etc. While teachers often testify this is what they routinely observed in episodes of work-related learning, questions have been raised as to whether the typical British experience of school-mediated employer engagement (episodic, short duration, nonassessed, not integrated into the curriculum) could generate significant variation in such skills years into labour market participation.

And in the analysis of reflective statements, this scepticism was upheld. Little evidence of human capital accumulation was found. Significantly less apparent than evidence of cultural and social capital accumulation, improvements in human capital were most commonly witnessed in an indirect fashion – reflections on how workplace exposure led to increased academic application or experiences enabled easier progression into further study – especially at university level. It was in the realm of social and cultural capital that young adults reported the greatest benefits to them emerging from their workplace experiences.

Young people, particularly from independent school backgrounds, provided evidence of social capital in a number of forms. It was expressed as access to information and guidance which was unusually useful and trustworthy because it was deemed authentic:

“Told us from experience. Told us straight.”

“I trusted the word of someone in the working world as opposed to a careers’ advisor or teacher ‘telling’ you what to do.”

Others reported that economic opportunities emerged from connections made initially through school-mediated engagements:

“Following my work experience placement I obtained permanent part-time work at the same business. This steady job helped as a stepping stone into the working world.”

Most striking, however, was evidence that employer engagement activities had in some ways contributed to accumulations of cultural capital. Particular use is made of Bourdieu’s idea of ‘habitus’: that the behaviour and decisions of an individual are shaped and constrained through often inherited and/or unconsciously acquired attitudes and selfperceptions that are linked, to some degree, to wider social structures such as social class, ethnicity and gender. Policy makers often attempt to influence such ways of thinking – for example, in challenging gender stereotyping or making university attendance ‘thinkable’. Mentoring programmes and careers-focused campaigns in a similar vein are commonly designed to encourage young people to think differently about themselves and who they might become.

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The new research finds considerable evidence of changes in thinking that can be related to an ultimate economic importance: of young people gaining confidence around their decisions, broadening or eliminating potential options and changing the ways in which education itself was seen:

“It stopped me from leaving school early and made me stay on to go to uni which I think was a good thing in the end.”

“I found my work experience horrible, which is why I made an effort to get a better education and a better job.”

Ultimately, however, complexity is found in the relationships between different types of capital accumulation, as illustrated by this statement:

“Work experience helped me to better understand how my school studies translate into the job world and which areas of my studies would be useful in work. This provided motivation to work hard at university modules that were not necessarily the most appealing in terms of enjoyment but I could see that they would be valuable to finding employment later on.”

Considering such relationships, Jones and colleagues argue that young people gain access to multiple, complex and overlapping opportunities to gain benefit, proposing an Employer Engagement Cycle (see diagram at top). For example, through employer engagement activities, a teenager may make the contacts needed to be offered a job (social capital … as access to employment) while simultaneously acquiring the expertise or ability to make them employable in that role (human capital … as skills development). Or, to give another example, a young adult may report maturing and becoming more assured about themselves (cultural capital … as enhanced personal confidence) as a result of trusted information from employers (social capital … as authentic guidance). The research joins a growing body of literature that demands policy makers and practitioners think afresh of employer engagement initiatives, how they relate to a young person’s wider life and what truly drives the significant benefits many appear to experience.

 

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The UCAS personal statement: “just enough rope for a hanging”?

(Note: I published this piece first in Research Fortnight on A-level results day, 2014…)

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For many students, A-level results day is the culmination of a lengthy and complex university application process involving open days, UCAS forms, grade predictions, school references and admissions interviews. For some, the game will have started even earlier, with awards, experiences and sporting endeavours accumulated throughout adolescence on the promise that “this’ll look good on your personal statement.”

But Britain’s approach to undergraduate admissions is the exception, not the norm. Elsewhere in the world, systems tend to be more sensitive to uneven distributions of social capital, extra-curricular opportunities and guidance from friends, family and school. At a recent international conference, delegates from Northern European countries began to chuckle when I explained that applicants to British universities are given 4,000 characters to write freely about themselves. They felt sure such an indicator would reveal less about the applicant than their social and cultural background. Similar suspicions were raised in the 2004 Schwartz Report, which warned that “some staff and parents advise to the extent that the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work.”

The alternative for many nations is appropriately contextualised attainment data. Rather than turn to non-academic criteria to choose between eligible applicants, universities in both Holland and Greece have experimented with lotteries to distribute places on oversubscribed programmes. Meet your course’s entry requirements and your name goes into a hat with every other applicant who reaches that threshold. No gaming the system with interview coaching, LAMDA examinations or extravagant work placements.

Even in the largely decentralised US admissions system, applicants must respond to ‘prompts’, including those below, that are designed to make the process fairer. Such prompts, rather than encourage applicants to cash in on past opportunities, call for focused, candid and reflective responses. College websites in the US reassure applicants that statements will be read “in their true context” (Princeton), and justify the use of non-academic indicators in terms of a “long history of encouraging diversity” (Brown).

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My interest in the higher education admissions was sparked by Vikki Boliver’s 2012 finding that “applicants to Russell Group universities from state schools are less than two-thirds as likely to receive offers as privately educated applicants,” a differential that wasn’t attributable to ‘facilitating’ subjects. Last month, a study of 50,000 students by the University of Bristol confirmed similar concerns in relation to ethnic minority applicants. For example, for every 100 candidates of Pakistani ethnicity, seven fewer offers were made than for 100 equivalent white British candidates, a pattern that “could not be fully explained by differences in academic attainment or patterns of application.”

Last year, I published Sutton Trust funded research demonstrating that equal-attainment students submitted very different personal statements. Basic linguistic errors (such as spelling errors and apostrophe misuse) were almost three times more common in statements submitted by applicants attending sixth form colleges than by those attending independent schools. For some candidates, work experience meant school-facilitated day trips and paid Saturday jobs; for others, it involved shadowing public figures and undertaking high-prestige placements. My findings resonated with a 2010 survey by the Education and Employers Taskforce showing that 42% of young people from independent schools felt their work experience helped them get into university, as opposed to only 25% of those from comprehensive schools.

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Of course, it’s possible that admission tutors see through advantages of school type to the candidate beneath. “Does the Sutton Trust really think I’m taken in by slick expensive personal statements?” tweeted Prof Mary Beard when my report first appeared. But last year The Times reported that statements were now regarded as “worthless” by many tutors, and the recent Pearson Think Tank report, (Un)Informed Choices, concluded that “the use of personal statements should be ended.” Unless all students’ applications are judged by staff with the experience and skill to separate privilege from potential, it’s difficult to excuse the continued use of an indicator that, according to a 1996 paper by Karen Surman Paley, affords hopefuls “just enough rope for a hanging.”

Whether this year’s A-level results bring good news or bad for individual students, questions remain about whether the half a million or so personal statements written every year represent an efficient use of time, energy and resource, either for schools and colleges or for the higher education sector. A growing body of evidence suggests that non-academic indicators, rather than bringing equality to the selection process, further advantage those applicants already favoured by school type and socio-economic background.