Britons are open to an experimental approach by teachers to boost educational attainment

10 April 2018

Britons are open to an experimental approach by teachers to boost educational attainment

  • 43% of British adults say that education in schools is worse than it was when they were a child.
  • Only 6% say that children today will not be worse off than their parents,
  • 44% of people say teachers should have the freedom to experiment with new approaches also known as ‘nudges’ – to boost attendance and grades, rather than more accepted approaches (12%).
  • These findings emerge from a survey commissioned by charity Pro Bono Economics. On 28th March, at the Royal Society, PBE hosted its annual lecture. The speaker was Dr David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team. In his lecture “Nudge-u-cation”, he asked “Can behavioural science boost education and social mobility?”

Many British adults are showing signs of pessimism about the state of education in schools, but are ready to place their hope in teachers who take a more experimental approach, a new survey has found.

The poll of 2,000 adults by the charity Pro Bono Economics, has found that only one in four British people (27%) believe that children today get a better overall primary and secondary school education than they did. As many as 43% say that schools are worse than they were in their day, while just 14% believe that there is no difference compared to the proverbial best days of their lives.

Meanwhile, the public mood among adults implies that there are fewer guarantees of security when it comes to jobs, finances, owning a home and a comfortable retirement. Comparing today’s school children to their parents:

  • Two-thirds (65%) of British adults think that today’s young people will be less likely to own their own home;
  • 57% say they will have less job security;
  • 54% say they will be less likely to benefit from a good pension;
  • 47% say they will be worse off financially.

On a more optimistic note, only one fifth (27%) of respondents say that today’s children will be less likely to move to a more affluent area than their parents, and just 22% believe they will be less happy with their job and their lives overall. A mere 19% predict that today’s children will be less likely to attend university or go on to further education.  But pessimism returns when it comes to comparing the future lives of today’s young people and the current life of their parents: only 6% of respondents feel that they will not be worse off in any way.

In their efforts to help young people reach further education, and improve their life chances and social mobility, some schools have been adopting behavioural science techniques – also known as ‘nudges’ – with the aim of improving academic achievement and attendance.  This approach appears to have the support of many members of the public.

With per-pupil school funding frozen until 2020, and the Education Policy Institute reporting that a large number of local authority-maintained schools are now spending beyond their means, the survey reveals that many now believe it is time to take a new approach to improving children’s education, attendance and grades. Over four in ten (44%) feel that teachers should be allowed to experiment with new approaches, and 26% believe teachers should test new approaches before they are more widely adopted.   Only 12% think that teachers should continue as they are, adopting consistent, accepted approaches that are believed to favour academic progress. 

“In less than a decade, behavioural science has moved from the fringes to the heart of policy,” says Dr David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, who delivered the Pro Bono Economics Annual Lecture on Wednesday 28 March at the Royal Society.

“Successive governments around the world have seen the benefits of introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to public services. Our own trials in education have shown how interventions as simple and low-cost as a text message can have transformative effects - from increased attendance to improved pass rates. Experimental and behavioural approaches are both unlocking new solutions and improving old ones.”

Behavioural approaches have also helped encourage the much wider use of experimental methods – notably the randomised control trial – in routine policymaking. In the UK, this empiricism has found expression in the ‘What Works’ movement and network, and in the creation of independent What Works centres covering education, crime, early intervention, local economic growth, well-being, better aging and, most recently, youth social work.  

In his Pro Bono Economics lecture, Dr Halpern explored the dimensions and potential of the What Works movement. In particular, he examined the cutting-edge power of the behavioural approach when it comes to education and social mobility, while identifying the barriers that still limit its enormous possibilities.

Julia Grant, Chief Executive of Pro Bono Economics, commented: “Whether or not our education system really is better or worse than a generation ago, this survey indicates that many British adults don’t believe that young people are being properly prepared for the world beyond school. No matter whether they are planning on university, another form of further education or the workplace, there is a feeling that limits are being put on their life chances.

“The positive we can take from these findings is that people are willing to put aside their scepticism and embrace more experimental approaches to improving children’s learning, attendance, grades and access to further education.

“Collectively, we need to move away from the orthodoxy of approaches that are supported by little or no evidence of their impact and adopt new, experimental approaches that produce evidence to demonstrate their immediate success or failure.”

The findings quoted come from a YouGov survey of 2,000 people, carried out in preparation for Pro Bono Economics’ annual lecture, which included a panel discussion chaired by Lord Gus O’Donnell. Dr David Halpern was joined by:

  • Professor Sandra McNally, Professor at the University of Surrey, Director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research at the London School of Economics, and Director of the Education and Skills Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.
  • Chris Brown, Principal of The Bridge Academy, Hackney, who has direct experience of working with the Behavioural Insights Team. Bridge achieved the rare double of being in the highest progress categories for both A Level and GCSE.

For further information or interviews, please contact:

SENSO Communications
Penny Lukats, 07775992350, penny@sensocommunications.com

Pro Bono Economics
Clare Thorp, Director of Public Affairs, 07736 645262, clare.thorp@probonoeconomics.com

ABOUT THE SURVEY

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2047 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 19th - 20th March 2018.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

About Dr David Halpern’s lecture on 28th March

Over the last decade, governments across the world have begun to revise policy on the basis of more realistic and empirical models of human behaviour. This has led to improvements in outcomes in employment, public health, tax collection, savings, energy conservation, giving and reoffending.  Often these improvements have been achieved at dramatically lower cost than through conventional policy levers.

Behavioural approaches have also helped encourage the much wider use of experimental methods – notably the randomised control trial – in routine policymaking. In the UK, this empiricism has found expression in the ‘What Works’ movement and network, and in the creation of independent What Works centres covering education, crime, early intervention, local economic growth, well-being, better aging and, most recently, youth social work.  

Dr Halpern will explore the dimensions and potential of this movement. In particular, he will examine the cutting-edge power of the behavioural approach when it comes to education and social mobility, while identifying the barriers that still limit its enormous possibilities.

About Pro Bono Economics

Pro Bono Economics (PBE) helps charities and social enterprises understand and improve the impact and value of their work. PBE matches professional economists who want to use their skills to volunteer with charities. Set up in 2009, PBE has helped over 300 charities large and small, covering a wide range of issues including mental health, education, employment and complex needs.

PBE is supported by high-profile economists, including Andy Haldane (Bank of England) and Dave Ramsden (HM Treasury) as trustees, and Kate Barker, Lord Jim O’Neill, Robert Peston, Martin Wolf and Lord Adair Turner as patrons. Lord Gus O’Donnell joined the Board of Trustees as Chair in September 2016.

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