Friday, 24 March 2017

The benefits of vocational education for low-achieving school leavers

Vahé Nafilyan, from the Institute for Employment Studies, writes on CVER's latest research paper which looks at a previously neglected group: school leavers starting low level vocational courses

Every year, about 65,000 school leavers start low level vocational courses. As underlined in a report by the House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility these young people have received much less attention than those who go on to A-Levels and university and, at the other end of the spectrum, the small minority dropping out of education, employment or training. Although this is a sizeable group (10% of a cohort), their participation in vocational education and labour market outcomes have so far been barely documented.

In a new paper we analyse in detail the school-to-work transition of young people who left school in the summer of 2011 and started low level vocational courses, known in England as ‘Below Level 2’ (BL2). Using newly available linked administrative data, we examine the characteristics of BL2 learners, their learning trajectory and their labour market outcomes.

Young people who start BL2 courses after leaving secondary school are amongst those who have faced the greatest challenges in secondary school. They have extremely weak GCSE results. Nearly all of them failed to achieve five A*-C GCSEs, the typical requirement to start A-Levels; 68.5% of them did not achieve a single A*-C GCSE, a proportion higher than amongst those who left education and got a job (48.6%) or became ‘Not in Employment, Education or Training’ (NEET, 60.7%). BL2 learners were already struggling at school prior to GCSEs. Over half of them performed below the expected level in English and maths at Key Stage 3 (i.e. national examinations taken at 14 years old). In addition, 39.0% of them report having disabilities, learning difficulties or other health problems BL2 courses have similar characteristics: most programmes require the completion of 300 to 400 Guided Learning Hours (GLH.), of which 200 to 300 GLH are devoted to the main subject. The main subject for about a third of all young people is Preparation for Life and Work, which focuses on personal and social skills for the purpose of personal growth and further engagement in learning. Amongst the subject areas with a clear vocational focus, the most popular are Construction (23.8%), Engineering (15.5%) and Retail (12.3%).

We find significant progression in education by the BL2 learners. Nearly 80% of BL2 learners made successful transitions leading into continued employment, higher level college-based vocational education or apprenticeships. Three years after leaving secondary school, over half of the BL2 learners achieved a qualification at, or above, Level 2.

However, one in five BL2 learners drop out of education and become and remain NEET. Our analysis suggests that females are at higher risk of becoming NEET than males. Those coming from more disadvantaged areas – as measured by the Index of Multiple Deprivation – are more likely to become NEET compared to those from more privileged backgrounds. Achieving the initial BL2 course is associated with lower risks of becoming NEET.

Looking at labour market outcomes in the 2015 tax year, we find that 59.6% of BL2 learners were doing some paid work, and those who did some paid work earned on average £6,724. Employment rates and earnings are higher for learners who studied Engineering, Construction or Retail compared to Health, Public Service and Care, and Preparation for Life and Work.

Our results also suggest that BL2 learners who achieved their initial vocational learning aim fare better in the labour market than those who did not. After controlling for demographic characteristics, past performance and behaviour at school, as well as college characteristics, achieving the initial BL2 course is associated with a 4.6 percentage point increase in the probability of carrying out some paid work in the 2015 tax year, and with 16.7% higher earnings. Earnings differentials associated with achievement were significantly different across subject areas. Achieving a BL2 course in Health, Public Service and Care, Retail or Engineering are associated with substantially higher earnings compared to achieving a BL2 course in Preparation for Life and Work, the most popular subject area.

The main limitation of our study is that the association between achievement and improved labour market prospects cannot be interpreted as necessarily reflecting a causal effect. While we control for a number of individual and college characteristics, there may be other factors that drive both achievement and labour market outcomes. For instance, less motivated learners may be more at risk of dropping out and become NEET. Conversely, some learners may choose to move on to paid employment or higher level learning, before formally obtaining the qualification.

In our view, the evidence suggests policies should try encourage and support adolescents’ engagement until they successfully gain their (low level) qualification. Evidence on interventions amongst adolescents show that the acquisition of basic skills in numeracy and literacy are greatly valued by employers. But targeting such cognitive skills in isolation is not sufficient for long term impacts on successful labour market performances. Non-cognitive skills such conscientiousness, self-discipline, perseverance, cooperation and willingness to be managed by more senior/adult employees are nearly equally essential ingredients to success on the labour market. The role of training mentors in this process can mimic parents involvement and appears most effective in firms-based environments away from formal schooling (Kautz et al., 2015).

"Young people in low level vocational education: characteristics, trajectories and labour market outcomes", CVER Research Discussion Paper 004 is available at


Kautz, T., Heckman, J., Diris, R., ter Weel, B. and Borghans, L. (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 110, OECD Publishing, Paris. doi:

Friday, 13 January 2017

How important is providing careers-related information for students?

CVER Director Sandra McNally looks at career advice on offer to students, and what works

The type and quality of education matters for labour market prospects, as reflected in future employment and earnings. There is often dissatisfaction expressed with the careers information and advice provided to students at school and beyond. It’s a matter of common sense (rather than academic study) to say that students do need to have good quality careers information and advice. What isn’t clear is whether cheap information interventions are really going to make the difference for young people as they approach the time where they need to make important decisions. In recent years, there have been a number of economic studies that have used rigorous approaches to test whether simple information interventions actually work. I have reviewed this for a recent IZA World of Labor paper, which focuses on results from 10 evaluations implemented via Randomised Control Trials

Monday, 24 October 2016

Using survey data to estimate the value of vocational qualifications

CVER's Steven McIntosh and Damon Morris, from University of Sheffield, look at the value of vocational qualifications

An important part of the research programme at CVER is to investigate the ‘returns’ to vocational qualifications, that is, the wage premiums earned by individuals who hold such qualifications. The results of such research provide important information to policy-makers about the value the labour market places on qualifications, as well as to individuals making decisions about what courses to pursue. Our work will provide up-to-date evidence on this topic, using a comprehensive range of data sets and methodologies.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Low-achieving teenagers: Evidence from France of the potential of low-cost interventions to clarify educational options

Eric Maurin from the Paris School of Economics is an expert advisor for CVER and presented this work at our recent conference

A simple programme of meetings facilitated by school principals and targeted at low-achieving 15 year olds can help them to identify educational opportunities that fit both their tastes and their academic ability. That is the central finding of a large-scale randomised experiment in Paris, conducted by economic researchers Dominique Goux, Marc Gurgand and Eric Maurin.

Their study, which is forthcoming in the Economic Journal, reveals that the outcome of an intervention in deprived neighbourhoods of Paris has been a very significant reduction in the number of students repeating educational years (‘grade repetition’) and in the number of students dropping out of school altogether. Compared with most existing interventions, this is a very low cost way to help young people who struggle at school to find the educational track most suited to their needs.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Benefits of Alternatives to Conventional College: Labor-Market Returns to Proprietary Schooling

Christopher Jepsen, with Peter Mueser and Kyung-Seong Jeon, looks at the labor-market returns to U.S. proprietary schooling (often known as for-profit schooling)

Researchers are increasingly able to estimate the long-term wage returns to education using administrative data. This research reports findings from the US that were presented at the CVER seminar series in 2015 and have recently been published in a discussion paper (Jepsen et al. 2016).

In recent years, U.S. states have drastically reduced funding for education, and public community colleges and universities are particularly hard hit (Phelan, 2014). Proprietary schools (also known as for-profit schools) have been growing dramatically over the last decade, filling a gap in demand for postsecondary education, particularly for low-income and nonwhite individuals. The vast majority of students in this sector pursue vocational qualifications such as certificates and associate’s degrees in areas of study including health, transportation, and trades (i.e. construction, etc.).

Career guidance and apprenticeships: new research on vocational education

Guglielmo Ventura, CVER researcher, gives an account of the Centre's first annual conference

In early September, LSE hosted the first annual conference of the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER). This event proved to be a great opportunity to share insights from research on the economics of vocational education. Numerous researchers from the field came together to present evidence on how vocational education works in different countries and how it can be improved.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Reflections on the Employer Support for Higher Level Skills report

John Denham, Professorial Research Fellow of the IPA and former  Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, reflects on report findings

For the past 20 years and longer, Ministers of all parties have wanted to see more employers support employees and apprentices to gain higher levels skills and higher education. With strong bi-partisan support in a relatively non-ideological area of policy it seems odd that employer supported higher skills have not become a more important part of the skills and education system.