I’m less than positive that destination data is sound

7th July 2017 at 00:00
Figures showing good outcomes for the vast majority of leavers are misleading

According to the latest figures published by the Scottish government, 93 per cent of school leavers in 2015-16 were in a “positive” destination approximately three months after leaving. Members of the government cheered this news, but should we?

Looking more closely, we should be questioning this figure. Within this 93 per cent, there are young people who are in temporary jobs or underemployed (for example, some are working an insufficient number of hours), and people struggling to finance the costs of their studies or attending a course or training which may not improve their chances to get a job at the end. These people are all categorised as being in positive destinations. If we were able to ask them if they felt they were in a positive destination, they would likely answer “No”.

These types of statistics conceal the difficulties encountered by many young people and ignore differences in the quality of their educational and labour market experiences.

I am arguing that the concept of positive destinations as currently measured, and its usefulness for policy making, needs challenging. Any policy aimed at improving young people’s outcomes first needs to define what a successful transition is. In the official definition, positive destinations include any type of education, training and employment – any status except unemployment or inactivity.

Weakness of a single snapshot

This type of data does not tell us anything about the outcomes of further or higher education and training attended, or the quality of jobs acquired by young people who do not go on in education. Indeed, even though people enter further education or training after leaving school, this does not automatically ensure a subsequent “positive outcome”.

Consider people who do not complete their studies or have difficulty finding a job suitable to their qualifications. Or all those situations in which a young person who did not continue studying has little choice but to take up a low-paid and precarious job or works a few hours per week while caring for a family member.

It is easy to see how such measures can lead policymakers to be complacent and give us the false impression that things have improved. For example, the rates of unemployment or inactivity may have fallen, while unemployment is replaced by more zero-hour contracts or unpaid family work. Collecting data on type of employment, as well as earnings, is crucial to determining whether young people can economically support themselves or whether they live in poverty despite earning.

Employment outcomes should be considered together with other life outcomes, such as young people’s ability to live independently, have a family and be healthy.

In addition to the issue of what a positive destination is, a temporal issue is overlooked by the statistics on destinations. This data offers a snapshot at a single point in time, missing the complexity of transitions from school to further education and/or the labour market.

Research has long recognised that young people do not follow a linear path from education to the labour market anymore. Their transitions are more protracted and diverse before reaching a stable occupational position. They have spells of training, temporary jobs, unemployment and a combination of education and work. On its own, a static indicator collected at an early stage, such as the one in the school leavers statistics, cannot tell us much on medium- and long-term outcomes.

Destinations are likely to appear quite differently if observed over a longer period than three or nine months after leaving school. In one indication, the estimates from the 2015 Annual Population Survey show that, among 16-19 year-olds, about 10 per cent were not in education, employment or training (Neet).

This percentage is lower among 16- and 17-year-olds (5 per cent), but much higher among 18- and 19-year-olds (14 per cent), highlighting the need to adopt a more dynamic view of destinations over time, at various points in time and for different groups of school leavers.

The power of longitudinal data

So what data do we need in order to provide crucial information on destinations? The answer is longitudinal data, tracking individuals through their various transitions and revealing outcomes from education, quality of employment and quality of life more generally.

This data can identify turning points, barriers and inequalities in these transitions in order to analyse the determinants of successful and unsuccessful transitions. This cannot be provided solely by using administrative data. Large‐-scale longitudinal surveys with linked administrative data can provide the richness of information essential to informing policies on young people’s destinations. Regrettably, the Scottish School Leavers Survey, which for decades provided invaluable evidence on leavers’ experiences, ended around a decade ago.

If the Scottish government is serious about successful post-16 transitions and about the Opportunities for All commitment, it should reconsider the limitations of its current data sources. The current measures alone cannot provide a clear picture of the issues facing young people leaving education.

Cristina Iannelli is professor of education and social stratification at the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education

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