Evaluating the effects of offender learning

I’ve taken part in two meetings this week, each of which underlined the value but also the difficult of a longitudinal element in evaluation.

The first, organised by the Prisoners Education Trust (http://www.prisonerseducation.org.uk/) , focussed particularly on a project called Learning Matters, and particularly how to increase the voice of learners as a means of improving learning in prisons overall. The project funders naturally want to know how the effectiveness of the initiative can be evaluated. Of course it’s important to know whether learning objectives at whatever level - from basic skills to higher education - have been achieved, and the project is doing very well on this score. But it seems (to me at least) even more important to know what happens as a result once offenders leave prison - and this means tracking them over time. Hugely difficult task.

The day after I went to HMP Belmarsh to learn about the inspiring work of the Safe Ground initiative (http://www.safeground.org.uk/) on Family Men and Fathers Inside . We met 11 of the FM graduates, who have been working on a range of skills which enable them to maintain their links with their families and especially their children while they are in prison. The risk of prisoners losing touch with t heir families is great; if they do, their own chances of reoffending are increased, and their children’s life chances diminished. The project’s research officer, Adam Moll, outlined their approach to evaluation, which includes a longitudinal element, looking at whether there is an impact on their children’s behaviour. Again, very complex, but needs doing. Getting the FM graduates , once released, to report on their progress and on how the programme had helped them would be a further very valuable component. this should include the extent to which the learning had helped them develop the resilience to deal with inevitable setbacks in their path to a new life.

It struck me again how much we as a society would gain from making educational investments smarter. Many young men have some kind of criminal record in their teens and early twenties, but are perhaps ready to desist intheir mid-20s. Why do we not invest, say, the equivalent of 1year’s undergraduate expenditure on giving them serious learning opportunities? It would pay off in the long run, I bet. But we need to track excellent initiatives such as these over time to see how they really work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reducing working time

I attended a really stimulating seminar last week on the reduction of working time, organised by the New Economics Foundation and the LSE’s Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion. The focus was on the link between worktime reductions, consumption levels and sustainability,. The central argument, made most strongly by Juliet Schor from Boston College, was that productivity gains over the coming years should be used to reduce working time rather than go in wage gains. This would promote a broader distribution of working hours - crucial policy goal in an unemployment crisis - and (hopefully) lead to some reconsideration of the need for ever-increasing carbon-heavy consumption.
The point about looking to the future rather than aiming at a redistribution of current levels, is that psychologically people are much more likely to go along with forgoing future material consumption than giving up current consumption. Similarly, if they get increased leisure time, they are more likely to want to keep that than to return to higher consumption. These are exactly the patterns of choice dealt with by Daniel Kahnemann (the psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics…) in Thinking, Fast and Slow, his disconcerting overview of how semi-rational much of our decision-making is.
Tracking over time the changes in people’s behaviour, and the factors that shape these changes, is clearly critical to our understanding of what might work. It also makes a crucial link between the immediate crises of employment and environment on the one hand, and longer-term solutions on the other. Getting from the former to the latter is one of the biggest challenges we face.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Opening Doors: measuring social mobility

I’ve only just read the full version of the Cabinet Office paper on social mobility, titled Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers (ODBB).   It begins winningly for Longview readers with the first of its ‘five broad principles’: “We take a long-term view.”  There is much of interest in the paper, both for its evidence and its proposals.

ODBB takes a lifecycle approach, with four stages: Foundation (ie early) years;  School years;  Transition years (16-24); and Adulthood (the rest).  This is fair enough, given its primary focus on intergenerational mobility, even though the Adulthood stage  is interpreted largely in terms of getting a proper foothold in the labour market, ie the initial period of adulthood.   It is, nevertheless, welcome that assets and housing wealth are brought into the picture as key determinants of social mobility.

The emphasis on young people is also clear in the selection of leading indicators.  Indicator 5, which deals with further education, is % achieving a Level 3 qualification at age 19 , in spite of the fact that the great bulk of FE students are mature people seeking to better themselves.  The HE indicators are about progression of young people to HE, including the % of those who go to the 33% most selective HE institutions.  I understand the superficial appeal of this, though find it hard to think how tightly this line can be drawn.

On indicators for the Adulthood stage,  ODBB makes no proposals but says “we are committed to developing new measures of progress ” and refers to access to the professions, progression in the labour market and the availability of second chances to succeed.  This is the crucial area - unless measures for this stage are properly developed, we will not know what the effectiveness is of all the other steps and measures.   The lead departments here are DBIS and DWP, so this will be an area to watch very closely for developments.  The birth cohort studies are specifically mentioned as a crucial source of long-term evidence, and welcome reference is made to the new 2012 birth cohort study and to the cohort research facility.  The ESRC has just  invited initial tenders for this CRF .

I’ll just pick one interesting nugget.  Rates of absolute occupational social mobility are lower than the international average for men - and at the bottom of the international range for women.  This links directly to work I’ve just been doing for the UK Commission on Employment and Skills, on gender and skills: women do better in initial education, participate more in training than men on average - and yet don’t move up the scale.  This is a trend (or lack of one) which is definitely worth closer examination, over time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Social Impact Bonds

I recently attended a good meeting on Social Impact Bonds organised by Richard Worsley and the Tomorrow Project.  SIBs are a means of raising private finance for interventions on social issues;  investors are paid according to whether specified outcomes, such as reducing ex-prisoner reoffending rates, are achieved. (They are therefore not really bonds, since there is no guaranteed return to the investors, but the term seems to have stuck.)

The main speakers were Geoff Mulgan and Gavin Poole.  Geoff has recently moved from the Young Fondation to be Chief Executive at NESTA, and it will be interesting to see what he does with that organisation.  He had an impressively realistic attitude to SIBs, not overclaiming for them but arguing that in  the current context of public finances, they are an option to be considered.  He had some very powerful points about previous efforts to introduce new public/private financial mixes.  In particular, the scandal of PFIs remains untold, despite an internal analysis which showed that 60% of PFIs were bad deals and a further 10% uncertain - the result being that billions of pounds continue to pour our of public coffers to no good effect.  A classic case of a short-term arrangement with verybad long-term effects.

As a Longviewer, I was of course interested in the long-term perspective on SIBs.  They focus, necessarily, on short-term and measurable results.  there is no scope for assessing longer-term consequences, good or bad.   But this is not necessarily a fundamental flaw, provided the right measures are chosen.

What it does raise, for me, is the tension between innovation and precision of measurement.  We all want robust measures, and Geoff reminded us that the meeting was taking place in the premises of the Royal Statistical Society, so we should avoid heresies of statistical looseness.  But for SIBs, it seems to me, there will have to be some measure of dependence on trust and respect amongst the stakeholders, rather than an abstract reliance on contractual requirements.  Keep those lawyers away!

Relatedly, Gavin made an interesting point about pilots.  We tend (I have myself) to argue for pilots as part of evidence-based policy-making.  But the simple linear approach of pilot-evaluate-revise-rollout will not always be appropriate.  For one thing  it will absorb time, and also possibly the energies which are  badly needed for innovation.  What is important is that pilots are part of building a robust knowledge base, where lessons of all  kinds are learnt, stored and made accessible.  This is a continuing process.

For those who want to read more about SIBs, Michael Moynagh of the Tomorrow Project has written a useful introduction, Investing for Public Good.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Public benefit: Neville Butler Lecture and Prize

On June 20 Longview welcomed Rt Hon David Willetts, Minister for Science and Higher Education, to give the annual Neville Butler Memorial Lecture. In previous years, the lecture has been given by a distinguished academic researcher, but we invited David as a senior politician known for his use of evidence of all kinds and especially for his valuing of longitudinal evidence.
David began with examples of where longitudinal research had influenced policy and practice. He repeated his public view that it had been a mistake to interrupt the series of birth cohort studies in the 1980s, and therefore how pleased he is to havebeen able to redress this by securing resources for the 2012 study, and for the Cohort Resource Facility which will promote the use of existing data sources. He showed himself to be very aware of the issues surrounding better coordination and usage of datasets.
For me, particularly striking in the Minister’s speech was his emphasis on the need for for linkages across different fields and disciplines. This is not just a routine plea for more interdisciplinary work, but for a more general interaction between different approaches and methodologies. He made this point in response to a question about the relative ‘value’ of sciences and social sciences, pointing out that even in projects designed to promote economic and physical development in poorer countries an anthropological and historical understanding is needed to make technological assistance effective. Likewise, longitudinal studies will have a greater effect if they bring together people from different disciplines and methodologies. This is exactly what Longview seeks to do, so was naturally music to our ears.
The challenge, of course, is how to make this happen more effectively than it does now (this is now me speaking, not the Minister). Interdisciplinarity is so often honoured only in the breach. It is not primarily a question of ill-will or a struggle for disciplinary supremacy (though the latter at least certainly occurs, at least in latent form); but achieving good communication between disciplines and methodologies requires effort and time which does not immediately pay off. Arguably, too, the incentives are not there - or even run actively against cross-discplinary collaboration. This is a topic for another time, but it was very welcome to have the Minister express the position he did.
David also had interesting and important things to say about ‘early years determinism’ and the struggle to get a good balance in policy thinking between interventions geared to very young children and policies which took more of a lifecourse approach. With Nobel prizewinner James Heckman to the fore economists naturally tend to see early investments as having the largest payoffs. Whilst investment in early years is undoubtedly crucial, it is important to take a broader view of how the returns of public investment should be calculated (including - my words again - the role of parents and family in making investment in early years successful).
The audience included Neville Butler’s daughters, Fiona and Claire, and other members of his family; and a wide range of researchers. All appreciated David Willetts’ intellectual grasp and commitment to the field. We hope to publish his speech in due course.

The evening also saw the presentation of the Neville Butler Prize, to Dr Laura Howe of Bristol University, for her work on obesity in childhood. Laura used the ALSPAC longitudinal dataset to look at the trajectories of young people in becoming obese. A key finding from her analysis is that social inequalities in obesity patterns only set in after the age of 4 and then widen considerably; this is in important contrast to the current emphasis on very early years as the most effective point for interventions.
In accepting the prize Laura Howe spoke of her plans for disseminating the results, not only to researchers but also to practitioners. This is exactly in line with the intentions of the prize. Longview is grateful to the ESRC for their sponsorship of the prize.

The evening concluded with the launch of an important new publication,  the ‘Companion to life course studies: the social and historical context of the British birth cohort studies’ edited by Michael Wadsworth (chair of Longview trustees) and John Bynner (former director of Longview). This is an impressive volume, with a distinguished group of contributors, and one which should become a landmark in the field.’  It is intended as a tool for interpretation of the cohort studies, and as a stimulus to more inter-cohort comparative research.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Transition point: posting back the keys to the door

One of the central issues in lifecourse research is to track changes in the way transitions from one stage to another are organised and legitimated.   There is a fascinating debate over whether societies are becoming more or less institutionalised, ie whether the passage from one stage to another (eg into ‘old age’) is more strongly shaped than it used to be (eg by institutions such as workplace retirement procedures or state pensions arrangements), or whether there is more freedom of choice. 

Equally interesting is what degree of institutionalisation is appropriate (very well discussed in the excellent book edited by Walter Heinz and colleagues) .  Naturally this is a matter of personal preference, relating to how far you value having some social guidelines to govern your behaviour, as opposed to making up your own as you go along.  But it also relates to how well you think we cope generally with transitions;  are some people undermined by not having socially recognised points at which a move is to be made from one stage to another?

The transition to adulthood is an obvious case where traditional rituals and symbolisms have disappeared.  Giving a young person the keys to the door (whether at 18 or some other age) symbolised their independence, with the freedom to come and go.  Now this happens without it being any big deal, and almost always before the person is adult in any legal sense.

As more and more young people, especially young men, stay on at home well into their twenties, the issue changes complexion.  Now it becomes a question of the absence of a moment when they can reasonably be expected to leave.    There may of course be structural reasons, notably the lack of affordable accommodation.  But the fact that for many it is socially acceptable to be living at home, dependent on parents, has reduced the normative pressures on young people to leave.  This, often combined with a relative degree of material comfort, signals and open-endedness which makes many uncomfortable.

Talking about this with friends the other day I referred to the ‘keys of the door’ ceremony, and there was a familiar response from parents present about the diplomatic difficulties of signalling to their young adult offspring that it was time to move on.  It occurred to me that there might now be scope for an inversion of the earlier tradition: at 25, rather than 18, young people might be expected to post back the keys to their parents’ house as they leave.   If only the Child Trust Allowance had been fixed to mature at 25 rather than 18, they could have left with an endowment also.

In Carol Shield’s novel Larry’s Party there’s a nice illustration: 

“Oh.” he said.  “So you live with your parents?” He was prying, but it seemed important to get the message right.

“No,” she said, and now her tone was frosting over again. “They finally pitched me out on my twenty-fifth birthday.  That is, they sold their house and moved to a condo in Hawaii. I sort of, you might say, got the message.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I went last night to an event at Channel 4 which dealt with new technology and lifelong learning in the context of an ageing society.  The panel was chaired by Lord Puttnam, and included Charles Clarke, former Secretary of State for  Education, Trevor Phillips of the EHRC and Michelle Mitchell from AgeUK. 

Much of the debate focussed, quite rightly, on how technological advances might help older people carry on learning, and give them access to opportunities which they otherwise wouldn’t have had.    The event was sponsored by the OU and by NIACE, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and both of these have done much good work in this area.

I used the opportunity to ask about death,  how we learn to deal with it, and what these excellent providers of education and information are doing on the topic.  In every society everyone dies;  but in an ageing society many more people have a lot more time to think about it, and maybe get ready for it.  Moreover the extension of the period leading up to death affects many more people than just the dier (if that’s the right word):  families and friends are also involved,  in many different ways.

To my surprise, several people came up afterwards and remarked on the palpable unease they had sensed in the audience when I asked the question.  One even congratulated me for my courage in asking it, though it had never remotely occurred to me that it required any bravery to raise the issue.  It is true that the chairman seemed to me to pass over the question quite quickly (though he himself gave interesting  references to films which deal with death), but I had no idea that this might possibly be to do with the topic being taboo in that kind of forum.

In any case, it seems to me a major issue where a lifecourse approach can shed important light.  Debate on the Third Age is very well launched - today sees the outlawing of the default retirement age in  England, Scotland and Wales.  But the Fourth Age and death are much less discussed, despite the evidence of the increasing incidence of the former and the inevitability of the latter.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thinking in generations

Longview promotes lifecourse as well as longitudinal studies, and I’ve been thinking about the way our focus on generations changes over the lifecourse.  I have no evidence on this, but would guess that there is a kind of swing from the horizontal to the vertical.  By this I mean that earlier in the adult lifecourse we are more oriented laterally (in age terms) towards our peers and co-evals.  As we get older, we maybe look more up and down than across. 

First, we start getting more interested in our ancestors.  Hence the tremendous interest in family history, particularly pronounced amongst 50-70 year olds.  (I have just been to a packed lecture at the British Library on using the census for research, and many of the audience were amateur genealogists who fall into this category.  The lecture is the first in a series Longview is running with the BL and the Academy of Social Sciences, to coincide with the BL’s illuminating exhibition on the Census.)

Secondly, grandparents become fascinated , even obsessed with their grandchildren.  Not being in that category I can’t speak from personal experience.  But I do have enough friends who are, and the downwards focus is very apparent indeed. 

Of course that doesn’t mean that older people give up their peers, nor that younger people pay no attention to older and younger generations (including their children).   But a change in perspective of this kind may be something to think about in an ageing, and increasingly multi-generational, society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Neuroscience and lifelong learning

The Royal Society has just published a report on the implications of neuroscientific advances for lifelong learning.   This is a fascinating and important document, and well worth the attention of anyone interested in lifecourse patterns of development.

When I worked at OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation we had a long-running project on this theme, culminating in a report on Understanding the Brain.  Of course there are arguments to be had about the extent to which the current science has direct implications for teaching and learning, but this was an important attempt to open up a dialogue between scientists and educators.

The Royal Society’s report emphasises the plasticity of the brain over the lifecourse, and the potential (though also the dangers) of cognitive enhancement.  This is very encouraging, especially given the potential negative implications of an ageing population.  In her video introduction to the report, Professor Uta Frith is suitably cautious about the claims to be made.  In spite of this she is surely right to argue for the need for a common language, and for the introduction of some of these insights into the training of teachers.  I would add that all of those involved in any way with the teaching or training of adults should be aware of these results.  In fact, their relevance goes way beyond these professionals, since the findings should do much to dispel some of the prejudices which exist about our (in)ability to learn as adults.

It would be marvellous to see such research carried out on different groups over time, to track and attribute changes.  The combination of the new neuroscientific techniques and a longitudinal approach would be an extremely powerful one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New cohort study

The big news this week has been the announcement that the 2012 cohort study will go ahead, and that there will also be support for a facility to encourage better use of all the cohort studies.  Elsewhere on the LV website we give details of this, and offer our congratulations to Prof Carol Desateux and her team, who have persevered against a background of considerable uncertainty.  It is very good news for all of us involved with LS.

I have no insight into the internal debates which went on over this decision.  But it is fair to assume that it is directly attributable to the personal commitment of David Willetts, the Minister for Science.  In his speech to the British Academy where he announced the decision, David made specific reference to the embarrassment of the missing link in the cohort series, ie the absence of a 1980s cohort;  and his pleasure at being able in part to make amends for that.  To win £33million for a study which will not itself yield results for several years is a genuine achievement under any circumstances;  and under the current fiscal regime it is a huge one.  I think we owe the minister a major vote of thanks for bringing this about.

The fresh investment, both in the new study and in the facility,  increases the challenge to the research community to make sure that the best value is extracted from it.  I have no qualms at all about the scientific capacity involved;  the issue is whether we have the mechanisms, attitudes and culture to bring this about.   But just for now, it’s time for celebration and anticipation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment