Zig-zagging up the skills road
JD Carpentieri considers what two major surveys, plus new NRDC research, tell us about the fascinatingly complex issue of progression
Progression is central to Skills for Life. Unfortunately, understanding of the key issues related to progression - who progresses, what are the barriers to progression, and what role Skills for Life plays in furthering progression - has until now been somewhat limited because of the relatively small amount of research on the topic.
In this article, we will look at what is known about progression, particularly up to Level 2, and then turn our eyes to new NRDC research, which sheds additional light on some of our questions.
What is progression?
First, we need to define what progression is and distinguish it from 'progress'. In adult education, 'progress' is generally synonymous with doing better, and is usually used to describe how a learner is doing within a particular class or course. Progression, on the other hand, signifies the move from one course to another; for example from a course at one level to a course at a higher one - from a course at numeracy Level 1, say, to one at Level 2. But there are many forms of progression for adult learners: from education to employment; from a course at one level to a course at the same level; and other trajectories besides. Progression requires progress but is not the same thing.
How much progression is there?
To ascertain how much progression there is currently, we can turn to two sources: the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which annually interviews a representative sample of the adult population, and the National Child Development Study (NCDS), which, since 1958, has been following the lives of all children born in the last week of March of that year. The two studies are in many ways complementary: while the BHPS provides us with an overview of the entire adult population in Britain, the NCDS allows us to take periodic snapshots of people born in a particular year, following their experiences as they age, thus helping to give us an aggregate picture of lives unfolding over time.
What do these sources tell us about progression?
Looking at the BHPS, we find that, in 1991, 28 per cent of the adult population lacked any qualifications, and 17 per cent were qualified only up to Level 1. Twelve years later, in 2003, 11 per cent of the first group - those lacking any qualifications - had achieved Level 2 qualifications or higher. Of the second group - those with Level 1 qualifications in 1991 - 22 per cent had achieved Level 2 or higher by 2003.
This information is very useful but remember that the BHPS is a sample of the entire adult population. While it can tell us what percentage of that population progressed to Level 2 or higher, it cannot tell us how likely progression is for particular age groups. For example, what if we want to know how likely progression to Level 2 is for someone who reaches her early 20s without any qualifications at all?
For this sort of insight, we can turn to the NCDS which, as noted above, is following individuals born in 1958. Let's look at this cohort of individuals when they were 23 - that is, in 1981. In that year, nearly half (47 per cent) of this cohort lacked Level 2 qualifications. How much progression can we observe over the next two decades? Looking at the year 2000, we find that more than half (53 per cent) of those without Level 2 qualifications at age 23 had progressed to Level 2 by age 42. The fact that the progression rate is higher for this cohort than for the adult population as a whole should not be surprising. It fits in with human capital theory, which indicates that the older an individual grows, the less likely she is to invest time and energy in achieving higher qualifications, largely because an older individual has less time to reap the rewards of having those qualifications.
Does Skills for Life affect progression?
While evidence up to 2000 can tell us how much progression there was before Skills for Life, it cannot tell us whether or not Skills for Life has increased progression. To investigate this question, we need to turn to a forthcoming NRDC study conducted by Augustin De Coulon and Anna Vignoles, which looked at the progression rates of a group of adults born in 1970, paying particular attention to those who had not attained Level 2 qualifications by 1996, when they were 26 years old.
The study initially looked at this group's rate of progression from 1996-2000 - that is, before the launch of Skills forLife. The researchers then compared progression rates from this four-year period to progression rates for the same group between 2000 and 2004, during most of which time Skills for Life was in existence. Among this cohort, 6,457 individuals were interviewed in all three sweeps (1996, 2000, 2004). Of these, 3,573 were qualified below Level 4 in 1996: 211 of these had no qualifications, 2,312 were qualified at Level 1, 1,050 at Level 2, and 826 at Level 3. A further 1,641 were qualified at Level 4 and 417 at Level 5.
Ten per cent - and more
Looking at the first four-year period (1996-2000), the study found what could be called a 'rule of 10 per cent': among adults with no qualifications, or qualifications at Levels 1, 2 or 3, approximately 10 per cent of each group achieved a higher qualification in this period. Looking at the next four years of this same cohort's lives, the study found that, for adults with qualifications at Level 1 or below, progression to a higher level went up to 13 per cent. This three-percentage-point gain, compared with 1996-2000, represents an increase of approximately 30 per cent in the likelihood of progressing.
The sum total of qualifications achieved (including those not leading to a progression) also shot up. Among members of this cohort with qualifications below Level 3 in 1996, a total of 592 qualifications were achieved by 2000 - that is, between the ages of 26 and 30. However, between the ages of 30 and 34, individuals in this cohort with below Level 3 qualifications achieved 810 qualifications - an increase of 34 per cent.
More research needed
These very significant increases may be even more impressive than they first appear. Remember, as adults in their early 30s age, their likelihood of progressing to higher qualifications should theoretically fall, not rise. For adults at higher qualification levels, this proved to be true over this time period. For example, the same study found that the rate of progression for those at Level 4 or above fell by 28 per cent in the second four-year period. This is in stark contrast to the 34 per cent rise for those at lower levels.
Does this all mean that Skills for Life has increased progression? At this stage, it's too early to say. The introduction of Skills for Life does coincide with an increase in progression for adults with low qualification levels, and research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research also offers some positive evidence regarding Skills for Life and progression. At the same time, other factors may have played a role in explaining the apparent rise in progression. As noted earlier, progression is an under-researched field, and cries out for further investigation. As Liz Lawson of the Department for Education and Skills argues, there is a strong need to increase our understanding of progression, and to develop 'a new, coherent approach to progression, particularly if we are to achieve Lord Leitch's ambitions for world-class skills levels by 2020'.
To that end, she adds: 'The DfES Skills for Employability Division is developing a national adult progression strategy for England covering progression along several stages: from adult learners' varied starting points into qualificationbearing courses, through the Skills for Life levels, and into Levels 2 and 3 vocational training and employment.' Further to this, a progression strategy will be debated at a series of NIACE Regional Achievement Dialogues in June and July 2007, and at a national conference in the autumn (see below).
JD Carpentieri is Research and Development Policy Liaison Officer at NRDC
Sabates, R., Feinstein, L. and Skaliotis, E. (2006)
Determination and pathways of progression to level 2 qualifications: Evidence from the NCDS and BHPS Wider
Benefits of Learning Research Report No.21
NIACE Regional Achievement Dialogues, June /July, and national conference in the autumn
4 July, Yorkshire & Humberside
Mariam Bhamjee, firstname.lastname@example.org or 0116 2044237
17 July, South West
Neil Goodall, email@example.com or 0116 2042818
See also: Pathways, barriers and surprises