Engagement in learning: some knotty questions

By Tami McCrone

Friday 7 February 2014

A recent report published by Impetus: Private Equity Foundation said:

Key to preventing NEET status is developing our understanding of who is at risk and why. Asking difficult questions about what leads some young people to drop out of education and employment can lead us to difficult answers; but we have to confront the truth about these knotty issues.’(pg7)

Discussions following a recent seminar at the North of England Education Conference on ‘Engaging the Disengaged: identifying and supporting students at risk of temporary disengagement’ inspired my co-presenter Eleanor Stevens and me to reflect further on such ‘difficult’ questions. For example:

What is the role of parents of disengaged young people?

An interesting discussion with seminar participants focused on the need for different strategies for engaged parents of disengaged learners and disengaged parents of disengaged learners.

Our current research is about approaches to engaging young people at risk of disengaging but who do not face multiple and complex barriers to learning, i.e. ‘inbetweeners’ – they do not face complex problems but they are not engaged with learning. Many of these young people are academically able but nevertheless are not excited by the traditional, predominantly academic, offer at key stage 4. Many are bored and want to learn different things or want to learn in a different way. Some have parents who are aware of their children’s struggles and try to give support, but often they themselves need support in order to do so. Others have parents who may offer less encouragement – often because they had a poor experience at school themselves, and/or they do not know what is on offer at schools and colleges, or from training providers or employers in terms of apprenticeships.

Shouldn’t the education system be reaching out to help both these types of parents?

What about attainment versus engagement?

Another knotty issue is that schools, understandably, are driven by performance tables, and attainment at key stage 4 is integral to achieving a high rating. There are two facets to this dilemma. First, underachievement at key stage 4 can have a profound impact on performance tables, and the disengagement of ‘inbetweeners’ contributes to this. One seminar participant observed:

The biggest impact for us (because it impacts most on Performance Tables) is amongst our Upper Band. Each year we have a small handful that disengage and seriously affect our figures.

Second, schools can be put in the unenviable position of having to choose between courses to recommend to a young person, i.e. do you suggest a course that may yield more points towards your performance tables but may disengage a young person further? Or do you select an appropriate course to engage a learner knowing that it is unlikely to benefit your performance table position?

In cases where it is proving challenging to achieve both, which is more important – engagement in learning, or short-term limited attainment?

Should we be tackling disengagement at the primary stage?

A final issue that Eleanor and I were struck by was the number of primary schools attending our seminar; we all know that disengagement can set in early so what are we doing to turn it around?

One study that presented some robust evidence that might help to support engagement at key stage 2 was the career-related learning pathfinder evaluation.  This pilot programme took place in seven local authorities with key stage 2 pupils. The main aims of the pathfinder were to increase pupils’ awareness of career/work opportunities and their understanding of the link between education, qualifications and work opportunities, and to engage parents/carers in the process. The evaluation comprised a scoping study, pupil surveys in treatment and comparison schools and seven school-based case studies. The study established that pupils involved in the pathfinder pilot showed increased awareness, knowledge and understanding of types of employment and pathways to get there. There was also evidence that the pathfinder had helped to raise pupils’ aspirations and extend their horizons about what they could do in the future. Pupils showed increased understanding of the link between education, qualifications and careers and a more positive attitude towards school and education.

This robust evidence should be used to inform strategies to reengage young people with learning as early as possible.

Help us find some answers…

We have published some ‘Engaging the Disengaged’ materials – including case studies and our North of England conference slides – on the project pages of the NFER website.

As part of this research we are seeking schools who would be interested in using the reengagement approaches in key stage 4 at their schools and monitoring the impact. If you would like to find out more about what is involved in being a partner school, please contact us.