The case for giving greater priority to destination measures in the education system

By Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation

Wednesday 23 February 2022

Educational success is predominantly measured using metrics such as exam results and league tables. While these will provide some insights into educational outcomes, the picture is far from complete. Success is about more than short-term achievements. It is also about an individual’s long-term goals, career success and personal fulfilment.

Since any system is geared towards the outputs we measure, it is perhaps time to give greater consideration to how longer-term destination measures can supplement the data on which we currently rely?

The Department for Education (DfE) already collects data on young people’s destinations in the year after they complete their education. However, this tells us little about where they end up five or 10 years after leaving an institution. In recent years, the DfE has worked with other departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to develop the new Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset, which can potentially help to fill this gap. Specifically, the LEO data enables young people’s activities and earnings to be tracked for up to a decade or more after leaving education, which should provide precious insights into their longer-term trajectories.

The government presently uses and publishes just a fraction of this powerful dataset. Yet, we know that supplementing existing short-term information with even a handful of these longer-term outcomes could provide educational institutions with valuable new insights.

Against this backdrop, Edge asked colleagues from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to undertake an independent analysis of the DfE’s LEO data. Their new report provides invaluable reflections on how the existing data could help construct useful, supportive information for schools and colleges based on the longer-term destinations of former students.

Due to the scope of the LEO dataset, researchers could only analyse destinations using certain economic measures – such as earnings and employment status – although we all believe that wider outcomes such as career satisfaction are equally important.

By tracking the trajectories of a 2003/04 cohort up to the age of 30, the report finds that most young people were not in sustained employment until their mid-20s. This has obvious implications for evaluating an institution’s outcomes based solely on young people’s activities in the year after completing their post 16 education.

The report also finds that young people’s progression pathways systematically differ based on their characteristics, abilities and background. For instance, young people who achieved five A*-C grades in their GCSEs were a third more likely to be in sustained employment (where sustained employment refers to being at least one day in each month of the year) and over five times less likely to be on benefits at age 25 compared to those who didn’t achieve these grades. Similarly, the report shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (as measured by eligibility for free school meals) were less likely to be in a sustained employment or education destination at all ages up to 30 .

This is a small but powerful taste of the insights in the report, all from a limited dataset of economic measures. This research suggests that increased use of destination measures to inform school and college practice and government policy could be beneficial. And as data sources improve over time, future LEO data could provide institutions with increasingly nuanced information about their learner’s progression pathways.

In light of these findings, the report also notes that recent data developments can be used to identify the schools and colleges with young people most at risk of becoming Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET). Using these data, the government could target transitional support at young people most-likely to require additional help to flourish, whether they choose to enter further education, higher education, training or employment.

More broadly, the report recommends improving the destination measures gathered and made available to schools and colleges at post-16. This would inform future practice and support young people to achieve better outcomes.

In the meantime, schools and colleges are now able to request historical data for their institution to learn lessons and gain insights that could help their institution improve its long-term outcomes. And while economic measures aren’t the only way to evaluate long-term success, they are a step in the right direction. Schools and colleges can request their data in a clear explanatory report from NFER by emailing [email protected].

As the focus on this topic increases and new data sources become available, I am optimistic that both short- and long-term might one day become as commonplace in schools and colleges as exam results and league tables are today. It’s the only way to ensure bright futures for all young people, whatever their path, and not just for those with the highest grades.

Alice Barnard is Chief Executive of the Edge Foundation, the independent education charity dedicated to making education relevant for the 21st century.