Correlating student performance and socio-economic factors



I’ve been doing some work exploring the NOMIS Labour Market statistics website. It’s a fascinating resource which I was using in relation to employment rates for young people in East Lothian. However, as I began to dig into the site I became more and more intrigued by the data and how it can be manipulated.

This got me thinking about the relationship between socio-economic factors and school attainment.

Using an excel spreadsheet I explored the correlation between some of these factors and the % S5 students gaining 3+ highers in a Local Authority.

The spreadsheet can be accessed here: Correlations – SQA and NOMIS

So what did I find out?

I reckon it’s possible to predict the % of students in any authority using only three indicators. % of population in socio-economic groups 1-3; % of population with more than 2 Highers (NVQ level 3); and the % of population in receipt of benefits (strong negative correlation). It gets even more relaible if you also use the % of population who have a NVQ level 4 (HND or degree), and Gross pay. Interestingly employment rates do not have an impact.

There are one or two anomalies – mainly due to high levels of private school enrolment in some authorities – but in the main the predictors are reliable , with the exception of one island authority.

Please give it a go and get back to me with comments.  I’ll be doing further work on this over the break.

Correlation between 3+ highers and
 Socio-ec – 1 -3 0.71 Strong positive
Socio-ec – 4 – 5 -0.25 Moderate negative
 Socio-ec – 6 – 7 -0.63 Strong negative
 Socio-ec – 8 – 9 -0.55 Strong negative
NVQ 4 0.64 Strong positive
NVQ 3 0.83 Strong positive
Employment 0.22 Weak positive
Gross Pay 0.64 Strong positive
Public service -0.05 None
Banking and Finance -0.02 None
Benefits -0.60 Strong negative









Learned Hopelessness: challenging the notion of destiny

“Children’s lives to be worse in the future”, so read a headline following a recent Ipsos Mori survey where almost two-thirds of people believed the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Such a headline chimed with something Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief HMI for Scotland, recently identified when he referred to one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education to be a young person’s perceived sense of ‘destiny’. It’s ironic that Graham should use such a word given its significance to Scottish History – to which, of course, I refer to our iconic ‘Stone of Destiny’. However, in Graham’s sense of the word it was not to be a hopeful, aspirational, or confident view of the future, but rather quite the opposite. In fact he was referring to a ‘hopeless’ view of the future, a future set out for you by dint of your socio-economic background, which – to our eternal shame – has more of an influence upon your educational outcomes and future than just about any other country in the developed world.

It was this notion of hopelessness that triggered for me a connection with what psychologist Martin Seligman termed to be ‘learned helplessness’. The idea refers to the phenomenon where a person’s sense of personal agency, to do and achieve things for themselves, is undermined by circumstances from which they cannot escape. Eventually the person gives up and accepts their situation regardless of the harm it may be causing them.

By linking Donaldson’s notion of a damaging destiny and Seligman’s concept of helplessness, I wonder if we are facing an even more pervasive limit to personal growth. I am referring here to the challenges facing all of our young people, regardless of socio-economic background, as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The concern here has to be that our next generation becomes so conditioned by circumstances to accept their “destiny” and in so doing fall victim to ‘learned hopelessness’.

Imagine the impact upon a generation of children and young people who come to accept that their future is hopeless and learn from their peers, their parents, the media, and society in general that their destiny is mapped out and that they cannot expect to experience the ‘happiness’ of previous generations.

Such an assumption might lead those of involved in education to conclude that whatever we do as teachers our young people are destined to have unhappy and unfulfilling lives, as their standard of living is going to be lower than our own generation.

However, such an assumption is based upon the premise that happiness is in direct proportion to one’s standard of living. If that was the case, it would have to follow that our parents were unhappier, than we are, and their parents, in turn, must have been unhappier than them and so and on, and so on.

In fact the evidence is quite the opposite with a 2009 OECD report showing that for most of the last 25 years, people born between the Great Depression and the end of World War II were more likely than early baby boomers to report being very happy.

It is surely the role of teachers then to challenge the orthodoxy that young people’s futures will be “worse”.   For what is teaching if not to plant a seed of hope in a future beyond our time? No successful teacher I have ever known has resigned themselves to believing that their efforts are not imbued by that sense of hope for the future. In fact that’s perhaps the single most defining factor between the teacher who goes through the motions of teaching, and the teacher who transforms the lives of young people by sharing their belief that anything is possible.

For it seems to me we have two choices. Firstly, we could sign up to the notions of despair and hopelessness, and accept that children’s lives will be worse, regardless of whatever action we take. Alternatively, we could believe, that our efforts will provide a foundation upon which a young person can find happiness from being absorbed in a personal interest; can be resilient and can cope with future challenges; lives a life of personal meaning by having a sense of belonging; and, has the wherewithal to accomplish their own personal goals. Above all we must recognise that a person’s happiness in the future will depend on their capacity to build and sustain social ties as part of a community, or even communities.

Surely such an inventory describes much of what we are attempting to achieve through Curriculum for Excellence. I know that most parents that I speak to, first and foremost want their children to have happy lives. At a time when we see students with five ‘A’ passes at Higher and First Class degrees struggling to make their way in the world it’s never been more important that we take a more rounded view of education in order to equip young people with the necessary skills and outlooks to face an uncertain future.

If then, we are to avoid “learned hopelessness” we need to ensure that we are not “teaching hopelessness”. In order to achieve that goal we would be well advised to learn from a small country such as Bhutan, whose strategy for promoting the national well being of their population is based upon their commitment to “Gross National Happiness”, or does such a notion fail to resonate with the Scottish psyche?


Shared Services – taking account of the emotional perspective

On the 22nd November East Lothian Council and Midlothian Council approved the first phase of sharing operational and management support for education and children’s services.

This was the culmination of 12 months work by a huge number of people to address the issues and challenges which emerged in the course of that process.

That work included research into governance, tax, human resources legislation, accountability, service redesign, and a range of other pragmatic issues. Yet if there was one factor which was not covered in sufficient depth it was the emotional response to shared services.

That response can be characterised as a deep personal concern for the future, where the current certainties are replaced by fear and uncertainty. That is not to say that there are any certainties for anyone involved in delivering public services in Scotland, the UK, or Europe for that matter, it’s just that shared services provides a concrete focus upon which people can attribute their fears.

That’s why it’s interesting to reflect upon a recent research report into the perceptions and realities of employees regarding shared services.

The research surveyed the opinions of over 100 UK public sector representatives, from functions spanning HR, payroll, finance, purchasing and IT.

The majority of respondents (72%) were from government and education, with blue light services and health organisations also included.

Organisations generally anticipated more negative impacts than proved to be the case for those who had already implemented shared services.

This negative perception was most significant for areas like job security, where 67% of respondents felt that sharing services would impact negatively. This figure increased significantly for operational employees where 8 in 10 feared for their jobs. In contrast, out of those that had already implemented shared services, over half reported a positive effect on job security (51%) and career development (53%), while the positive effects on skills development (81%) and job satisfaction (74%) were even more convincing.

This research seems to show the tendency for organisations and individuals to overestimate the difficulties of shared services and to underestimate the benefits that can be delivered. Those organisations not sharing anticipated that a shared service would be significantly less positive in areas that are closest to employees’ hearts than those already sharing had experienced.

If there is a lesson from such research for those of us who are embarking, or about to embark on shared services, it is that the emotional perspective is vitally important and that it should be considered throughout the change process. That’s not to say that we should decide whether or not to proceeed with shared services on an emotional whim, but that rather we should recognise and continually address the emotional response it generates.