Looking at polling data through another lens can help policymakers improve
Photo: Yeshi Kangrang/Unsplash

For those of us who live and breathe education policy, party conversation can be a tricky thing.

While we generously share the nuances of our favourite subject, we fail to notice the other person desperately looking over our shoulder for someone, anyone, to come and rescue them. 

Memories of being a party bore came flooding back to me while rummaging around in the details of the Edge Foundation and Public First’s recent report -  Advancing British Standards? Exploring public attitudes towards a baccalaureate-style 16-18 education system.

When it was published, headlines focused on responses showing public support for giving students greater choice over what they study.

But there were other findings which also deserve our attention.

I found three pieces of polling particularly instructive.

The first one gauged public awareness of the government’s proposed Advanced British Standard (ABS) qualification.

I have heard of this
and could explain what it is
I have heard of this
but could not explain what it is
I have not heard of this64%
Don't know7%

Table 88: The government has proposed introducing the Advanced British Standard (ABS) as a new qualification for young people to study aged 16-18. Prior to taking this survey, to what extent were you familiar with this proposal?

You could argue that having nearly a third of respondents aware of the ABS four months after it was first mooted is reasonably good cut through.

But, the flip side of that means that twice as many are not aware of it.

This is the point where I notice the person looking over my shoulder at the party.

While we listen to and analyse the DfE’s every cough and spit, the general public, more often than not, don’t.

The second set of statistics that grabbed me were from quizzing people on their familiarity with some Level 3 qualifications.

I have heard of this and
can explain what it is
I have heard of this and
could not explain what it is
I have not heard of this2%51%63%
Don't know1%5%5%

Table 27: Grid Summary: To what extent are you familiar with the following qualifications that young people can take in England? (Condensed)

Here, the story is that T-levels - a flagship reform in the Vocational and Technical arena - scored only slightly higher than the fictitious ‘B-level’.

Rather than deploring that, we can put it in a positive light by comparing it to similar polling among employers from Public First in 2022. 

This year’s poll showed that 44% had ‘some awareness’ of T-levels. In 2022, it was 36%.

While the two polls are not directly comparable, taken together they could signal an improvement in awareness.

For me, this shows that major reforms and changes can take time to embed themselves in the public consciousness.

The third set of figures that particularly piqued my interest were responses to a question asking respondents about 6th form students.

Is it better for them to study a small number of subjects and become specialists or to take a broader range and widen their choices after leaving school?

Some 44% went for narrow specialisation and 43% went for breadth of knowledge (The rest said ‘Don’t know).

So, very little daylight between those two camps.

These statistics mirror many education policy debates which fall into a Progressives vs Traditionalists divide with experts on one side yelling “black!” while the others counter with “white!”

They show that, despite impassioned argument, neither side has won popular support.

The issue is far from settled, at least in the public domain, so we in the policy world should resist hitching our wagon to only one horse.

In short, we need to strike a balance between both sides.

As someone who lives and breathes education policy and public attitude data, I often get lost in the minutiae and forget that it is easy to:

  • Overestimate public awareness of policy.
  • Underestimate how long it takes for awareness to grow.
  • Forget that there is a lack of consensus in the population.

If we remember to use public attitude polling for a bit of self-reflection, it will help us formulate better policies, and ultimately make better decisions.

It might also mean I spend less time on my own in the corner at parties.

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