Can we trust the Eurobarometer surveys?


From Eurobarometer 75, one of the reports analysed by Hoepner & Jurczyk

I’ve always treated the Eurobarometer surveys as something to dip into occasionally. They regularly cover public opinion in the member states of the EU, with candidate nations like Serbia and Turkey also taking part. Several have dealt with various aspects of education and training, or other issues in which I’m interested such as civic participation, and I’ve cited their results.

Now, though, I wished I’d checked the technical details a bit more thoroughly before quoting the findings. Two German social scientists have gone over the methods used in the surveys, and their findings make uncomfortable reading. Martin Höpner and Bojan Jurczyk set out what they call ten ‘good rules of public opinion survey research’, all of which seem to me broadly aligned with good practice in survey design. They then check in detail selected examples of Eurobarometer surveys, and conclude that they are so poorly designed as to blur the line between research and propaganda.

More specifically, they accuse Eurobarometer of using

incomprehensible, hypothetical, and knowledge-inadequate questions, unbalanced response options, insinuation and leading questions, context effects, and the strategic removal of questions that led to critical responses in previous Eurobarometer waves.
I find their analysis pretty compelling. They give detailed examples of questions that seem to lead respondents directly to express views that are favourable to the European Union. Note that we are not talking here about the way that others – the media, for instance – report the findings, but rather about the very design of the survey questionnaires themselves.
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From Hoepner & Jurczyk 2015

Has this bias been unintended, a simple result of accident or drift? The authors of this study believe not, and conclude with a stark warning that ‘survey manipulation’ simply intensifies the gap between citizens and elites. Eurobarometer is an arm of the European Commission and if Höpner and Jurczyk are even half right, then its value to the research community, as well as the wider public, has been compromised.

Child migrants: the Boy Scouts’ training camp for Durham boys

Amidst all the debate over migration and refugees, you could be forgiven for forgetting that European countries have also sent their fair share of ‘economic migrants’. In the case of Britain, this exodus served a dual purpose: ridding the homeland of an unwanted surplus and settling the overseas Dominions with white Britons.

I’ve described elsewhere the role of the labour colony movement in moving ‘the landless man to the manless land’, as well as the many attempts to train young women as wives and servants for Australia and Canada, and to ‘recondition’ unemployed soldiers and miners as farm labourers. But while my book on British work camps concentrates largely on adults, there were also numerous schemes for training children before sending them out to the Dominions.

As well as the large scale schemes of the major charities, including Barnardos and the YMCA, children were also the focus of many smaller, often voluntary initiatives. This included the Boy Scout movement’s training camps for boys from mining villages.

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Baden-Powell’s report on his visit, from the Eynsham Scoouts Archive

The scheme was started in 1929 by Miss Doris Mason, a scoutmaster and then a Scout Commissioner. Based at Eynsham Hall near Witney, in Oxford, it recruited young lads (aged 14-18) from the ‘distressed areas’ and involved them in a mixture of scouting and farm work. Each boy was placed with a local farmer for part of the day, and spent the rest of the day in organised leisure activities. After four or five months, the boys were subjected to a medical examination, and if passed fit were sent on to Australia.

Miss Mason ran her first camp between April and July 1929, with a group of twelve boys from Durham pit villages. By the tenth day, some of the boys were on strike, after getting into trouble for refusing to play cricket after working in the fields. Mason replaced the strikers; eight of the twelve passed their medical, and eventually seven boys were packed off to Queensland.

This is a small scale scheme, but a very interesting one. The scheme aimed to turn each boy into ‘an Empire-building citizen’, through a pedagogic programme of work, scouting and sport.They worked for their badges, and pursued more or less enthusiastically the scouting idea of manly pioneering.

Yet even after four months of demanding labour and  hearty food, the Australian medical examiner failed one third of the boys as unfit. Once in Queensland, subjected to conditions that were at best harsh and at worst abusive in the extreme, several wrote to Miss Mason asking to come home again.

At the time, though, the scouting movement managed to portray the scheme as a resounding success. Arthur Mee praised it in the Children’s Newspaper as showing that ‘A good Scout has in him the makings of a good colonist’.

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Baden=Powell’s report, from the Eynsham Scouts Archive


Miss Mason went on to develop other ventures for boys from the mining areas, including a scheme to train lads as butlers, grooms and chauffeurs. The village of Eynsham, meanwhile, hosted other schemes for the unemployed, including a work camp for unemployed men that was established by former scouts who had gone on to Cambridge University.

Meanwhile, there is currently a fabulous exhibition at the Museum of Childhood that tells the wider story of which the Scout camps are a part. It is called On their Own: Britain’s child migrants. If you’re in London, please visit it!





The Scottish Government takes a narrow view of adult learning, but at least it takes a view

In May 2014, the Scottish Government launched its Statement of Ambition on Adult Learning. Given its title, it isn’t surprising that the paper was long on generalities and short on specifics; its role was to set out a broad direction of travel, which would be followed by consultation over how best to get there.

The job of handling the next stages was passed over to Education Scotland (ES), a state agency which undertakes teaching inspections and supports quality improvement across the education system (excluding only higher education). ES has convened a strategic forum, and earlier this year it published a set of strategic objectives that were informed by the forum’s discussions.

In practice, the strategic objectives didn’t much move things on from the Statement of Ambition. Since then, the Scottish Government has issued its work programme for 2015-2016, an 88-page document that includes the following commitment:


Some – and I’m one of them – will think this a rather narrow and unambitious set of goals; while all are necessary and even praiseworthy, they are a long way from the aim of being ‘recognised globally as the most creative and engaged learning society’. But at a time when publicly funded adult learning in Scotland is in freefall, we can take a small crumb of reassurance from this commitment to a basic platform of public provision.


The European Commission’s thinking on lifelong learning

New PictureThe European Commission has recently published two documents that offer us insights into its thinking on lifelong learning. First, it has issued its Education and Training Monitor for 2015; ostensibly a ‘state of the art’ report, the Monitor also provides insights into the  EC’s current priorities. Second, the Commission has agreed a Communication on its Work Programme for 2016, concentrating on what it calls ‘the big things where citizens expect Europe to make a difference’; one of these ‘big things’, it seems, is skills.

What do these documents together tell us about the Commission’s thinking? Well, it seems reasonable to start by saying that learning and skills are a rather greater priority for the European Commission than they are for most of the member states. Both of the documents also confirm the continuing importance of gender equity in the Commission’s thinking about the labour market. Beyond that, though, the two papers differ in purpose and scope.

To some extent, the Monitor treats adult learners as peripheral. Most of it is devoted to schools, higher education and initial vocational training, with adult basic education and upskilling being classed as examples of the need to modernise vocational education and training systems. Apprenticeships are seen as something for young people, in which learning at school and work are combined, while e-learning and MOOCs are treated primarily as a sub-set of higher education.

So far so familiar. But four pages of the Monitor are devoted to adult learning, focusing on participation rates and the benefits of learning. It asserts – reasonably enough – that there are ‘clear social and economic benefits to engaging adults in continuing learning activities’.

On participation, the Commission notes that in 2009 the member states set a target for 2020 of 15% of working age adults participating in learning during a given four-week period; the current rate stands at 10.7%, with only six member states (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France, the Netherlands and the UK) reaching the 2020 target.

From the 2015 Monitor

From the 2015 Monitor

The Commission concludes that the weak evidence of progress implies ‘a rethink of adult learning policies’. It then draws on an as-yet-unpublished meta-study of the effectiveness of particular adult learning interventions, which are ranked according to the strength of the evidence. The most effective, according to this exercise, are public co-financing of employer training, aligning provision with skills forecasting, and targeting funding on provision for the disadvantaged and difficult to engage groups.

Quite how the Commission will persuade member states to rethink their adult learning policies is unclear. It can pull some levers – including publishing comparative benchmarking reports like the Monitor – but education is a responsibility of national governments, and at European level it is dealt with under the so-called ‘open method of co-ordination’. This effectively leaves it to the member state to decide whether they take any notice of European-level policies or not – which is why the 2020 targets will be missed.

On the other hand, the Commission does have powers over vocational training. The 2016 Work Programme is going to include a ‘New Skills Agenda’, which takes an explicitly human capital approach to investing in skills throughout life in order to improve competitiveness. This includes raising participation in the labour market by women, but otherwise the new agenda is nebulous in the extreme.

From the 2016 Work Programme

From the 2016 Work Programme

The European Commission has a long record of interest in adult learning. Perhaps its most influential intervention was the European Year of Lifelong Learning, a largely symbolic gesture which nevertheless reached out to governments, providers and other actors such as trade unions and voluntary associations. Much of the excitement that surrounded the European Year has evaporated, as has the social democratic vision of Europe that was associated with its then president, Jacque Delors.

In current circumstances, it probably shouldn’t surprise us to find that the Commission’s view of adult learning is an instrumental and impoverished one. Nevertheless, the fact that the Commission is debating adult learning and skills offers opportunities for advocacy and a chance to try and broaden out the terms of debate.

Skills and the growing number of older workers


I recently attended a European research conference on the education and learning of older adults. It was held in the charming southern Swedish city of Jönköping, and was attended by a decent network of researchers who function well together. I’ve been to previous meetings of this group and always found them stimulating.

I presented on the role of education and skills in supporting older workers. My argument was that demographic aging poses a much wider set of challenges to workplaces than is usually supposed; that older workers should be seen as part of the solution to these challenges and not just as their cause; and that the challenges and solutions were multi-dimensional, involving a wide range of actors, so that the government ministry for education may well be a relatively minor actor. In these circumstances those who support learning for older workers will need to build coalitions and partnerships outside the traditional educational arena.

Since then, the Department for Work and Pensions has just published an analysis of older workers that reinforces my view of the importance of this topic. Drawing on the Labour Force Survey, the DWP report shows that the employment rate for older workers is rising sharply. In the last thirty years in Britain:

  • the employment rate for 50-64 year olds rose by 14.2%, from 55.4% to 69.6%;
  • the employment rate for workers aged 65 or over has doubled, rising from 4.9% to 10.2%
  • the largest increases have been for women workers aged 60-64 and 55-59

This growth has been faster for older women workers than men, producing much greater convergence between the two in terms of their employment rate (though not necessarily in their experience of work or the rewards they receive).

And the growth in employment for the over-65s began in the early 2000s and has continued until the present. This suggests that financial hardship is not the principal driver of the turn to work. Those who reached state pensionable age in the early 2000s still included significant numbers with decent occupational pensions; and the New Labour government adopted a number of measures at this time to reduce pensioner poverty, including rises in the basic state pension.

Of course, some older workers are looking to make ends meet still, and their numbers may increase with the tightening squeeze on welfare. But more likely explanations are (a) the expanding number of older adults as the baby boomers reach their sixties; (b) the relatively good health of people who reach the state pension age; (c) a slow change in attitudes among at least some employers who are more willing to take on older workers; (d) the growth in precarious job contracts such as zero hours arrangements, which may cause less difficulty to people who can also draw on pensions; and (e) people’s desire to maintain a relatively high consumption lifestyle.
What does all this mean for skills and education? Here we enter the realms of speculation, albeit that we do have some evidence. First, the growing number of older workers is creating new demands for upskilling and other forms of training, which employers will need to take on board.

Second, a number of older workers will be well able to fund their own learning, at least partly; and indeed for some, the more commercialised forms of learning (study tours, heritage cruises, and so on) will be part of the lifestyle that they are working to maintain.

Third, human resource managers – including trainers – will need to take an increasingly multi-generational workforce into account, with generational differences being superimposed on other factors such as gender and ethnicity. This means planning development and training activities that meet the needs of mixed age groups and balance the different learning styles and preferences of different cohorts, from recent school-leavers to those over state pension age.

There are important roles here for adult learning providers, but not necessarily as instructors – or not just as instructors. There are other roles as brokers, partners and advocates to be filled, working alongside trade unions and employers and trainers. It is, though, unlikely that providers will play much of a role if their expertise is limited to working with young adults and providing a second chance of improving basic skills, important though these are.

And finally there is a role for government, if it has the political will to intervene, in helping to secure equity. I mentioned above the question of gender and workforce participation among older women workers; their location in and rewards from the labour market will only match those of men if there are measures in place to avoid discrimination and provide targeted skills. The same goes for ethnicity and – with knobs on – for dis/ability, particularly as those older workers who are working because they need the money will also be those with the lowest savings, poorest health and the fewest skills.

Families, welfare benefits and economic migration: the case of London’s early 20th century labour colonies

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Governments over the years have repeatedly tried to work out how to structure benefits and taxation systems to encourage the poor to work. A cynic would say that they seem to have no such problems when it comes to the rich, of course. Still, it has been instructive to see the pickle that the British government has got itself into over its plans to remove tax incentives from the poorest workers in the economy.

These debates are, of course, not new. Indeed, they remind me of the discussions over municipal labour colonies in early twentieth century Britain. A number of towns and cities considered plans for labour colonies where unemployed men could be sent to work on the land, where they might maintain their physical strength while undertaking productive labour. A number were subsequently opened up by local public authorities in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester; but the largest number by far were those opened by local governments in London.

The London labour colonies are relatively well documented. Quite a large amount of archival material survives in the London Metropolitan Archives, journalists and social workers found it easy to visit the London colonies (most of which were in Essex), and organisations like the Central (Unemployed) Body produced printed reports. I used all of these sources for my book on British work camps; more recently, I came across some helpful references in the reports of local medical officers of health, which have just been digitised by the Wellcome Library.

In their annual reports, the medical officers of health (MOH) often discussed conditions among the poor, including those who had been sent to labour colonies. In Hammersmith, for example, the MOH noted in 1905 and 1906 that men had been sent out to four labour colonies. The largest number went to Hollesley Bay Labour Colony in Suffolk, which took in 16 Hammersmith men in 1905; four were sent up to the Garden City, where a student-led colony helped to landscape the new town; three went to reclaim marshland and build sea walls on Osea Island; and one solitary individual went out to a colony at Fambridge.

I was particularly interested to see that the MOH sometimes gave details of payments to the men’s families. Whereas unemployed men engaged on public works were given minimum wages, men in the labour colonies were fed, housed, clothed, and given simply a small weekly allowance – six pennies a week in the case of Hammersmith men – to spend on cigarettes or food. However, their dependents received a small allowance: the Hammersmith Distress Committee paid 10 shillings (50p) for the wife, 1s 6d for the first child, and 1s for subsequent children, up to a maximum of 17s 6d per family per week.

What attracted my attention was the way in which the Hammersmith Distress Committee – appointed by the Borough Council under the 1905 Unemployed Workmen Act – chose to issue the family allowances. Members of the Distress Committee visited the homes, firstly to investigate the family’s behaviour, and secondly to consider whether they could be sent to the colonies.

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

Both of these reasons for visiting are significant. The second, though, provides a timely reminder that entire families were pressurised to migrate to the White Dominions, and to Canada and Australia in particular. There is a great deal of controversy about migration into Britain, and rather less awareness of forced emigration out of it. This is changing, thanks partly to campaigns over child migrants, as exemplified in the current Museum of Childhood’s exhibition; we also need to recognise those who were sent on long journeys abroad simply because their menfolk were unemployed.


Top of the League Tables: the Social Mobility Index

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

I sometimes think that what higher education really needs is a league table of higher education league tables. No, not really – but here is one league table that I would actually find useful: the Social Mobility Index sets out to identify which universities best serve the public interest. And the results are predictablly intriguing.

Basically, the Index measures performance against five criteria:

  1. the level of tuition fees, with the lowest fees being ranked highest;
  2. the socio-economic background of the students;
  3. the graduation rate, which effectively includes retention and success;
  4. the average early career salary of graduates;
  5. income from endowments, which like tuition fees are measured negatively, on the grounds that a university which does something without endowment income is likely to be more efficient than one which does the same but with high endowment income.

These seem pretty reasonable criteria, and they can be measured fairly robustly.The Index seems to me to combine effectiveness measures with indicators of equity and student success. You won’t be surprised that I am quite keen to persuade someone like Phil Baty and the Times Higher to undertake a similar exercise in the UK, where similar data are readily available.

Indeed, with a pinch a suitably powerful government body (such as the European Commission) could probably collect such information for the whole of Europe. I wonder which universities would do well, and which would do badly, in a European Social Mobility League Table?

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In the USA, which is what the current table covers, there is one clear winner. City University New York and its constituent colleges dominate the top position. What a great track record: best in the USA at taking disadvantaged students, ensuring they succeed, getting them valued in the labour market, and doing all this with low fees and low endowment. Yes, this is a league table I’d love to see replicated more widely.