“Destinations for all? Inequalities in school leavers’ labour market outcomes”

Presentation to AQMen seminar, by Dr Howieson
28 June 2017
Moray House School of Education,
University of Edinburgh



Good morning, I’m very pleased to welcome you to this AQMen event ‘Positive destinations for all? Inequalities in school leavers’ labour market outcomes’. This has been an area of interest throughout my research career and indeed is a topic that Cristina and I have worked on in the past together.

When I first started working in this area in the early 1980s, direct entry to the labour market from school was the norm, more than half of the cohort left school at their earliest opportunity – usually the end of fourth-year to enter the labour market. Scotland, in common with the rest of the UK, had a very strong tradition of early entry to the labour market, especially for working class males. But this has changed massively since then with dramatic changes in the youth labour market that have altered the number and type of jobs and training available to young people.

We are in the position where the labour market is a minority destination for school leavers in Scotland: the latest destination figures from Scottish Government indicate that around a third of school leavers enter the labour market (fig 1). The large majority of these young people were in what the Scottish Government terms ‘positive destinations’ which includes training, activity agreements and voluntary work as well being in a job (fig 1 also gives definitions of these different statuses). Just over a fifth of leavers were employed but obviously the figures do not give any indication of the quality of these jobs.

This AQMen event is concerned with these school leavers whose destination is the labour market and Cristina’s and her colleagues’ work on the topic is very welcome. In recent years, questions about inequalities in school leavers’ labour market transitions and outcomes have had less attention in research which has focussed more on inequalities in entry to higher education and the issue of widening participation. This is very important research but arguably the transition from school to the labour market is more complex, less transparent and less well understood than the transition from school to higher education. Yet young people’s early labour market experiences have a profound impact on their future life chances, earlier studies have shown that it is very difficult to recover from initial negative experiences, for example, an early period of unemployment is a predictor of being unemployed later while being in an insecure job with no training is associated with being in poor quality employment in later years.

I might add that researching labour market transitions is even more of a challenge than studying transitions to higher education given issues of data availability and quality as well as the complexity of many individuals’ transition journeys.

Turning to the issue of inequalities in labour market outcomes.

We know that attainment at school is a key predictor of a young person’s labour market outcomes, for example, on the chances of being unemployed, the duration of unemployment, their risk of dropping out of the labour market altogether, the level of job gained and their earnings.

But we also know that social class is a key predictor of school attainment: low attaining young people are more likely to come from less advantaged families. Thus social class is a source of inequality in what happens to young people in the labour market through its impact on their attainment at school.

But this is not the only impact of social class on labour market outcomes- even after their school attainment level has been taken into account, young people’s socio-economic background has an additional impact, for example, on their chances of being unemployed or not and for those in employment, it made a difference to the occupational status of their job, to their earnings and whether they received training in their jobs.

I would also like to mention gender. Young women are less likely to enter the labour market directly from school than are young men but those who do so are less likely to end up in jobs with training than are their male counterparts. They are also more likely to drop out of the labour market altogether ie to be ‘economically inactive’.

This is reflected, for example, in the gender imbalance within Modern Apprenticeship programme which is dominated by young men and were there are also marked differences in the occupational areas entered by males and females. This of course is a reflection of the occupational segregation of the labour market in general.

Of course there are other sources of inequality such as ethnicity, disability and looked after status. But an aspect of inequalities and labour market outcomes that we know much less about is the role that the school subject choice plays this is where Cristina and her colleagues work is so welcome.

The Scottish Government’s Developing the Young Workforce Strategy has reducing inequality in the workforce as one of its key aims. If this aim is to be achieved we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the factors that contribute to the unequal outcomes. It’s therefore pertinent to examine the role played by subject choice as well as attainment and how it interacts with other sources of inequality and how this varies for different young people.

Giving attention to the role of subject choice is extremely timely in the current context of CfE which is promoting much greater flexibility in the type and number of subjects that pupils can study including the provision of vocational options – how might this influence labour market outcomes in the coming years? This may be something to pick up on in our discussions later.

I will now hand over to Cristina to outline her research on young people’s labour market outcomes. We will then have a presentation from Annah Masahi from Skills Development Scotland –  SDS –  as I’m sure you all know, provides a range of career information, advice and guidance services to support young people (in and out of school) in their decision making and post school transitions. Given the challenges facing young people in making the transition from school to the labour market, the role of SDS is a critical one. Annah Mashahi will speak about the work of SDS and reflect on the implications of the research for its role.

There will then be 15 minutes for questions to Cristina and Annah.

Graph of initial destinations of Scottish school leavers in 2015/16 (%)

Figure 1 (Source: Initial Destinations of Senior Phase School Leavers, No 1 2017 Edition, Scottish Government)



Employment: includes those who are employed and in receipt of payment from their employers. It includes young people undertaking training in employment through national training programmes such as Modern Apprenticeships.

Training: includes leavers who are on a training course and in receipt of an allowance or grant, such as the Employability Fund national training programme; also leavers on local authority or third sector funded training programmes in receipt of a training allowance.

Unemployed and seeking employment or training: includes those who are registered with Skills Development Scotland and are known by them to be seeking employment or training.

Unemployed and not seeking employment or training:  Individuals can be in this category for a range of reasons such as sickness, prison, pregnancy, caring for children or other dependents or taking time out.

Activity Agreements: leavers with an agreement that they will take part in a programme of learning and activity which helps them become ready for formal learning or employment.

Voluntary work: undertaking voluntary work, with or without financial allowance and not ‘unemployed and actively seeking employment or training’