Sarah Blenkinsop and Marian Morris examine young people’s decision-making patterns, the role their school plays, the skills they require and other influences on the choices they make at core points in their school career.

Schools can make a real difference to how young people make decisions, regardless of the type of school or the characteristics of the young person.
This is one of the key findings from a recent research study carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) for the DfES (for more details of what this involved, see ‘Purpose of research’, below, and ‘Context of study’, below).

 The study explored how young people make the educational decisions required of them at age 14 and at age 16, when choices are greater and more complex. At the heart of the 14-19 curriculum reform is young people’s entitlement to choose personalised pathways that suit them and that form a strong basis for their progression. The study examined young people’s feelings about the options available to them, how they make choices and what mechanisms schools need to have in place to support young people’s decision-making.

The research sought to identify the characteristics of the young people who appeared to make what it termed ‘effective’ decisions, those that:

  • remain stable over time (young people did not subsequently change their minds or regret their choice)
  • appear to be rational (as far as this is possible, given the curriculum or information constraints experienced) ]
  • are based on a consideration of other potential options.

By asking young people to tell the story behind the decisions they made about their choice of subjects, courses and destinations for study, training or work, the research sought both to look at the contexts in which young people made their decisions (their social, cultural, educational and economic backgrounds) and the ways in which these contexts appeared to interact. The aim was to develop a deeper understanding of the decision-making process, to see whether this process varied according to young people’s characteristics and backgrounds and to explore the relative impact of the school in the decisions that were made.

The research examined several aspects of the 14 schools in the study and these are outlined below.

Purpose of research 

The research was designed to investigate how young people make choices at age 14 about which subjects to study at Key Stage 4 and at age 16 about post-16 destinations.

It attempted to understand the context in which young people make choices by focusing on:

  • level of choice available to young people at Key Stage 4 and post-16
  • support mechanisms in place in schools to support decision-making
  • key influences on young people’s decision-making.

Scope

The research featured the following:

  • indepth investigation of 14 schools across seven local authorities in England
  • a variety of schools, including one 11-18 grammar; two 11-18 secondary moderns; four 11-18 comprehensives and seven 11-16 comprehensives
  • across Year 9 and Year 11, 165 young people told their stories about the decisions they were making; 127 were followed up later and asked to reflect on the choices they had made
  • senior managers, heads of Years 9 and 11, sixth-form heads (where relevant) and guidance staff were interviewed in all 14 schools
  • contextual interviews were carried out with post-16 providers.

Aspects examined

The following aspects of schools were examined in the study:

  • context, including school size, location, age range, socioeconomic characteristics of the catchment (based on analysis of pupil neighbourhoods and free school meals entitlement), attainment levels and statements of educational need
  • school orientation, following the Foskett et al (2004) typology, which identified foci for student, school, policy and functional orientations
  • factors such as leadership, ethos, levels of staff expectations, student attitudes, curriculum management, external partnerships
  • quality and status of careers education and guidance and other guidance support. 

Importance of decisions

We looked at the decisions young people made or were making at the end of Key Stage 3 (for example, their choice of subjects and the balance between vocational and academic courses) and at the end of Key Stage 4 (including the decision about whether or not to stay in education).

Some young people, including those who were still undecided about their post-16 courses, said, in unprompted comments, that they did not see choice of post-16 activity as a major concern. However, most expressed a very different view, agreeing with staff that the decision about post-16 destinations was ‘a really big issue and probably the biggest decision [young people] … will have made at that point in their lives’.

Views about the level of importance that should be attached to the subject decisions made at age 14 were more divided. The students interviewed generally felt that it was an important matter, whereas some staff placed relatively little emphasis on the choices to be made at age 14.

While young people wanted reassurance that the choices they made were not critical, hoping that the curriculum would be broad enough to enable them to change direction later if they so wished, they also seemed to want teachers to acknowledge that option decisions were important. As one interviewee suggested, the decision was one that she could not ‘afford to get … wrong …’ Schools may need to consider ways in which to balance the emphasis they give and the support they provide to young people, so that young people see the decisions as important (and understand that their teachers see them as important) but are not overwhelmed by them.

Decision-making skills should, perhaps, be part of young people’s ongoing development. For example, building decision-making into young people’s personalised learning programmes, rather than focusing on it during a one-off discussion about options, could be a way forward for schools.

Role of school

Decisions that could be described as most effective seemed to be made in schools that offered at least some of the following:

  • clear and detailed information about options (what subjects entailed, coursework and content)
  • impartial advice about subjects, rather than a perception that they were under pressure to follow a particular course or choose a specific subject
  • informal support, particularly through individual conversations with senior managers or tutors who knew them well
  • sufficient time between presenting the offer and the deadline for decisions to enable them to make informed choices
  • taster sessions (of subjects and different institutions) for both Key Stage 4 and post-16 courses.

Context of study

There were 14 schools included in the study, ranging in size and in the age range of the pupils on roll. The study included schools with and without sixth forms and encompassed a full range of socioeconomic settings.

The operational characteristics of the schools varied, with some placing a very strong emphasis on meeting the individual needs of students (the ‘student-centred’ schools that Foskett et al, 2004, describe in their study). Others appeared to have a stronger sense of the performance of the school (this was often focused on levels of academic achievement) or of the current policy agenda (tending to be more responsive to changing external priorities).

The schools also ranged in their approaches to curriculum management and to the curriculum offer that was made available to young people, as well as in the nature of the mechanisms they had in place to support young people’s decision-making.

Across the 14 schools, the 165 Year 9 and Year 11 students who were interviewed came from diverse backgrounds but the study included similar proportions of girls and boys and a range of different academic and other abilities.

The research included a spectrum in terms of types of schools and of young people.

Decision-making patterns

It was clear that young people made decisions in very different ways, both within and between schools, regardless of their varying characteristics or of the different types of school they attended. Within any one of the schools in the study, it was evident that, while some students seemed to weigh up all the advice and information they had been given, some appeared to have a narrower focus and concentrated on a single pathway; others seemed to have no clear vision of their future. These differences between decision-makers within schools suggest the need for personalised support. Schools need to recognise that young people have different approaches to decision-making; some will require more one-to-one support, whereas others might have a good range of skills and confidence so that group-based sessions and a range of literature will be more appropriate.

Although different types of decision-makers were found within schools, some interesting patterns emerged, with certain types appearing to be more dominant than others within each school. This raises the questions:

  • What is the role of the school in creating types of decision-makers?
  • What type of school environment appears to contribute most to effective decision-making?

Researchers found a link between those students who made apparently effective decisions and those who attended schools that offered students a broad range of support mechanisms to assist decision-making (see ‘Role of school’, above, for examples). They also found an association between the students who thought that their school’s provision for careers education and guidance (CEG) was effective and those students whose decisions appeared to be most influenced by school factors.

Careers education and guidance was deemed most effective when it was:

  • comprehensive and impartial
  • delivered by teachers who had been trained in careers education and guidance
  • supported by external professionals (such as those from Connexions)
  • was seen as part of the curriculum, as a dedicated subject, and was also linked to the wider academic, vocational and pastoral elements of the curriculum.

Where support and provision was deemed less effective, young people were less influenced by school factors and appeared to place greater weight on the views and the opinions of their families and friends.

Similarly, young people who seemed to demonstrate a more positive educational mindset (see below), suggesting that they had thought through a clear career path or could see the benefit of staying in education (at least in the short term), generally came from schools that seemed to have the most effective practices in place in relation to providing student support and careers education and guidance. In contrast, those students who were pessimistic about their futures, or who were likely to make choices that were based on familiarity and what they were comfortable with (rather than taking risks), were found to be clustered in schools where the support and provision seemed less comprehensive.

Young people’s educational mindsets

The eight educational mindsets below are based on a model developed for the DfES by consultancy SHM. According to the SHM model (SHM, 2006), an educational mindset links to, among other things, a young person’s view of their future and their level of decisiveness about their choices.

The mindset model was used by NFER purely as an analytical tool. The aim was not to ask structured questions that related to the SHM mindsets. Rather, each young person’s story was analysed subsequently to see whether their mindset could be categorised according to the model. For most students, it was possible to identify their mindsets although, for some, these mindsets changed over time, depending on their experiences.

It was not possible to categorise the mindsets of a minority of students, primarily because their narratives suggested significant overlaps between two or three different mindsets.

Overall, most students were categorised as ‘determined realists’ from their stories. They appeared to have had a clear picture about their future and were optimistic about reaching their goals. These students were arguably the most rational decision-makers but, in some cases, although their decisions seemed rational at first, they were not necessarily stable over time. For instance, it was perfectly feasible that a young person could have decided a career route only a few weeks prior to the interview and that they could (and many did) change their minds soon afterwards. A young person might have been ‘determined’ but perhaps not ‘realistic’.

The second most frequently identified mindset group was  the ‘comfort seekers’, who had focused on subjects that they enjoyed, were comfortable with and that would not cause them to feel pressured. Again, this mindset was not always stable over time.

For more information on the mindset model, see: www.dfes.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/RRP/u014949/index.shtml

Confident aspirationals   
My ambition will get me there

Determined realists
I know what I want: let me focus on that

Long-term preparers
School, degree, then I am not sure

Indecisive worriers
How can I decide? It is all too much

Short-term conformists
What is the next step in the education system?

Unrealistic dreamers
I am going to be a surgeon or a deep sea diver

Comfort seekers  
I would like a nice life

Defeated copers
I will make do with what I know I can do

There also seemed to be a link between school context and the stability of decisions made by young people. Young people who made the least stable decisions (those who had a significant change of mind once they had embarked on their chosen course), and who were indecisive or uncertain about their choices, appeared to be attending schools where students were lacking in support and comprehensive careers advice. In contrast, in schools that seemed to have effective support mechanisms and careers education and guidance, the proportion of young people who changed their minds about their choices was lower than in schools where such support mechanisms were considered by students to be lacking.

It is not really possible to talk about cause and effect. Such decision-makers and mindsets are not solely the product of the school environment. However, findings from the research suggest that there is a likelihood that student-centred schools with comprehensive advice, guidance and support strategies in place have the best potential to develop young people with more positive mindsets and more effective decision-making skills.

Messages for schools

  • Focus on the decision-making process, not the decision itself.
  • Provide comprehensive and impartial information on all options, but also help young people to develop the skills to be able to process this information.
  • Consider the range of types of support for young people and the timing of that support, recognising that young people approach decision-making differently.
  • Consider the information that is given to young people, by whom it is given and how it is mediated.

Staff expectations

The way in which staff expectations were mediated in schools and the way in which young people responded to them were important in the decision-making process. The evidence suggests that schools themselves could be a factor in developing young people’s education mindsets, which, in turn, impact on their decisions.

Staff with high expectations of academic performance had, in some cases, a negative impact on pupils who did not see themselves as particularly academic. In contrast, there were examples of staff who did not encourage students enough, or who underestimated their academic ability, which hindered pupils from aspiring to achieve their full potential (‘The school told me I would not get good results but actually my results were better than they thought’). Research suggests that in schools that focus on helping young people to develop self-efficacy, self-belief and a realistic perception of their own capabilities and strengths, young people have been more successful at managing transitions effectively (see Bandura et al, 2001 and Morris et al, 1999).

Necessary skills

Despite the most stable decisions being found in what could arguably be described as the most supportive schools (in relation to careers education and guidance and pastoral support offered), there was little evidence to suggest that any of the schools were successful in ensuring that young people’s decisions were always secure (see ‘Key findings’ listed below).

Some students who seemed very sure about their decisions at first had based their decisions on a desired career or other goal, which they were no longer sure about when the decisions were revisited some months later, even in schools that seemed to offer the most guidance and support. In such circumstances, the young people appeared to have learned the rhetoric of decision-making but were unable to cope when faced with unanticipated changes to their plans. One student, for instance, had what could be described as a very narrow-minded determination to become a chef: ‘I just had my head focused on one thing.’ He then went to college and realised he had made a mistake and said, ‘If I had found out more information from school about other things, I probably would have chosen something different.’

This raises a key question: are schools providing young people with the necessary skills to make decisions (with a focus on the process of decision-making) or are they simply focusing on the decision that needs to be made?

It is clear from the research that there is a need to ensure that young people not only have information on a variety of options, but that they have the skills to make the best use of that information. It would appear that the emphasis should be on the decision-making process, rather than on the decision itself. In order to do this, schools would benefit from having a comprehensive careers education programme, delivered by trained staff, with an emphasis on developing careers exploration skills, raising self-awareness and helping young people to understand how to apply their self-awareness to decisions.

Key findings

  • School context and teacher expectations had an impact on decision-making.
  • Decisions often fluctuated over time. Even the young people who appeared most certain about their decisions changed their minds.
  • Some young people did not cope well when faced with unanticipated changes to their plans.
  • Young people made decisions differently, even within schools.
  • What could be considered the most successful decisions were made in schools that had what seemed to be the most effective support strategies, careers education and guidance packages in place. For further details on careers education and guidance, see Morris (2005).

Influences on decisions

Young people responded to a range of different influences, although some patterns emerged in relation to the school context (see below). It should be noted that students were not asked to comment on specific potential influences; rather they were asked to tell their stories freely about whom and what had influenced the choices they were making.

Influences on students

Family

Most students wanted reassurance and affirmation from parents; many were influenced by older siblings.

Friends

Most young people were influenced by their friends but those who had a perceived lack of in-school support appeared to rely more heavily on their friends, instead of seeking support from school.

Careers education and guidance

Careers education and guidance was particularly influential in schools that appeared to offer significant, comprehensive student support. Where CEG involved a range of activities, such as assemblies, taster sessions and external visitors, it seemed most influential.

Connexions

Young people turned to Connexions’ personal advisers for advice when in-school support (particularly from teachers) was perceived as lacking. There were examples of over-reliance on the Connexions service.

Ability

Subject choices across all the schools were largely influenced by young people’s perceptions of their ability. This was particularly evident in one grammar school, in which students’ choices were strongly influenced by what they believed they were good at.

Finances

Very few students seem to have been influenced by financial considerations.

Media

Very few students mentioned media as an influence on their choice.

Sarah Blenkinsop, Senior Research Officer, and Marian Morris, Principal Research Officer, NFER

Download the research report: How do young people make choices at 14 and 16? by Sarah Blenkinsop, Tamaris McCrone
Pauline Wade and Marian Morris of the NFER at: www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RR773.pdf

References

  • Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., and Pastorelli, C. (2001) ‘Self-efficacy beliefs as shapers of children’s aspirations and career trajectories’, Child Development,  vol 72, no 1,
    pp187-206
  • Foskett, N., Dyke, M. and Maringe, F. (2004) The influence of the school
    in the decision to participate in learning post-16
    (DfES Research
    Report 538), DfES
  • Morris, M. (2005) ‘Making connexions: role of careers advice in the curriculum’, Curriculum Management Update, Issue 52, pp3-10
  • Morris, M., Golden, S. and Lines, A. (1999) The impact of careers education and guidance on transition at 16 (DfEE Research Report RD21), DfEE
  • SHM (2006) Mindset profiles: segmenting decision-makers at ages 14 and 16 (DfES Research Report RW67), DfES
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