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Insulation only provides short-term reduction in household gas consumption, study of UK housing suggests

Sun, 01/01/2023 - 09:52

Insulating the lofts and cavity walls of existing UK housing stock only reduces gas consumption for the first year or two, with all energy savings vanishing by the fourth year after a retrofit, according to research from policy experts at the University of Cambridge.

The latest study is the first to track in detail household gas use across England and Wales for at least five years both before and after insulation installation.

Researchers analysed gas consumption patterns of more than 55,000 dwellings over twelve years (2005-2017), and found that cavity wall insulation led to an average 7% drop in gas during the first year. This shrank to 2.7% in the second, and by the fourth year, any energy savings were negligible.   

Loft insulation was half as effective as cavity wall, with an initial fall in gas consumption of around 4% on average, dropping to 1.8% after one year and becoming insignificant by the second year. For households with conservatories*, any gains in energy efficiency disappeared after the first year.  

The findings suggests that when it comes to home insulation there may be a significant “rebound effect”: any savings through energy efficiency get cancelled out by a steady increase in energy use.**

The UK Treasury recently announced some £6 billion in funding to reduce the energy consumption of buildings and industry by 15% over the next eight years, with a major focus on insulation retrofits across the residential sector. 

Researchers behind the study, published in the journal Energy Economics, say it is extremely difficult to identify specific causes of the “rebound effect” they found, but behaviours such as turning up the heating, opening windows in stuffy rooms or building extensions may all contribute.

They argue that good insulation is vital, but any drive to insulate UK homes should be combined with investment in heat pump installation and campaigns to encourage behaviour change if 2030 targets are to be met.   

To capture the overall effect of insulating homes, the researchers accounted for various factors, including the age and size of buildings, the weather and gas prices.

However, they did find that gas price influenced energy use – so the soaring cost of gas may mean greater energy reductions from insulation now than during the study period. The research also found household gas consumption fluctuated less after both loft and cavity wall insulation.     

“The recent spotlight on increasing the energy efficiency in UK buildings is both welcome and long overdue, and there are very real benefits to households from good insulation, not least in terms of health and comfort,” said study co-author Prof Laura Diaz Anadon, Director of the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance.

“However, home insulation alone is not a magic bullet. High gas prices will reduce the rebound effect in the short term, as homeowners have the need to keep costs down at the front of their minds. In the long term, simply funding more of the same insulation roll-out to meet the UK’s carbon reduction and energy security targets may not move the dial as much as is hoped.”

Anadon and her Cambridge co-author Dr Cristina Penasco say that insulating old and draughty housing across the UK is a vital step, but argue that not encouraging homeowners to “fully degasify heating” while going through the disruption of a retrofit is a missed opportunity.

Heat pumps, which extract warmth from outside to heat internal radiators, are highly efficient and negate the need for gas boilers. Recent research suggests the UK lags behind many other European countries on heat pump sales, and the UK Committee on Climate Change has also highlighted the need to speed up heat pump deployment.

“When trying to get middle income households to conduct energy renovations, as the government are currently doing, it makes sense to further encourage heat pump installation at the same time, said Penasco, the study’s first author from Cambridge’s Department of Politics and International Studies.

“This could be through incentives such as more generous and focused grant schemes, as well as obligations for boiler manufacturers and additional investments in skills for installers.”

“We found that energy efficiency retrofits are often combined with home improvements that actually increase consumption, such as extensions.”*** Scotland currently offers grants and interest free loans for heat pumps, while the rest of the UK has reduced VAT in the form of a tax rebate.

Residential housing accounted for almost a third (29.5%) of the UK’s total energy consumption in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. In the UK, 85% of households use gas as their main heating source. 

The study used data collected by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, and compared energy use in individual households before and after insulation, as well as comparing households that did have efficiency renovations with those that did not.

Researchers found that, compared to wealthier areas, households in more deprived areas had half the reductions in gas use: an average of 3% during the first and second year after insulation. Neighbourhoods where deprivation was highest had the lowest reduction in gas consumption.

“Households in more deprived areas often have to limit energy use, so any savings created by home insulation can quickly get redirected into keeping a house warmer for longer,” said Penasco

“This is a good outcome if policies are aimed at reducing fuel poverty in low-income households, but will not help with the UK’s emissions reductions targets or reliance on gas.” In fact, when it came to household income, those in the bottom 20% increased gas consumption straight after insulation.  

“National caps on gas prices will not incentivise people to conserve energy,” said Penasco, who argues that energy reduction targets could be set for individual households, and associated with waivers on energy bills in the long run, particularly for low income households.

Added Anadon: “People do not deliberately squander energy savings. There is a need for education to lessen the rebound effect we have documented. Media appearances by ministers to discuss flow temperatures of boilers are positive signs that parts of the government are starting to think about this.”

 

*Conservatories are one of the most popular home improvements in the UK. Data from 2011 suggests that almost 20% of households in England had some form of conservatory, and 80% of those had some form of heating.

** The “rebound effect” is a fundamental concept in economics, and was first identified by William Jevons in 1865, when he observed that more efficient steam engines increased rather than reduced coal use, as engines were put into more widespread use.  

*** Previous research suggests that extensions in the UK increase household energy consumption by 16% on average.   

First study to look at long-term effect of insulation finds fall in gas consumption per household was small, with all energy savings disappearing by the fourth year after a retrofit.

We found that energy efficiency retrofits are often combined with home improvements that actually increase consumption, such as extensionsCristina Penasco Getty imagesMan installing loft insulation


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Yes

Cambridge achievers recognised in New Year Honours

Sat, 31/12/2022 - 08:33

Economist, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta receives an elevated knighthood. Sir Partha, the Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics, is made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire for services to economics and the natural environment.

Another economist, Dr Graham Gudgin, of the Centre for Business Research, is awarded a CBE for services to economic development in Northern Ireland. He said: "I am delighted to receive this honour in recognition of my time in Belfast running the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, as Special Advisor to First Minister, David Trimble, and working with Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, on tax reform for Northern Ireland. It was an honour to be able to use my experience as a member of the Cambridge Economic Policy Group to advance economic ideas and practice in Northern Ireland."

Professor Krishna Chatterjee, Professor of Endocrinology at the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, is also awarded a CBE for services to people with endocrine disorders. He said: “I am delighted that my contributions to endocrine disorders have been honoured in this way. This also represents the efforts of many scientists and clinical colleagues in Cambridge, and internationally, with whom I have worked over the years. Together with the patients participating in our research, we strive to advance knowledge and outcomes in rare hormone disorders."

An MBE is awarded to Elizabeth Blane, a laboratory manager for services to pathogen genome sequencing, and Natural Sciences undergraduate, Dara McAnulty, receives the British Empire Medal for services to nature and the autistic community in his native Northern Ireland. At 18, Dara, a student at Queens' College, is the youngest person to feature in this year's list. His 'Diary of a Young Naturalist' won the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Conservation.

The University's Acting Vice-Chancellor, Dr Anthony Freeling, congratulated those being honoured: "How wonderful to see people so closely linked to the Collegiate University being recognised in the New Year Honours list. It’s gratifying to see dedicated service acknowledged and rewarded in this way. My warmest congratulations to those colleagues and friends of the University who have been honoured for their commitment and their achievements." 

 

 

A number of academics, staff and an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge feature in this year's New Year Honours List, the first of the reign of King Charles III. 

It's gratifying to see dedicated service acknowledged and rewarded in this wayDr Anthony Freeling Senate House


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Yes

COVID has 'ruptured' social skills of the world’s poorest children, study suggests

Wed, 30/11/2022 - 08:41

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have “severely ruptured” the social and emotional development of some of the world’s poorest children, as well as their academic progress, new evidence shows.

In a study of over 2,000 primary school pupils in Ethiopia, researchers found that key aspects of children’s social and emotional development, such as their ability to make friends, not only stalled during the school closures, but probably deteriorated.

Children who, prior to the pandemic, felt confident talking to others or got on well with peers were less likely to do so by 2021. Those who were already disadvantaged educationally – girls, the very poorest, and those from rural areas – seem to have been particularly badly affected.

Both this research and a second, linked study of around 6,000 grade 1 and 4 primary school children, also found evidence of slowed academic progress. Children lost the equivalent of at least one third of an academic year in learning during lockdown – an estimate researchers describe as “conservative”. This appears to have widened an already significant attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and the rest, and there is some evidence that this may be linked to the drop in social skills.

Both studies were by academics from the University of Cambridge, UK and Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research in Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “COVID is having a long-term impact on children everywhere, but especially in lower-income countries. Education aid and government funding must focus on supporting both the academic and socio-emotional recovery of the most disadvantaged children first.”

Professor Tassew Woldehanna, President of Addis Ababa University, said: “These  severe ruptures to children’s developmental and learning trajectories underline how much we need to think about the impact on social, and not just academic skills. Catch-up education must address the two together.”

Both studies used data from the Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) programme in Ethiopia to compare primary education before the pandemic, in the academic year 2018/19, with the situation in 2020/21.

In the first study, researchers compared the numeracy test scores of 2,700 Grade 4 pupils in June 2019 with their scores shortly after they returned to school, in January 2021. They also measured dropout rates. In addition, pupils completed the Children’s Self Report Social Skills scale, which asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I feel confident talking to others”, “I make friends easily”, and “If I hurt someone, I say sorry”.

The second study measured relative progress during the pandemic using the numeracy scores of two separate cohorts of Grade 1 and Grade 4 pupils. The first of these cohorts was from the pre-pandemic year; the other from 2020/21.

The results suggest pupils made some academic progress during the closures, but at a slower than expected rate. The average foundational numeracy score of Grade 1 pupils in 2020/21 was 15 points behind the 2018/19 cohort; by the end of the year that gap had widened to 19 points. Similarly, Grade 4 students started 2020/21 10 points behind their predecessor cohort, and were 12 points adrift by the end. That difference amounted to roughly one third of a year’s progress. Similar patterns emerged from the study of children’s numeracy scores before and after the closures.

Poorer children, and those from rural backgrounds, consistently performed worse academically. Dropout rates revealed similar issues: of the 2,700 children assessed in 2019 and 2021, more than one in 10 (11.3%) dropped out of school during the closures. These were disproportionately girls, or lower-achieving pupils, who tended to be from less wealthy or rural families.

All pupils’ social skills declined during the closure period, regardless of gender or location. Fewer children agreed in 2021 with statements such as “Other people like me” or “I make friends easily”. The decline in positive responses differed by demographic, and was sharpest among those from rural settings. This may be because children from remote parts of the country experienced greater isolation during lockdown.

The most striking evidence of a rupture in socio-emotional development was the lack of a predictive association between the 2019 and 2021 results. Pupils who felt confident talking to others before the pandemic, for example, had often changed their minds two years later.

Researchers suggest that the negative impact on social and emotional development may be linked to the slowdown in academic attainment. Children who did better academically in 2021 tended to report stronger social skills. This association is not necessarily causal, but there is evidence that academic attainment improves children’s self-confidence and esteem, and that prosocial behaviours positively influence academic outcomes. It is therefore possible that during the school closures this potential reinforcement was reversed.

Both reports echo previous research which suggests that lower-income countries such as Ethiopia need to invest in targeted programmes for girls, those from rural backgrounds, and the very poorest, if they are to prevent these children from being left behind. Alongside in-school catch-up programmes, action may be required to support those who are out of school. Ghana’s successful Complementary Basic Education initiative provides one model.

In addition, the researchers urge education policy actors to integrate support for  social skills into both catch-up education and planning for future closures. “Social and emotional skills should be an explicit goal of the curriculum and other guidance,” Rose said. “Schools may also want to think about after-school clubs, safe spaces for girls, and ensuring that primary-age children stay with the same group of friends during the day. Initiatives like these will go some way towards rebuilding the prosocial skills the pandemic has eroded.”

Ruptured School Trajectories is published in the journal, Longitudinal and Life Course Studies. Learning Losses during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ethiopia, is available on the REAL Centre website.

Two interlinked studies, involving 8,000 primary pupils altogether, indicate children lost at least a third of a year in learning during lockdown.

Education aid and government funding must focus on supporting both the academic and socio-emotional recovery of the most disadvantaged children firstPauline RoseMustafacevcek via PixabayYoung children in Ethiopia


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Most young people’s well-being falls sharply in first years of secondary school

Wed, 23/11/2022 - 09:10

Most young people in the UK experience a sharp decline in their subjective well-being during their first years at secondary school, regardless of their circumstances or background, new research shows.

Academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Manchester analysed the well-being and self-esteem of more than 11,000 young people from across the UK, using data collected when they were 11, and again when they were 14.

The adolescents’ overall ‘subjective well-being’ – their satisfaction with different aspects of life (such as friends, school and family) – dropped significantly during the intervening years.

It is widely accepted that young people’s well-being and mental health are influenced by factors such as economic circumstances and family life. The research shows that notwithstanding this, well-being tends to fall steeply and across the board during early adolescence.

That decline is probably linked to the transition to secondary school at age 11. The study identified that the particular aspects of well-being which changed in early adolescence were typically related to school and peer relationships, suggesting a close connection with shifts in these young people’s academic and social lives.

In addition, students with higher self-esteem at age 11 experienced a less significant drop in well-being at age 14. This indicates that structured efforts to strengthen adolescents’ self-esteem, particularly during the first years of secondary school, could mitigate the likely downturn in well-being and life satisfaction.

The research is published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology. It was led by Ioannis Katsantonis, a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, building on research he undertook while studying for an MPhil in Psychology and Education.

“Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-being,” Katsantonis said. “One of the most striking aspects was the clear association with changes at school. It suggests we urgently need to do more to support students’ well-being at secondary schools across the UK.”

Ros McLellan, an Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge, specialist in student well-being, and co-author, said: “The link between self-esteem and well-being seems especially important. Supporting students’ capacity to feel positive about themselves during early adolescence is not a fix-all solution, but it could be highly beneficial, given that we know their well-being is vulnerable.”

Globally, adolescents’ well-being is in decline. In the UK, the Children’s Society has shown that 12% of young people aged 10 to 17 have poor well-being. Dr Jose Marquez, a Research Associate at the Institute of Education, University of Manchester, and co-author, said: “Until now, we haven’t fully understood how universally poor well-being is experienced. The relationship between well-being and self-esteem has also been unclear.”

The researchers used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which involves a nationally representative sample of people born between 2000 and 2002 and incorporates standard questionnaires about well-being and self-esteem. They then calculated a well-being ‘score’ for each student, balanced to control for other factors that influence well-being – such as economic advantage, bullying, and general feelings of safety.

While most adolescents were satisfied with life at age 11, the majority were extremely dissatisfied by age 14. By that age, the well-being scores of 79% of participants fell below what had been the average score for the entire group three years earlier. “This is a statistically significant drop,” Katsantonis said. “It goes far beyond anything we would classify as moderate.”

The study also captured information about the adolescents’ satisfaction with specific aspects of their lives, such as schoolwork, personal appearance, family and friends. This suggested that the most dramatic downturns between 11 and 14 were probably related to school and relationships with peers.

Despite the overall fall, students with better well-being at age 14 tended to be those who had higher self-esteem at age 11. The pattern did not apply in reverse, however: better well-being at age 11 did not predict better self-esteem later. This implies a causal link in which self-esteem seems to protect adolescents from what would otherwise be sharper declines in well-being.

“Supporting self-esteem is not the only thing we need to do to improve young people’s well-being,” Katsantonis said. “It should never, for example, become an excuse not to tackle poverty or address bullying – but it can be used to improve young people’s life satisfaction at this critical stage.”

The researchers identify various ways in which schools could support this. At a basic level, Katsantonis suggested that celebrating students’ achievements, underlining the value of things they had done well, and avoiding negative comparisons with other students, could all help.

More strategically, the study suggests incorporating more features that promote self-esteem into England’s well-being curriculum, and stresses the need to ensure that similar efforts are made across the UK. Recent studies have, for example,  highlighted the potential benefits of mindfulness training in schools, and of ‘positive psychology’ initiatives which teach adolescents to set achievable personal goals, and to acknowledge and reflect on their own character strengths.

McLellan added: “It’s really important that this is sustained – it can’t just be a case of doing something once when students start secondary school, or implementing the odd practice here and there. A concerted effort to improve students’ sense of self-worth could have really positive results. Many good teachers are doing this already, but it is perhaps even more important than we thought.”

Research based on data from 11,000 students charted an across-the-board fall in well-being, regardless of circumstances, between ages 11 and 14.

Even though this was a large, diverse group of adolescents, we saw a consistent fall in well-beingIoannis KatsantonisFaculty of EducationYoung people in class


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Yes

UK policing: psychological damage among officers heightened by bad working conditions

Wed, 19/10/2022 - 09:50

High levels of trauma-related mental health disorders across UK police forces are partly the result of bad working conditions such as having too little time, sexual harassment, and dealing with difficult situations without support, according to a study led by the University of Cambridge. 

However, officers who say they feel supported by colleagues, and have a sense of doing meaningful work, had around half the rates of a form of PTSD as the national average for policing staff.

Researchers behind the study say their findings suggest that simple improvements to the working lives of police – scheduled time for support from peers and supervisors, for example – could dramatically reduce the level of psychiatric problems in UK forces. 

Sociologists surveyed thousands of police personnel across the country in 2018 and found that 12% showed clinical symptoms of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), a chronic condition in which repeated trauma exposure causes social disconnection, feelings of worthlessness, and an inability to regulate emotions.

Complex PTSD often leads to “burnout” and substance abuse. In fact, 90% of police workers in the original survey study ‘The Job, The Life’ had experienced trauma, and one in five of these reported symptoms of either PTSD or C-PTSD.

Now, the same team of researchers have analysed survey data provided by 12,248 serving police officers to determine the working conditions and on-the-job situations with the strongest links to Complex PTSD. The latest findings are published in the journal Policing.

Trauma detailed by officers with probable levels of Complex PTSD based on the survey screening included dealing with fatal car accidents, rapes, homicides, suicides – including of children – and drug overdoses.  

Exposure to physical violence made little difference to rates of C-PTSD, nor did long working hours.

However, officers who described it as “very difficult” to take time away from the job for personal or family matters had C-PTSD rates over 50% higher than the UK-wide average for police.  

Those who described their relationship between work and personal life as “not fitting well at all”, some 15% of police officers in the study, had twice (24%) the average policing rates of C-PTSD. 

One officer suffering with probable C-PTSD described how what you see “impacts on your life outside of work”, offering the example of cases involving dead children that “make you anxious about your own children's wellbeing. To a degree you lose your innocence.”    

Another C-PTSD sufferer said “it is a given and accepted” that the job means exposure to trauma, and describes the occupational health team in their force as “brilliant” but few in number. “They are only able to put 'sticky plasters' on, and send the officers back out,” the officer said.

Police officers who described never having enough time to “get the job done” had almost double the rates of C-PTSD as the average across UK forces, 22% compared to 12%, as did officers who reported experiencing sexual harassment – whether from the public or colleagues.    

Officers who said they could never rely on the help and support of colleagues were most likely to suffer with Complex PTSD, with over 43% displaying symptoms, but such claims were relatively rare.

One detective with C-PTSD symptoms recounted dealing with sexual abuse cases as the sole investigating officer. “Little or no support from management. Victims hanging all their hopes and pressures on me.”

By contrast, C-PTSD rates were just 7% among those who said they could always rely on colleagues, and just 6% among those who say they regularly get a feeling of a job well done, with researchers claiming that a sense of meaningful work may provide a “protective effect” mentally.  

“Our research shows that the debilitating psychological misery often caused by trauma exposure isn’t an inevitable part of the difficult job of policing, it is exacerbated by poor working conditions,” said Prof Brendan Burchell, lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology.    

The team also conducted analyses beyond individual officers to compare forces, revealing a strong link between “work intensity” – those forces with more officers reporting a lack of time to effectively police – and increased rates of Complex PTSD.

Of 18 anonymised UK police forces, the one with the highest reported time constraints among officers had C-PTSD rates of 29%, well over double the average for the overall policing population.

“Severe austerity cuts since 2010 leading to a marked reduction in police numbers without a decrease in the demands of the job inevitably creates more time pressure for remaining officers,” said Burchell.

“Single-crewing, shift work and fewer resources mean that time for encouraging words between colleagues or space for officers to acknowledge their traumatic experiences are few and far between.”

One officer with probable C-PTSD described being “single crewed” at a rural location for a year, with nearest support almost an hour away. Another spoke of going from a shift team of five to working alone. “My coping strategy of being around colleagues who had been to the same fatal accident or suicide was taken away from me.” 

Cambridge co-author Dr Jessica Miller, who is also director of research for Police Care UK, the charity that funded the research, added: “The police forces reporting the best working conditions had much lower rates of PTSD. Modest investments to improve their working conditions could see significant reductions in psychological problems among police officers.”

Nationwide study of over 12,000 officers suggests rates of trauma-induced disorder Complex PTSD are exacerbated by factors such as too little time and support, and lack of say over working hours.

The debilitating psychological misery often caused by trauma exposure isn’t an inevitable part of the difficult job of policingBrendan Burchell


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Assessments of thinking skills may misrepresent poor, inner-city children in the US

Wed, 12/10/2022 - 08:38

In a newly-published study of almost 500 children from high-poverty, urban communities in the United States, researchers found that a widely-used assessment, which measures the development of thinking skills called ‘executive functions’, did not fully and accurately evaluate students’ progress. The study links this to probable cultural bias in the assessment design and suggests that this may be replicated in other, similar tools.

Any such design flaw may have influenced a growing body of research which suggests that children from poorer backgrounds tend to start school with less well-developed executive functions.  ‘Executive functions’ is a collective term for a set of essential thinking skills needed to carry out everyday tasks, and learning. They include working memory, self-control, the ability to ignore distractions and easily switch between tasks. Children with good executive functions tend to have better test scores, better mental health and greater employment potential.

One common method for measuring the healthy development of these skills involves asking teachers to complete questionnaires about children’s observed behaviours. The results can potentially help pinpoint children – or entire groups – who need extra support. They also provide a rich source of data for research on how executive functions develop.

In the new study, researchers found that one of these teacher rating scales, which has been widely used in the United States, was of limited value when assessing poorer, urban students. Specifically, they found that the executive function screener of a version of the Behaviour Assessment System for Children (BASC), called the BASC-2, “is not a good representation of everyday executive function behaviours by children from schools in high-poverty communities”.

The team, from the University of Cambridge (UK) and Virginia Commonweath University (US) suggest that the likely cause is that both this scale, and others like it, have been developed using an unrepresentative sample of children.

Researchers have previously pointed out that these assessments tend to be modelled on children who are mostly from comfortable socio-economic settings. By mapping their observed behaviours on to executive functions, they may falsely assume that these behaviours are ‘normal’ markers for any child of the same age. In reality, children’s different backgrounds and lived experiences may mean that executive functions express themselves differently across different groups.

Annie Zonneveld, from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and the study’s first author, said: “There is a big question around how we measure executive functions: are we actually using the right tools? If they are based on white, middle-class students, we cannot be sure that they would actually work for the whole population. We may be seeing evidence of that here.”

Michelle Ellefson, Professor of Cognitive Science at the Faculty of Education, said: “Teachers can provide us with really valuable data about children’s executive functions because they can monitor development in ways we could not possibly replicate in a lab, but they need effective measures to do this. This means the assessments must draw on information about children from different backgrounds.”

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, about 14% of children in the United States live in poverty. While nearly 50% of all children are from ethnic minority families, 71% of those in poverty are from these backgrounds. Most psychometric research on executive functions, however, focuses on white, middle-income, or affluent families. It has never been clear how far its findings can be generalised.

The new study examined the executive function components of two versions of the BASC: the BASC-2 and BASC-3. These ask teachers to observe children’s everyday behaviours and rate, on a scale of ‘never’ to ‘always’, how far they agree with statements such as “acts without thinking”, “is easily distracted”, “cannot wait to take turn”, “is a self-starter” and “argues when denied own way”. They then extrapolate information about the children’s executive functions based on the responses.

The researchers analysed two sample groups of children, aged around nine or 10, all from state schools in high-poverty, urban areas in the United States. In total, 472 children took part. The first sample was assessed using the BASC-2; the other using the BASC-3.

Both groups also completed six computer-based tasks which psychologists and neuroscientists use in lab-based tasks to measure specific executive functions. The researchers looked at how far the scores from these computerised tasks – which are accurate but difficult to run with large groups – corresponded to the measures from the teacher-administered surveys.

The findings indicated that while the BASC-2 provides a reasonable overview of students’ general executive functioning, it does not capture accurate details about specific functions like working memory and self-control. The BASC-3 was far more effective, probably because it uses a different and more focused set of questions.

“The BASC-2 has been used extensively in archived datasets and contributes to academic research about how executive functions develop,” Ellefson said. “It is really important to recognise that without modification, it is not an appropriate basis for making judgements about certain groups of children.”

The assessment is just one of many surveys that measure children’s cognitive development in different countries. “It is important that we know how these tools are establishing their baseline understanding of ‘typical’ development,” Zonneveld said. “If they are based on mostly white populations from affluent suburbs, they won’t necessarily be as representative as we might hope.”

The study is published in Developmental Science.

Some of the assessment tools which measure children’s thinking skills in the US may have provided inaccurate information about poor, urban students because they are modelled on wealthier – mostly white – populations.

There is a big question around how we measure executive functions: are we actually using the right tools?Annie ZonneveldVidhyarthidarpan, pixabay


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Students in Rwanda confound pandemic predictions and head back to school

Fri, 07/10/2022 - 09:08

Ever since the pandemic forced schools around the world to close, analysts, academics and teachers have been warning that many students in poorer countries might not return. According to some estimates, more than 10 million school-age students are at risk of dropping out worldwide. There have been particular concerns about marginalised groups such as the very poorest children and girls.

The new study, which used enrolment data from 358 Rwandan secondary schools, collected both before and after the closures, found that rather than undergoing a sharp fall, student numbers actually rose when schools reopened. The cause appears to have been a combination of existing students returning, and the enrolment of other pupils who were out of school before the pandemic began.

Researchers say that this may represent an emerging trend, because as-yet unpublished results from other sub-Saharan countries, such as Ethiopia and Malawi, similarly show no steep fall in numbers.

Despite this, a more gradual, long-term decline in the numbers of children in school may be underway. The research tracked enrolment past the point where schools reopened in Rwanda, and up to May 2021. By that stage, some students did appear to be dropping out of the system. This was particularly true of those from marginalised groups.

The research was undertaken by a team from the University of Cambridge and the East African research and data collection firm, Laterite, and was carried out for the Mastercard Foundation’s Leaders in Teaching Initiative.

Professor Pauline Rose, Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Given the seriousness of the impact of COVID-19, I wouldn’t have been surprised if enrolment rates had halved when schools reopened. We are still developing a comprehensive picture of the situation across Sub-Saharan Africa, but the impact on drop-outs appears far less extreme than initially feared.”

“It is important we continue to monitor the situation. There was clearly real enthusiasm for schools to reopen at first, but there are now signs that some children may potentially be disappearing from the system.”

Schools in Rwanda closed in March 2020 and did not reopen until November, when they did so on a staggered basis. The research collected aggregate enrolment data from before the pandemic, in February 2020, and a year later, in February 2021.

This showed that after schools reopened, enrolment rates rose in the Secondary 1 and Secondary 4 year groups: natural entry points into the Rwandan system because they mark the start of lower and upper secondary school respectively. Enrolment rose by 7% at the Secondary 1 level, and 11% at Secondary 4, in February 2021. Numbers remained steady in the other year groups.

Crucially, the Rwanda Basic Education Board decided to make all students return to the year group that they were previously in when schools reopened. This means that the Secondary 1 and 4 year groups comprised the same cohorts across 2020 and 2021. The rise in numbers was therefore almost certainly due to students who had previously dropped out re-joining their cohort in February 2021.

The study also gathered both enrolment and assessment data from a sample of 2,800 students in the Secondary 3 year group, which it followed up to May 2021.

By that stage, researchers found, some students had started to drop out. About 89% of the entire sample group were still in school by May 2021, but the figure was lower among girls, and particularly among students who were over the ‘expected’ cohort age because they had been kept back an additional year or more. The overage group were also disproportionately likely to come from less-wealthy backgrounds.

“Keeping track of these children is really important,” Mico Rudasingwa, Research Associate at Laterite said. “By the time they reach adolescence, those from the poorest backgrounds in particular are in danger of dropping out early to support with income generating activities for the household.”

The sample group of students also took a learning assessment, in the form of a numeracy test, in February 2020, and again in May 2021 – two terms after their return to school. The results were measured using a ‘latent ability score’ – given as a figure between 0 and 1 – which takes into account not only how many questions they got right, but how difficult those questions were. The average score rose from 0.47 in the first test to 0.52 in the second. Over 90% of the schools in the sample group recorded an average improvement in numeracy scores.

Although positive, these results should be treated with caution, as there is no counterfactual evidence available about how much their test results might have improved had the school closures never occurred. The learning levels of some groups also improved more than others. Boys generally outperformed girls by about 0.02 points on the latent ability scale, while overage students again lagged behind their peers, by about 0.03 points.

The study also collected teacher retention data by tracking 1,700 teachers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects before and after the closures. Around 94% of STEM teachers returned to their classes in early 2021, and almost half the schools surveyed saw an overall increase in STEM teachers through new recruitment. The report describes this low turnover rate as ‘encouraging’.

The full report is available on the REAL Centre website.

New data from Rwanda, and some of the first published on how COVID-19 has impacted school attendance in the Global South, suggest that a widely-predicted spike in drop-out rates has “not materialised”.

We are still developing a comprehensive picture of the situation across Sub-Saharan Africa, but the impact on drop-outs appears far less extreme than initially fearedPauline RoseJannik Skorna via UnsplashSchoolchildren in Rwanda


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