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Image of Photo of Prof Anna Vignoles in a room at Jesus College
Photo: Lloyd Mann, University of Cambridge

Professor Anna Vignoles awarded CBE in Queen’s Birthday Honours

Professor Anna Vignoles, College Fellow and education economist known for her work using large-scale data to shed light on inequality and its consequences, has been awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her services to social science.

Anna is holder of the 1938 Chair in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is also a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Council of the Economic and Social Research Council.

Her work focuses on ways both to improve social mobility and ensure people have the skills they need for the modern labour market. Her research using big data to illuminate the very unequal educational and economic outcomes for children growing up in different family circumstances has been highly influential, informing government policy and helping shape public debate.

Working with colleagues at the Faculty, Anna leads nationally-significant research into how well the education system is meeting the needs of both individuals and the wider economy, including the vocational skills sought by employers in addition to academic qualifications.

Her work has produced important recommendations on ways to reduce the large socio-economic inequalities in educational achievement in the UK.

Head of the Faculty of Education Professor Susan Robertson said: “This is wonderful recognition of Professor Anna Vignoles’ contribution to our different communities.”

Lucy Ward from the Faculty of Education interviewed Anna about her life, interests and research

"I’m particularly delighted to receive this honour as it recognises the important work that we do at the Faculty of Education on understanding and trying to reduce the inequalities we see in individuals’ educational opportunities, and indeed their life chances in general."

- Anna Vignoles

Many congratulations on your award! How does it feel to receive an CBE?

I’m particularly delighted to receive this honour as it recognises the important work that we do at the Faculty of Education on understanding and trying to reduce the inequalities we see in individuals’ educational opportunities, and indeed their life chances in general.

We have a wonderful and highly multidisciplinary team committed to both researching these issues and then putting that research into practice to make a difference in children and young people’s lives. I’m particularly grateful to Dr Sonia Ilie who leads on the work we do on widening participation in Higher Education, which is a major priority for Cambridge, as well as the many colleagues who I work with in our two research centres that address inequalities in early childhood education (PEDAL) and in some of the poorest countries of the world (REAL).

Tell us about your career. Were you always an academic?

No - the start of my academic career came when I was up in the North East. I had graduated in Economics from SOAS and was working in human resources, recruiting shop floor workers for a factory in South Shields. We were using modern methods, psychometric tests, literacy and numeracy tests. It was actually a very hi-tech factory producing computer chips. And it really brought home to me the gulf between the kinds of skills that they wanted for their shop floor workers and the kinds of skills that many of the applicants - particularly men who'd been laid off from shipbuilding - actually had. I got really interested in labour markets and then was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD to study them at the University of Newcastle with Professor Peter Dolton, who was an amazing mentor. So I'm actually a labour economist.

What were your next academic steps?

As my career progressed I went to work at the London School of Economics, and there I became more interested in education specifically as one particular aspect of the labour market. Eventually, in 2001, I decided that I wanted to completely specialise in education and I joined what is now UCL IoE. Most of my research there focused on thinking about why it is that educational opportunities and achievement differ so wildly depending on your family background and socio-economic origins, and about how we could have really rigorous research on what could make a difference in reducing inequalities. That really means inequalities in life outcomes, but along the way of course education is so key we really need to understand how we can help everybody get more out of their education and develop the skills they need. The skills they need for their economic life, yes, but also for their social and personal life.

You came to the Faculty in 2012 as Professor of Education – what drew you here?

One of the attractions of coming here was the really interesting mix of different disciplines in the Faculty. And I like to think that, since I've arrived, we've also built up our expertise in the analysis of quantitative data. We'd always had a huge strength on the qualitative side and we had some fantastic professors here on the quantitative side but our group has grown from strength to strength.

Is it the data that fascinates you or a drive to tackle the inequality you identify?

When you study things from an economic perspective, I think it's really clear that over a long period of time now, what has been really valued are cognitive skills - basically the kinds of skills that you get through academic achievement. And at the same time we were also expanding education. More people now go to university for example.

And yet also during this time you have a big gulf in the opportunities and the earnings and outcomes for people who get more education and people who get less. So for me it's always been fascinating that there's a contradiction between education being a really important route to success, particularly in the society we live in which we like to think of as meritocratic, but actually also a force for inequality because the gulf between those who have more education and those who don't is very, very large. Those who don't get education get left behind, and society says that's okay because that's meritocratic. But it is not really okay: and as we're seeing at the moment, the consequences of leaving people behind economically are severe.

But I'm also driven by methods and data in the sense that I think there's still much more we can do in education research to be as rigorous as we possibly can be. And that's always excited me: the idea of using better quality data, thinking about really good theory and lots of good methods of analysis.

One of the issues that emerges from your research is how you have an outcomes gap between people who've had precisely the same educational opportunity but differing socio-economic backgrounds. Does that mean there's a limit to what education can do?

Even if access to education was entirely equal and fair, education is not the only thing that determines people's success. We are definitely seeing that people from more advantaged social and economic backgrounds do better in the labour market. And the thing about economics is that we want to understand why. It's not enough to say, ‘of course it's a private school effect’ or ‘of course it's the effect of being well-connected’.

What we want is rigorous evidence on why is it that people from rich backgrounds get more from their education, get better outcomes even when they've got the same education level as someone from a poor background. We really need to understand it because if it's a pure network effect then the solutions look quite different from if, say, it’s that students from rich backgrounds also have a set of other skills that the labour market really wants - social skills for example. The solution for that looks quite different, because it suggests that in the education system we should be worrying a lot about the broader skills that people need as well as the academic skills.

Perhaps it's something the education system can't solve – is it a case of the wider playing field being rigged?

It can be straight out discrimination, absolutely. But I think the contribution that economics of education makes is to actually really try and understand that. I don't think it's helpful to assume it's discrimination because it could be that there are actually drivers underneath this that we can fix. So one suggestion we're looking at at the moment is whether the labour market favours those who can take longer to find the right job. In other words, if you can have the luxury of a really extended job search funded by your parents, do you end up in a better job? Probably yes. Particularly if you take unpaid internships.

So what are the policy solutions? Well, one, we should discourage unpaid internships but also we might need to think about how universities and others help students in that difficult transition into the labour market to make the best possible use of the skills they have. I think I'm quite solution-driven: that's the bit that interests me.

How can the University of Cambridge best ensure all potential applicants have a fair chance?

Cambridge is really focused on what it can do to genuinely widen access to a wider range of students but crucially we are also trying to do it in a way that's really evidence-driven. We've had a lot of support here at the Faculty from the University itself and crucially from the Colleges to try and build a rigorous research agenda around what it is that we can actually do to widen participation.

How does your work link up with other parts of the University?

One example is our work with the Cambridge Brain Sciences Unit, looking at resilience and understanding how many children who have difficult lives with adverse things happening to them in early childhood do still go on to do well and thrive.

Finally, tell us what receiving this honour means to you personally.

The letter letting me know was sent to the wrong number on our street so I got it two weeks late: I did actually wonder whether they’d got the wrong person until my husband pointed out that it was unlikely there would be another Vignoles. So yes, we all suffer from imposter syndrome – I certainly do. I think actually that if you don't that's probably not a good sign!

I was absolutely delighted, as was my family and particularly my husband who has supported me hugely throughout my career. And my mother, who died last year, would have been very proud. She left school at 17 without a degree or anything: she was a very smart woman but she wasn't particularly highly educated as many women at that time weren’t. She became educated in later life: she enrolled in the Open University. I was going through her things the other day funnily enough, and I found her degree award from the OU which was dated 2016. My grandma also went back to the University of Essex when she was in her late 60s and she had also left school really young at 16. So I’m from a family of women who clearly valued education and perhaps that set me on my path.

Interview by Lucy Ward, Communications Manager, Faculty of Education.

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