Forming Adulthood: Past, present and future in the experience and views of the Competent Learners @ 20

Publication Details

The longitudinal Competent Learners study has followed the progress of a group of around 500 young people from just before they started school. Information was collected at two-yearly intervals from age 4 until the age 16. The latest phase of the study revisited 401 of the participants at age 20 and looked at how they had fared since they left school , their current situation and experiences, what role their school experiences and performance played as they progressed into early adulthood and what they were gaining from current study and employment.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie and Edith Hodgen, New Zealand Councils for Educational Research.

Date Published: September 2011

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Executive Summary

The main report of the age-20 phase of the longitudinal Competent Learners study focuses on the pathways taken from school by the 401 participants, their current situation and experiences, including learning dispositions, and the associations with past competency levels, school engagement, school-leaving age and National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) qualifications. Attention is paid to particular groups: those who are currently studying; those who are employed without also studying, and those who are neither studying nor employed at 20; those who have experienced unemployment; and young mothers.

The Competent Learners study has followed these young people from near age 5, with a focus on the contribution of education to the development of competency levels, alongside the contributions of family resources and relationships; activities outside school; friendships; values; and experiences. It is funded by the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). The study had 523 participants at age 8.

The sample was originally from the Wellington region, and 84% were still living there in 2009, when the young people were interviewed, and filled out online surveys. The sample was originally drawn to be representative of early childhood education services rather than social characteristics, and it is not representative of all New Zealanders of the same age. It has higher proportions of young people from high-income families, with somewhat higher levels of maternal qualifications, and lower proportions of Māori or Pasifika, than the national picture. This means that where family income, parental education and ethnicity are associated with differences in patterns (eg, university attendance), the percentages we report for these patterns will be somewhat higher than found with a nationally representative sample. The main focus of our work, however, is on seeing how patterns relate to each other, and how previous development in the school environment and experiences outside school contribute to the ways that these young people were developing as adults.At age 20, main activities or situations for these 401 young adults were:

  • study (63%). Many of those studying at 20 also had employment: 51% of those studying worked part-time, and 10% worked full-time, with some working casually. The combination of study with employment was not new: many were also working while they were at school, at age 16
  • employment without formal study (28%)
  • neither studying nor employment (nine percent-of this group, 69% were currently unemployed or receiving a sickness benefit, and 31% were looking after their child.

Many participants (61%) thought it had been easy or very easy for them to move on from school. Looking back on their leaving school, most of the participants in the age-20 phase of Competent Learners saw gains in independence and in options. They liked being able to earn money, and have learning that seemed (more) relevant and related to "real life". However, just over half had found it hard to work out what they wanted to do, and to manage their money. At age 20, 70% had a loan of some kind-mostly student loans.

Leaving school with NCEA Level 2 or Level 3 was worthwhile, and was more likely to support a more satisfying pathway into early adulthood. Leaving school without a qualification was not only associated with greater likelihood of unemployment in the post-school years, but also with more major regrets, less happiness and optimism and more experience of depression and mental ill health. Post-school study did not improve the opportunities for these young people: instead, they had higher rates of not completing courses they undertook, indicating their need for support with learning, and building habits of learning that they had not built in school. Simply changing the environment of learning without addressing these needs would not suffice.

Precursors to school qualification achievement-competency levels

Looking backward, using the four levels of school qualification as our unit of analysis (comparing those who did not achieve NCEA, those who achieved NCEA Level 1, 2 or 3), we found:

  • Continuity of performance over time is strongest for those with earlier high performance. On average, those who achieved NCEA Level 3 had higher scores than others on the study's cognitive measures (literacy [reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing], mathematics and logical problem solving) from the time they started school. After their first year at school, they also had higher average scores than others on the study's attitudinal measures (perseverance, communication, social skills, curiosity and self-management).
  • There was little difference in performance on the cognitive measures between those who had left school without a qualification, and those who left with NCEA Level 1, or NCEA Level 2. It was the attitudinal competencies that appeared to make the difference in gaining a qualification, and gaining the more useful NCEA Level 2 rather than NCEA Level 1, or nothing.

Looking forward, using low and high performance on the competency measures as our unit of analysis, we found that early low performance often does not lead to difficulty gaining a school qualification. What teachers and parents do, their interaction with students and the opportunities they provide children and early adolescents, do matter. The first three years of school are particularly important.

  • Most of those with early low performance at age 5 went on to gain NCEA Level 2 or Level 3.
    Low performance at age 8 may be more of a signal of later difficulty gaining NCEA Level 2 or Level 3-but still, 59% of those in the lowest quartile on the cognitive composite at age 8 did so, as did 63% of those in the lowest quartile on the attitudinal composite at age 8.
  • Mathematics performance shows more consistency with later performance than does reading or writing for the group of early low performers at age 8. The difference between mathematics and reading or writing performance is somewhat less marked for the group of early high performers at age 8.

To improve the proportion of students who gain NCEA Level 2, a current government objective, will mean paying attention to ensure we do engage students in their learning, from an early age, and pay as much attention to developing their attitudinal competencies as we do to their development of literacy and mathematics. The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) provides a framework that supports this policy and practice attention, in its focus on development of the key competencies. In previous phases of this study, we have shown that engagement in learning is related to learning opportunities that are framed to develop both cognitive and key (attitudinal) competencies at the same time. These need to be provided both in and out of school.

We identified a set of indicators of risk to satisfying the pathways from school to early adulthood:

Low levels of mathematics performance at age 5 and onwards
(mathematics performance was a somewhat stronger indicator than literacy, but lack of reading enjoyment-how one uses leisure time-is another consistent indicator)
Low levels of reading and writing at age 5 and onwards
Low levels of attitudes (overlapping with the key competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum) from age 6
Low levels of reading enjoyment-in one's own time as well as in school
Lack of a clear leisure interest, or else over-interest in electronic games
Experience of bullying-whether as a victim, bully or both
Low levels of student engagement in school at 14
Low levels of feeling supported and treated like an individual at school at 14
Low levels of positive views of learning opportunities at 14 and 16
Low levels of motivation at 14
Low levels of satisfaction with the range of subjects they take at 16
Lower levels of useful advice about what to do post-school
Thinking of having "time out" after leaving school , particularly if there are no plans for that time out
Leaving school at 15 or 16
Risky behaviour at 14 and 16: experience with alcohol, sex, trouble at school
Friendships more likely to be with those who have risky behaviour; less likely to be challenging and talking about hopes and plans for the future
Values more likely to be focused on "standing out"-how one appears to others
Having goals is less likely to be important
Family relationships more likely to be problematic
Low family income through childhood and adolescence


None of these indicators on their own would necessarily indicate difficulty finding and making a satisfactory post-school pathway into early adulthood. Often we found that they were related, and compounded each other. For example, student disengagement and risky behaviour compound each other: what happens outside school becomes more important than what happens inside school, and identity forms around the habits associated with the relationships and experiences outside school. If these do not have a real learning component, if they do not develop some sense of interest in things not yet known, and a desire to gain knowledge, skills, understanding toward some larger purpose, then they are unlikely to offer a valid alternative to school, that might serve some of its functions in a way that would better reach some adolescents. Where these outside relationships and experiences exasperate parents, then communication with parents, and their ongoing ability to support, can become eroded. Important sources of information, support and challenge for adolescents are left behind when students disengage from school: teachers, and their school peers. Those most at risk of uncertain and dissatisfying early adulthood pathways, and whose initial adult platform seemed most vulnerable to economic and social change, were most likely to leave school with no clear idea of where they wanted to go: who they could become, and how. There was little institutional support or systems to support them. Family social and cultural capital, and financial resources, could help; but it is important to note that this spiral leading to the rejection of school was not limited to those who did not have much social or cultural capital.

Post-school pathways

The traditional model where the end of school marked the end of formal study has given way to further study-of some sort-being part of the post-school experience for most young people making their path into adulthood. Most of the young people had experienced both work and study since they left school. Travel was undertaken by around a quarter of the young people, but much less by those who were neither studying nor employed at 20.

A quarter of the 20-year-olds had some major regret about what they had done since they left school, particularly those who were neither studying nor employed. Their regrets were more likely to be related to decisions around employment. But study was the source of more than half the regrets expressed, with some overrepresentation of those who left school without a qualification-11% of the sample. There are indications that those who did have a major regret related to study had started their post-school pathway less well equipped to go on learning, both in terms of approaches to learning, and having some clear purpose for their learning.

By age 20, 19% had already gained a post-school qualification, usually at certificate level, from courses that lasted less than a year. Most thought their course and qualification gave them skills and knowledge they were currently using, most often practical and specific to their work; less so in relation to team work, computer skills or written communication.

The majority of those who had studied post-school in this sample were at university, having gained the requisite entry qualification at school, or being able to use adult entry, bridging courses and a greater latitude on course entry than is likely to operate now. Most of those who were currently studying were positive about their study experiences, including support from teachers and the degree of challenge offered, and what they thought they were gaining from them. Those taking university courses were more positive about their courses than those taking certificate-level courses. Few students spent as many hours each week on their study as one would in a full-time job: not surprising, since two-thirds were also employed. Although employment and loans appeared to be necessary to allow post-school study, 79% thought their course would provide value for money.

Employment experiences

Most of the young people said they had heard about their current job through networks (family, friends, previous work colleagues), rather than employers' advertisements. Interest and usefulness, and the suitability of the job for them as an individual were the two main reasons why the young people took the jobs they had. These indicate a less tight labour market than the one currently facing young adults-but these reasons also mesh with what the young people hoped to find in employment, as indicated in their perceptions of an ideal job. The ideal job for most would connect with interests, develop over time and allow them to have time with family, one of the other main hallmarks of adulthood.

Most of the 20-year-olds' current employment offered some enjoyment, a level of satisfying responsibility, but less in terms of ongoing development, and pay. Money was not insignificant to them: it allowed them to exercise independence, to go flatting, for example, or partner, or it supported their study.

Only 26% of those who were employed and not also studying thought they would be in their current job in three years time. Stability of job interest was most likely among those who were doing what they wanted to be doing, those who had found good learning opportunities in their work and saw good opportunities for progression. The emphasis on learning within employment is interesting, since it was true for those who had not undertaken post-school formal study, as well as those who followed the post-school study route from school as a matter of course.

However, useful learning at work was much more likely to come informally than formally, and just over half thought they were learning new skills in their work. The proportions are higher among those who were employed without also studying. Just under half were doing what they wanted to be doing. So while at one level many of the young people appeared to have taken on one of the mantles of adulthood-employment-their employment was not necessarily developing them further.

Post-school opportunities through both formal study and employment to maintain and develop learning approaches are important also: we found that levels on two of our measures of adult learning approaches were not related to past experiences, the legacies from school or previous competency levels, or to family income levels. These approaches are important in a society and economy in constant change.

Some experience of unemployment since they left school had occurred for 11% of the young people. The risk indicators outlined above, coupled with no or low NCEA levels, were often associated with the experience of unemployment. Where they had undertaken post-school study, it was mostly at the certificate level, with less advice from higher education staff on their choices. Those who had experienced unemployment in early adulthood-whether or not they were employed at age 20-were more likely to be unhappy, depressed, to think of suicide and to have more adverse events in their life.
Relationships and experiences

Family and friends were important for most of the young people, providing support, sharing activities and often extending their interests and experiences. Just over half still lived with their families, with some experiencing some tensions in this. But, overall, reports of relations with family were more positive than at age 16.

Ten percent of the sample were mothers at the age of 20. While we found that the risk factors outlined above were precursors, and this group also included some who had experienced unemployment, we found that the purpose provided by motherhood (one of the prime markers of adulthood for women) seemed to have given them more emotional resilience than others who had experienced unemployment.

The 20-year-olds were extending their experiences through friendships, romance and sex. They were interested in travel, as another means of extending their experiences. They were exercising their independence, and that included experiencing what it meant to lose control. Most drank, and overdid it at least once in the previous year. Many were discovering that while leaving school had given them a sense of greater freedom, making their way as young adults-as employees, students, sometimes parents, as jobseekers-did not guarantee a sense of having enough freedom. Money certainly played a part in this. Forty percent did not feel they were in control of their finances. However, just over a third were also saving money on a regular basis. The young adults were not always sanguine about their experiences, and one in eight had sought treatment for a mental health problem in the past year.

Internet use was not daily for most of the young people; their main use of the Internet was email, online banking, looking at websites, social networking sites and downloading. Just under three-quarters thought it important to keep up to date with current events; they mainly did so through television or newspapers. Three-quarters had voted in the 2008 general election: largely because they thought they should, or had the right to vote, and less so because they cared who won the election.

Planning ahead was seen as important-as was setting goals, though around a quarter of those who had definite goals for the next three years also had plans to achieve those goals. Most of the young people were optimistic about their future (77%), and many about their career path (67%). However, they were much less optimistic about the wider context for their futures: 30% or less were optimistic about the country's economic future, the world's future political situation or the future of the environment.

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