The A-Z Study Revisited

All too often innovative and informative studies get waylaid with the passage of time and replacement of Governments. In this article Dr Dick Evans re-examines one such study and illustrates just how relevant its findings around employer requirements still are.

One of the interesting facts of existence is the persistent inability of politicians to acknowledge let alone learn from history. New policies and initiatives abound without reference to or knowledge of previous attempts to tackle and develop public policy on the same issues and this sad reality is true in most areas of political life.

Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of the political mindset where their time horizons are limited by the date of the next election and the resultant political expediency. The world of education and training has had its fair share of this political amnesia. Innumerable initiatives/ schemes/projects have been launched over many decades to tackle long-standing problems in the education and training system. Each raised expectations and created its own set of acronyms and abbreviations, which added to the extensive alphabet soup for the topics. Sadly many of these developments were short term, required pump prime or matched funding and were never properly evaluated – even though many possessed merit and real potential they were rarely incorporated into the overall system of education and training and as a result violated expectations. Equally disturbing is the neglect and continual failure to action research reports which have identified and recommended future action to address and resolve these problems. Successive governments have also commissioned research and produced innumerable reports and command papers on the state of education and training which are often eloquently drafted but so often brought about little change or improvement over the long term. Reading such documents one realises what a wealth of ideas remain neglected and the continued value and relevance of such resources.

One such piece of research is “The A-Z Study” published in 1979 by the Industrial Training Research Unit (ITU) Ltd. The study described the qualities and characteristics of young people from the lower ability range in their first job and sought to determine the personal behaviour and attitudes which differentiated the improvers (called the A’s) from the non-improvers (called the Z’s). It’s a fascinating report, which is still relevant today after more than twenty years even though the profile and nature of work has changed. The research methodology was based on an open-ended interview strategy and this approach identified the same categories of behaviour, which were mentioned repeatedly with only slight variations in the words used. Belbin in his introduction stressed the need to re-examine these young employees in regard to their operative skills, attitudes and personal behaviour and the research findings might point a way forward in developing a framework for training. The study was conducted in two areas namely East Anglia and South Wales and all the young people were in employment and not involved in further education. The focus was very much work based and sought to assess personal qualities of young starters and their behaviour at work rather than in the academic environment. This approach allowed the young employees’ line manager who had direct experience of them to carry out the assessments and could observe their attitudes and responses to various situations in the work place.

The Working Method – The Interview Strategy

Identification of the possible behaviour patterns associated with the groups of young people categorised as A and Z involved the researchers highlighting the spectrum of views expressed to the supervisor i.e. in terms of the most satisfactory and the least satisfactory in a particular working group. The supervisor was first asked to decide in their own mind who was the overall ‘best’ in their group of trainees; then to describe in terms of specific items of behaviour and incidents why this defined the trainee as the ‘best’. The procedure was repeated for the trainee at the ‘bottom’ of the scale. The two people thus identified were described as A and Z trainees. The interviews were conducted in such a way that it was possible to generate an approximate rank order of priorities in factors mentioned. At the time of the research identification of the trainee groups proved difficult because of a number of factors namely:

  • The recent economic recession had in many cases caused employers to take on very few school leavers, and at worse none at all.
  • Many firms spread young people around a number of departments to learn the process and/or to carry out the least responsible tasks. Sometimes this led to the trainees not being very well known to any of a number of supervisors.
  • Several employers, notably in the chain stores business, had changed their policy and were recruiting older married women for jobs previously carried out by girls, since the then narrow wage differentials were more than offset in their minds by the greater stability of the older workforce.
  • Some large-scale employers had no young people at all due to the nature of the process, continuous three shifts working, or dangerous nature of the machinery used.

(It is interesting to note that some of the issues are still valid in placing young people in the work place.)

Despite these difficulties suitable groups were found in 39 East Anglian and 18 Welsh companies. The researchers worked closely with the Area Careers Officer in each of the towns where the companies were located. The distribution of companies is shown above in Table 1.

IndustryEast AngliaSouth Wales
Wholesale, Retail & Service72
Rubber & Plastics33
Timber Construction2-
Precision Instruments2-
Oil Refining1-
Local Government1-

Table 2 shows the size of company visited.

SizeEast AngliaSouth Wales
Up to 50 employees82
51 - 200 employees1210
201 - 500 employees136
Over 500 employees6-

After the initial interviews 47 improvers and 48 non-improvers were identified in East Anglia and 18 in each category in South Wales.

Table 3 shows the behaviour factors identified during the interviews and ranked in importance by supervisors for the A and Z trainees from the East Anglia region.

A typeZ type

  • Versatility

  • Takes initiative Pride in job

  • Good personal relations

  • Listens to instructions

  • Wide viewpoint

  • Seeks work when slack

  • Quality conscious

  • Good timekeeper

  • Asks questions

  • Methodical and neat

  • Reports faults

  • Remedies the problems

  • Doesn’t follow instructions

  • Bad timekeeper

  • Dislikes supervision

  • Careless about quality

  • Can’t concentrate

  • Chats, gazes around

  • Personal problems

  • Bad personal relations

  • Over-confident for ability

  • Doesn’t pull weight

  • Doesn’t like change

  • Doesn’t report faults

  • No loyalty to company

The Welsh survey in the main supported the findings from the East Anglia region although certain differences in emphasis were noted between the importance of a few factors. For example the A type in East Anglia indicated that the job-related factors such as versatility, taking a pride in the job and using initiative were important. Whereas in Wales the more orthodox and less job-related factors were more evident such as good personal relations, good timekeeping and being methodical and neat.

In the case of Z type behaviour both regions were broadly similar. Both showed bad time keeping and bad personal relations as important factors among the non-improvers and a resentment of being supervised was quite significant in both regions. Even accepting that the Welsh survey was small and caution had to be exercised in interpreting the results, the results did indicate regional differences. These differences could be explained by different cultural attitudes and educational systems.

In the report the researchers provide more detail and commentary associated with these factors, which provides a fascinating insight into how the trainees and their supervisors perceived the job and the importance of attitude and motivation in the young people.

Overview of the Survey

The findings highlight the main improvement areas for the young people in the bottom 40% of the ability range. The researchers argue that there is a reservoir of capability and potential from which to produce improvement and that the main determiner for this is the desire by the trainee to change her/his attitude. Positive attitude change was more evident in A types than Z types. The past history of the trainee was obviously highlighted e.g. bad school experiences, low self-esteem and personal confidence leading to the denial of establishment values and an aggressive bearing. Motivation was seen as largely a matter of self-motivation and job satisfaction was realised by greater personal satisfaction in and motivation towards the work. It is not necessarily improving job skills that are important for these young people but recognising, developing and achieving more from the job situations that they are involved in. The challenge is to recognise and develop the non-academic abilities that could unlock the latent capability and potential in these young people, which may bring about greater success in work. The researchers then continue to develop an approach to character development, which introduces these young employees to a range of experiences and problems relevant to the work place. This would be in conjunction with appropriate guidance in interpreting and dealing with critical situations. The range of experiences developed is predicated on the fact that attitudes and personal behaviour cannot be taught in the traditional way reflecting the fact that these characteristics are “caught” rather than “taught”. A framework is then created that develops a series of training exercises in such areas as:

  • Versatility.
  • Takes initiative.
  • Pride in job.
  • Good personal relations.
  • Listens to instructions.
  • Wide viewpoint.
  • Seeks work when slack.
  • Quality conscious.
  • Asks questions.
  • Methodical and neat.
  • Reports faults.
  • Remedies problems

The resources for the exercise were to be presented as some form of problem that would challenge the group of trainees and precipitate group discussion. The process was to be conducted in an open fashion where the group dynamics were fully realised even though there was to be a clear end result. The teacher was there to manage the process, not impose learning, and ultimately play a crucial role in debriefing and exploit what the group had collectively learnt.

Future action

The report concludes with the following statement:

“This research and development study has pointed to the types of programme and of syllabus that may usefully fill the gap in helping young people to make the transition from school to work. The nature of the need must be recognised before curriculum builders begin their work. For our part we can see no particular reason why the bridge building should begin at one or other side of the gap; it could begin with classes at school or when young people have already started work, using what limited experience they have already gained to see differences in need and emphasis, and to make appropriate adjustments.

The object of this study was not to conclude with a detailed teaching manual fashioned along the lines that we would favour. We have set ourselves the more limited objectives of trying to assist schools, colleges and other organisations to start off in what we believe to be the right direction. We would very much like to hear from anyone who has already taken positive steps along these lines and to exchange notes with them. However, we are ourselves in the process of developing detailed exercises because there does already seem to be a need for a ‘standard programme’ even if it serves only as a model, in terms of which local adaptations and adjustments can be made. We hope it will not be long before these prototypes are being tried out. Then a new stage of investigation will begin – to monitor progress in exercises designed to encourage in the less successful young people the personal qualities and attitudes of those who have made a good start at work. To learn what needs to be done is the first step; to learn how to do it is the second”.

Even accepting that the workplace and the nature of employment have changed the report’s findings and recommendations are as relevant today as when it was written. The research methodology is effective in terms of exploring and identifying the factors involved with the young trainees. If you couple this with other reports such as “Unqualified, Untrained and Unemployed” published by The Department of Employment in 1974 you realise that issues which occupied the world of education and training then still persist today. The central and recurring themes are associated with key skills particularly the wider personal skills of team working, problem solving and managing ones’ own learning as well as the specific one of communications. Although progress has been made on the three skills of communication, application of number and the now important one of information technologies little attention has been given to the wider key skills let alone their introduction. It’s these that employers want from all their employees and those intending to gain employment with them. Successive governments have argued that these “soft key skills” cannot easily be measured and as such do not lend themselves to being inspected easily and incorporated into the league table culture that dominates governments’ thinking particularly this current one. The A-Z study showed that these skills were important to employers dealing with young people who were labelled low achievers. Similar arguments relate to all potential employees.

Hopefully the new proposals on introducing (new?) vocational GCSEs(l) provide a golden opportunity to address this problem once and for all for all learners in schools and colleges. Past experience does not give us much confidence the operation of short termism and the neglect of earlier work could bring about another worthy but doomed development. Radical solutions based on long and clearly stated strategies are now urgently needed to address the problems that confront this country whether it be to create a learning society or resolve such issues as skill shortages.

Analysing such reports as the A-Z study starkly highlights the treasure trove of resources generated by committed and often farsighted individuals and makes you realise what progress could have been made if these resources had been harvested.


(1) “14 – 19: extending opportunities, raising standards”. DfES Green Paper. Feb. 2002.

Footnote: The A-Z Study still is relevant an amazing piece of research way ahead of its time.The researchers were outstanding.

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