Professor Sandra McNally

Professor of Economics
PhD Economics

Academic and research departments

School of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.


Areas of specialism

Economics of Education

University roles and responsibilities

  • Professor of Economics, University of Surrey
  • Director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research, London School of Economics
  • Director of the Education and Skills Programme, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics

    My qualifications

    PhD in Economics
    University College, London
    MSc in Environmental and Resource Economics
    University College, London
    BA Mod. in Economics
    Trinity College, Dublin

    Affiliations and memberships

    IZA Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn
    CESifo, Research Network Fellow. Munich
    Member of ESRC Peer Review College.
    Executive Committee Member for the European Association of Labour Economists


    Research interests

    Indicators of esteem

    • Co-editor of the Economics of Education Review.

    • Senior Editor. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Economics and Finance. 



      C Hupkau, Sandra McNally, J Ruiz-Valenzuela, G Ventura (2017)Post-Compulsory Education in England: Choices and Implications, In: National Institute Economic Review240(1)pp. R42-R57 Sage Publications

      Most students do not follow the ‘academic track’ (i.e. A-levels) after leaving school and only about a third of students go to university before the age of 20. Yet progression routes for the majority that do not take this path but opt for vocational post-compulsory education are not as well-known, which partly has to do with the complexity of the vocational education system and the difficulty of deciphering available data. If we are to tackle long-standing problems of low social mobility and a long tail of underachievers, it is essential that post-16 vocational options come under proper scrutiny. This paper is a step in that direction. We use linked administrative data to track decisions made by all students in England who left compulsory education after having undertaken the national examination -the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE)- at age 16 in the year 2009/10. We track them up to the age of 21, as they progress through the education system and (for some) into the labour market. We categorise the many different types of post-16 qualifications into several broad categories and we look at the probability of achieving various educational and early labour market outcomes, conditional on the path chosen at age 17. We also take into account the influence of demographics, prior attainment and the secondary school attended. Our findings illustrate the strong inequality apparently generated by routes chosen at age 17, even whilst controlling for prior attainment and schooling up to that point.

      J Blanden, E Del Bono, S McNally, B Rabe (2016)Universal pre-school education: the case of public funding with private provision, In: ECON J126pp. 682-723 BLACKWELL PUBL LTD

      This paper studies the effect of free pre-school education on child outcomes in primary school. We exploit the staggered implementation of free part-time pre-school for three-yearolds across Local Education Authorities in England in the early 2000s. The policy led to small improvements in attainment at age five, with no apparent benefits by age 11. We argue that this is because the expansion of free places largely crowded out privately paid care, with small changes in total participation, and was achieved through an increase in private provision, where quality is lower on average than in the public sector.

      Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, Jenifer Ruiz-Vanzuela (2020)Entry Through the Narrow Door: The Costs of Just Failing High Stakes Exams, In: Journal of Public Economics190104224 Elsevier

      In many countries, important thresholds in examinations act as a gateway to higher levels of education and/or improved employment prospects. This paper examines the consequences of just failing a particularly important high stakes national examination taken at the end of compulsory schooling in England. It uses unique administrative data, including full information on both initial and regraded exam marks, to show that students of the same ability have significantly different educational trajectories depending on whether they just pass or fail this exam. Three years later, students who just fail to achieve the required threshold have a lower probability of entering an upper-secondary high-level academic or vocational track and of starting tertiary education. Those who fail to pass the threshold are also more likely to drop out of education by age 18, without some form of employment. The moderately high effects of just passing or failing to pass the threshold in this high-stakes exam has high potential long-term consequences for those affected.

      S Machin, Sandra McNally, M Viarengo (2018)Changing How Literacy Is Taught: Evidence on Synthetic Phonics, In: American Economic Journal: Economic Policy10(2)pp. 217-241 The American Economic Association

      A significant number of people have very low levels of literacy in many OECD countries. This paper studies a national change in policy and practice in England that refocused the teaching of reading around “synthetic phonics.” This was a low-cost intervention that targeted the pedagogy of existing teachers. We evaluate the pilot and first phase of the national rollout. While strong initial effects tend to fade out on average, they persist for those with children with a higher initial propensity to struggle with reading. As a result, this program helped narrow the gap between disadvantaged pupils and other groups.

      Chiara Chavaglia, Sandra McNally, Guglielmo Ventura (2020)Do Apprenticeships Pay? Evidence for England, In: Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics82(5)pp. 1094-1134 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

      The importance of apprenticeships for early labour market transitions varies across countries and over time. In recent times, there has been a policy drive to increase the number of people undertaking apprenticeships in England. This is regarded as important for addressing poor productivity. We investigate whether there is a positive return to undertaking an apprenticeship for young people. We use detailed administrative data to track recent cohorts of young school leavers as they transition to the labour market. Our results suggest that apprenticeships lead to a positive average earnings return (at least in the short run), although there is stark variation between sectors. This is an important driver of the gender gap in earnings.

      S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir (2004)Improving Pupil Performance in English Secondary Schools: Excellence in Cities, In: Journal of the European Economics Association2(2-3)pp. 396-405 Wiley Blackwell
      F Keslair, E Maurin, S McNally (2012)Every child matters? An evaluation of "Special Educational Needs" programmes in England, In: ECONOMICS OF EDUCATION REVIEW31(6)pp. 932-948 PERGAMON-ELSEVIER SCIENCE LTD
      Chiara Cavaglia, Sandra McNally, Henry Overman (2020)Devolving skills: The case of the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers, In: Fiscal Studies John Wiley & Sons Ltd

      One rationale for devolution is that local decision makers may be well placed to adapt national policies to the local context. We test whether such adaptation helps meet programme objectives in the case of the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers. Originally a national programme, aimed at incentivising employers to take on apprentices, reforms a few years into operation gave some Local Authorities negotiated flexibilities in how the scheme operated. We consider the impact of the national scheme and then use a difference-in-differences approach to test whether flexibility led to an increase in the number of apprenticeship starts in devolved areas relative to control groups. We find that flexibility had zero effect. There is suggestive evidence that this is because flexibilities were negotiated on the wrong margins.

      A Eyles, S Machin, Sandra McNally (2017)Unexpected school reform: Academisation of primary schools in England, In: Journal of Public Economics155pp. 108-121 Elsevier

      The UK change of government in 2010 provoked a large structural change in the English education landscape. Unexpectedly, the new government offered primary schools the chance to have ‘the freedom and the power to take control of their own destiny’, with better performing schools given a green light to fast track convert to become an academy school. In England, schools that become academies have more freedom over many ways in which they operate, including curriculum design, budgets, staffing issues and the shape of the academic year. However, the change to allow primary school academisation has been controversial. This paper reports estimates of the causal effect of academy enrolment on primary school pupils. While the international literature provides growing evidence on the effect of school autonomy in a variety of contexts, little is known about the effect of autonomy on primary schools (which are typically much smaller than secondary schools) and in contexts where the converting school is not deemed to be failing or disadvantaged. The key findings are that English primary schools did change their mode of operation after the exogenous policy change, utilising more autonomy and changing spending behaviour, but this did not lead to improved pupil performance.

      S Machin, S McNally (2008)The Literacy Hour, In: Journal of Public Economics92pp. 1141-1462 Elsevier Science
      E Maurin, S McNally (2008)Vive la Révolution! Long term educational returns from 1968 to the angry students, In: Journal of Labor Economics26(1)pp. 1-35 University of Chicago Press
      H Holmlund, S McNally, M Viarengo (2010)Does Money Matter for Schools?, In: Economics of Education Review29(6)pp. 1154-1164 Elsevier Science
      M McGuigan, Sandra McNally, G Wyness (2016)Student Awareness of Costs and Benefits of Educational Decisions: Effects of an Information Campaign, In: Journal of Human Capital10(4)pp. 482-519 University of Chicago Press

      Many students appear to leave full-time education too soon, despite the possibility of high returns from further investment in their education. One contributory factor may be insufficient information about the potential consequences of their choices. We investigate students’ receptiveness to an information campaign about the costs and benefits of pursuing postcompulsory education. Our results show that students with higher expected net benefits from accessing information are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunity presented by our experiment. Their intention to stay on in post-16 education is strongly affected by the experiment, though not their intention to apply to university. Effects are heterogeneous by family background and gender.

      S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir (2010)Resources and Standards in Urban Schools, In: Journal of Human Capital4(4)pp. 365-393 University of Chicago Press
      Helen Johnson, Sandra McNally, Heather Rolfe, Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela, Robert Savage, Janet Vousden, Clare Wood (2019)Teaching assistants, computers and classroom management, In: Labour Economics58pp. 21-36 Elsevier

      Many students still leave school without a good grasp of basic literacy, despite the negative implications for future educational and labour market outcomes. We evaluate how resources may be used within classrooms to reinforce the teaching of literacy. Specifically, teaching assistants are trained to deliver a tightly structured package of materials to groups of young children aged 5–6. The training is randomly allocated between and within schools. Within schools, teaching assistants are randomly assigned to receive training in either computer-aided instruction or the paper equivalent. Both interventions have a short-term impact on children's reading scores, although the effect is bigger for the paper intervention and more enduring in the subsequent year. This paper shows how teaching assistants can be used to better effect within schools, and at a low cost.

      C Geay, S McNally, S Telhaj (2013)Non-native Speakers of English in the Classroom: What are the Effects on Pupil Performance?, In: Economic Journal John Wiley and Sons
      S Machin, S McNally (2012)The Evaluation of English Education Policies, In: National Institute Economic Review219(1)pp. R15-R25 Sage Publications
      S Gibbons, S McNally, M Viarengo (2017)Does Additional Spending Help Urban Schools? An Evaluation Using Boundary Discontinuities, In: Journal of the European Economic Association16(5)pp. 1618-1668 Oxford University Press

      This study exploits spatial anomalies in school funding policy in England to provide new evidence on the impact of resources on student achievement in urban areas. Anomalies arise because the funding allocated to Local Education Authorities (LEA) depends, through a funding formula, on the ‘additional educational needs’ of its population and prices in the district. However, the money each school receives from its LEA is not necessarily related to the school’s own specific local conditions and constraints. This implies that neighbouring schools with similar intakes, operating in the same labour market, facing similar prices, but in different LEAs, can receive very different incomes. We find that these funding disparities give rise to sizeable differences in pupil attainment in national tests at the end of primary school, showing that school resources have an important role to play in improving educational attainment, especially for lower socio-economic groups. The design is geographical boundary discontinuity design which compares neighbouring schools, matched on a proxy for additional educational needs of its students (free school meal entitlement – FSM), in adjacent districts. The key identification requirement is one of conditional ignorability of the level of LEA grant, where conditioning is on geographical location of schools and their proportion of FSM children.

      SANDRA MCNALLY, Chiara Cavaglia (2020)Gender, achievement, and subject choice in English education, In: Oxford Review of Economic Policy36(4)pp. 816-835

      In common with other OECD countries, there is a gender gap in educational achievement in England favouring girls. This carries through to tertiary education. On the other hand, boys are far more likely to engage in STEM in post-16 vocational education and at university. The underachievement of boys overall, but over-representation in STEM, presents significant challenges for policy. This paper documents changes in the gender gap over the last 20 years in England and discusses findings in the light of international evidence. It concludes that education policies, in academic and in vocational spheres, can be designed to reduce gender inequalities that exist in both.

      F Cornaglia, E Crivellaro, S McNally (2012)Mental Health and Education Decisions(136)
      S Machin, S McNally (2005)Gender and Educational Attainment in the UK, In: Oxford Review of Economic Policy21(3)pp. 357-372 Oxford University Press
      S Machin, S McNally (2004)Large Benefits, Low Cost, In: CentrePiece
      S McNally (2006)De quelques politiques efficaces en Angleterre, In: G Chapelle, D Meuret (eds.), Améliorer l’école Press Universitaires de France

      Grâce aux contributions des meilleurs spécialistes actuels de la sociologie et des politiques d'éducation, les lecteurs pourront donc découvrir ici les pistes de la recherche pour améliorer l'école, en identifiant les enjeux et défis ...

      S McNally, CL Spash (2001)Managing pollution Edward Elgar Pub

      McNally is with the Environmental Science and Policy Research Group at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Huntingdon, UK. c. Book News Inc.

      C Emmerson, C Frayne, S McNally, P Pelkonen (2004)Economic Evaluation of Excellence in Primary Schools
      P Gregg, S McNally, J Wadsworth (2011)Have Reforms to the School System Improved Educational Outcomes?, In: P Gregg, J Wadsworth (eds.), The Labour Market in Winter:The State of Working Britain Oxford University Press

      This collection of essays, from leading economic experts on the UK labour market, provides an overview of the key issues concerning the performance of the labour market, and the policy issues surrounding it, with a focus on the recent ...

      I Hussain, S McNally, S Telhaj (2009)University Quality and Graduate Wages in the UK(4043) Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics

      We examine the links between various measures of university quality and graduate earnings in the United Kingdom. We explore the implications of using different measures of quality and combining them into an aggregate measure. Our findings suggest a positive return to university quality with an average earnings differential of about 6 percent for a one standard deviation rise in university quality. However, the relationship between university quality and wages is highly non-linear, with a much higher return at the top of the distribution. There is some indication that returns may be increasing over time.

      S Machin, S McNally, O Silva (2006)New Technology in Schools: Is there a Payoff?(55)
      S McNally, A Wolf (2011)Education and Economic Performance Edward Elgar Publishing

      This collection, with an original introduction by the editors, will be of great interest to academics and students interested in growth, productivity, innovation and economic performance.

      S Golden, L Kendall, S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir, M Morris, P Noden, L O'Donnell, K Ridley, S Rutt, I Schagen, S Stoney, A West (2005)Excellence in Cities. The National Evaluation of a policy to raise standards in urban schools 2000-2003
      A Eyles, S Machin, S McNally (2016)Unexpected School Reform: Academisation of Primary Schools in England Centre for Economic Performance (CEP)

      The change of government in 2010 provoked a large structural change in the English education landscape. Unexpectedly, the new government offered primary schools the chance to have ‘the freedom and the power to take control of their own destiny’, with better performing schools given a green light to convert to become an academy school on a fast track. In England, schools that become academies have more freedom over many ways in which they operate, including the curriculum, staff pay, the length of the school day and the shape of the academic year. However, the change to allow primary school academisation has been controversial. In this paper, we study the effect for the first primary schools that became academies. While the international literature provides growing evidence on the effects of school autonomy in a variety of contexts, little is known about the effects of autonomy on primary schools (which are typically much smaller than secondary schools) and in contexts where the school is not deemed to be failing or disadvantaged. The key finding is that schools did change their modes of operation after the exogenous policy change, but at the primary phase of schooling, academisation did not lead to improved pupil performance.

      S McNally, S Telhaj (2006)Value of Inclusion
      S Machin, S McNally (2005)Education and Child Poverty
      S McNally (2010)Election Analysis. Evaluating Education Policies: The Evidence from Economic Research, In: Centre for Economic Performance LSE
      H Holmlund, S McNally (2009)A Swedish Model for UK Schools?, In: CentrePiece14(3)
      S McNally (2005)Reforms to Schooling in the UK: A Review of Some Major Reforms and their Evaluation, In: German Economic Review6(3)pp. 287-296 John Wiley and Sons
      F Keslair, S McNally (2009)Special Educational Needs in England
      S Machin, S McNally, S Rajagopalan (2004)The Enterprise Works Concept Development
      S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir (2005)Economic Evaluation of Excellence in Cities
      S McNally (2008)School Education, In: J Elliot, R Vaitilingam (eds.), Now We Are Fifty: Key Findings from the National Child Development Study Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education
      S McNally (2011)England v Wales: Education Performance and Accountability, In: Better: Evidence-based Educationpp. 22-23 University of York
      I Hussain, S McNally, S Telhaj (2008)Are the Top Universities Worth Paying For?, In: CentrePiece
      H Holmlund, S McNally (2009)Pippi Longstocking’s Promies, In: The House Magazine
      A Chevalier, G Conlon, F Galindo-Rueda, S McNally (2002)The Returns to Higher Education Teaching
      S Machin, S McNally (2004)The Impact of the Literacy Hour, In: Literacy Today40
      S McNally, S Telhaj (2010)The Cost of Social Exclusion
      S McNally (2011)The Effects of Education Policy, In: Britain in 2012 ESRC
      S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir (2007)Resources and Standards in Urban Schools(2653)
      A Braun, A Hind, S McNally, P Noden, A West (2005)Final Report of the Evaluation of the Pupil Learning Credits Pilot Scheme
      S Machin, S McNally (2004)The Literacy Hour(1005)
      S Machin, S McNally, O Silva (2007)New Technology in Schools: Is There a Payoff?, In: Economic Journal117(522)pp. 1145-1167 John Wiley and Sons
      H Holmlund, S McNally, M Viarengo (2008)Does Money Matter for Schools?(3769)
      N Guyon, E Maurin, S McNally (2012)The Effect of Tracking Students by Ability into Different Schools: A Natural Experiment, In: Journal of Human Resources47(3)pp. 684-672 The University of Wisconsin Press
      S Machin, S McNally, C Meghir (2005)Evaluating Excellence in Cities, In: CentrePiece
      C Emmerson, S McNally, C Meghir (2005)Economic Evaluation of Education Initiatives, In: S Machin, A Vignoles (eds.), What’s the Good of Education? The Economics of Education in the UK Princeton University Press