A new review has found that schools are unlikely to be able to close the achievement gap between pupils from rich and poor backgrounds. Social Inequality: Can Schools Narrow the Gap? from the University of Manchester, published by the British Educational Research Association, says that schools alone are not going to be able to bridge this divide.
The review says that schools can make a big difference to some individual pupils and that individual schools in disadvantaged areas can have high results. However, overall, it suggests that schools have struggled to break the link between a poor background and low academic achievement.
Professor Mel West, co-editor of the review, said that if pupils were from families struggling with unemployment, bad housing and poor health, the ability of schools to close the gap with more affluent children was going to be limited. Without “parallel strategies in health, housing and employment,” the best efforts of schools were going to be insufficient to counter the other problems facing pupils and families at home. Schools cannot provide a “panacea” for politicians trying to address broader social ills.
He also commented that schools have faced an “unprecedented level” of new policies from a succession of ministers, often not long enough in office to see through their different priorities. (An issue raised in a previous Blog post.)
â€¢ be realistic about what schools can achieve;
â€¢ step back from the micro-management of policy implementation, and allow schools to manage interventions that allow them to meet the needs of students, families and communities;
â€¢ equip school staff with the authority, resources and training necessary to do this;
â€¢ develop robust measures of the impacts of interventions which go beyond a preoccupation with examination results and can capture wider outcomes for example, around well-being, self-esteem, and other hard-to-measure aspects of inequality;
â€¢ stop 'overloading' schools with multiple interventions. Rather, they must ensure that their policies are coherent and can 'join up' in practice to achieve greater impact on inequality."
Previous Blog posts have pointed out that while expected to meet (often moving) targets, schools have to contend with the fall-out from issues beyond their control but which have an enormous impact on their patients/pupils poverty, unemployment, housing, diet, luck, inherited characteristics, social aspirations and attitudes, social class and parenting.
We are all the products of our upbringing good or bad and that influences how we, in turn, behave. It is a rather cynical, but a sadly often accurate, observation of Philip Larkin's that "Man hands on misery to man".
One recent study found that parents' social class has a great impact on how well their children between the ages of five and seven perform at school, with parents in professional and managerial jobs at least eight months ahead of pupils from the most socially disadvantaged homes. Frank Field's The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults found "huge class differences in the range of children's abilities measurable on their first day at school. For many poor children life's race is by then already effectively over" and that "parents are the key drivers in determining their children's life chances" although "it is not so much who parents are what their jobs are but what parent do how they nurture their children which, the evidence shows, determines a child's life's race".
Whatever the differences between the reports, they both emphasise the crucial importance of the early years and a good start in life.
Governments can come and go with their academies, free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools and English Baccalaureates but, as Voice Chairman Emeritus Geraldine Everett once put it: "If we can get it right from the beginning of a child's life, through good parenting, universal adequate funding in the early years, appropriate high quality learning and care opportunities, and joined-up services, we could avoid so many children failing or being at risk of failing later".
Why should a single child be denied the chance of achieving his or her potential? Do we have the political will and the resources to create a totally level playing field not equality but equity?
There is no easy answer, and no one answer, to how we square the circle of poor parenting, social deprivation and inequality and poor educational achievement and damaged life chances. The debates about nature or nurture, social class and parenting have been around for centuries but addressing them deserves greater thought and insight than are currently being provided by politicians tinkering around the edges of wider and deeper issues.