It’s not the school you go to that determines how well you do – it’s the class system, stupid
What determines above all how well you do educationally? For most, that’s a fairly straightforward answer: it’s down to how good your school is. But the evidence doesn’t back it up. The massive educational divisions in our society can be explained – above all else – by rampant broader social and economic inequalities. It’s the class system, stupid.
A few months ago, educational campaigner Fiona Millar and I went to City of London School to argue for the abolition of private education. This elite school, which charges £13,000 in annual fees (or nearly-two-thirds the median pay packet), is not exactly home turf, you would think, but my argument was simple: your parents are wasting their money. Last year, an OECD report revealed that privately educated students in Britain did better overall (as you would expect), but those with the same backgrounds at state schools did better than them. Once you took into account the socio-economic background of pupils, state schools in the UK outperformed private schools by a considerable margin.
Another separate study , focusing on middle-class pupils at inner-city schools, backed up the findings. Most ‘performed brilliantly’ and, of those who went to university, 15% ended up at Oxbridge.
Or take a study in Scotland , which showed that, by the age of five, children with better-off, degree-educated parents had – on average – a vocabulary 18 months ahead of poorer classmates. How could any school effectively tackle such a huge gap at this early age?
My own experience backs this up. My primary school was in the bottom 5% of results nationally not long after I left: I was the only boy that I’m aware of who ended up doing A-levels, let alone going to university. That wasn’t because I was naturally brighter, but because I had odds stacked in my favour compared to the friends I grew up with.
Studies on grammar schools similarly show just how overriding a factor class is. It is argued by the Tory Right, among others, that the abolition of grammar schools crippled social mobility in Britain. But looking at results of the 164 remaining grammar schools suggests this is not true. The Financial Times did a study comparing GCSE performance in three regions: Kent (which still operates the grammar system), London and England. Kent was on the national average in terms of performance, but had the least equitable distribution of results. A child on free school meals in Kent had a 55% chance of getting results that put them in the bottom fifth; just 4% achieved results in the top fifth nationally. Kent was significantly less socially mobile than London.
An earlier report in the heyday of grammar schools showed that they failed the minority of working-class children who were not rejected at the age of 11. The 1954 Government study showed that, of 16,000 grammar school pupils from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds, around 9,000 failed to get three passes at O-Levels. Of these children, around 5,000 left school by the end of fifth year; just one in twenty got two A-Levels.
As well as stripping schools of local accountability, that’s why academies miss the point. It is argued by the Government that Academies have secured above average increases in standards. But according to research : ‘Overall, these changes in GCSE performance in Academies relative to matched schools are statistically indistinguishable from one another.’ A report by the National Audit Office in 2010 revealed that the intake of Academies had changed: they now had fewer pupils who were on free school meals:
‘The proportion of such pupils attending Academies between 2002-03 and 2009-10 has fallen from 45.3 to 27.8 per cent… it is substantial improvements by the less disadvantaged pupils that are driving Academies’ improved performance overall.’
So how do we tackle educational inequalities? Above all, it means tackling broader inequalities: the stresses that poverty puts on some people’s lives; investing in good housing, with enough space to study; a good diet (through free school breakfasts and dinners, for example); and so on. It means addressing the early educational gap by investing in SureStart and nursery education. It also means promoting social mixing in schools: OECD research suggests that a better mix improves the results of the least well-off students without dragging down overall performance. That would mean getting rid of the remaining grammar schools, ensuring mixing in comprehensive schools (for example, through a lottery system for high school access), and abolishing private schools (starting by scrapping their charitable status, which is worth £100m of taxpayers’ money).
Finland consistently tops PISA’s international rankings for best-performing education systems: it has no selection, free school meals, and very few private schools. But it also has a far more equal and less fragmented society. If we’re going to improve educational results in this country, it means less of an obsessive focus on the schools – and more attention to the grotesque broader inequalities of modern British society.Tagged in: class, education, schools, social mobility, teaching, university
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter