It is time for policy-makers to understand why disadvantage has such negative implications for children’s learning, argues Bernard Barker

Since the invention of Ofsted in 1992, governments have claimed that poverty has no impact on learning and should not be offered as an ‘excuse’ by coasting, failing or otherwise unsatisfactory schools. These governments and their agencies argue that inadequate teaching is responsible for low achievement levels and believe the answer lies in adopting officially recommended effectiveness recipes. Even schools in challenging circumstances are expected to achieve results as good as those in leafy suburbs, provided they improve leadership, adopt best-practice recommendations, and set rigorous performance targets.

Policy-makers have simply reversed the common-sense proposition that children from less prosperous families are disadvantaged in the classroom, and so must inevitably fall behind those from better-off backgrounds. They believe that with equal access to highly effective schooling, every child can succeed, and that those who have fallen behind can catch up. Officials are convinced that with the right culture and attitudes, schools can solve disadvantage. Effective schools are expected to increase social mobility, so that society becomes ever more meritocratic and less dependent on traditional elites.

An emphasis on children’s potential
After two decades of reform, there has been some progress. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), argues that there has been a sustained emphasis on children’s worth and potential, regardless of their class, gender and ethnicity. A big increase in public investment has produced better-built and better-resourced schools, and there was a 54% growth in recruitment into teaching from Russell Group universities between 1998 and 2007. There was an increase of over 90% in the number of English 16-year-olds achieving five or more GCSE higher grades between 1990 and 2008. Higher education has expanded considerably, with students in the poorest areas 30% more likely to go to university than they were five years ago. This seems like improved access and opportunity for most young people.

Although success rates have risen for most income groups, the performance gap between rich and poor young people has widened. At age seven, 93% of children from the most prosperous families can read at the expected level, compared with only 73% of those at the bottom of the income pile. Almost 70% of students from better-off families achieved five GCSE higher grades in 2007, while only 25% of the least well off reached this benchmark. Achievement increases in line with wealth in every subject and at every level. The proportion of children entitled to FSM remains very high at apparently under-performing schools and very low at schools in the upper echelons of the performance tables. Although a fifth of the poorest youngsters now go to university, up from an eighth in 2004, the proportion of students from the richest families entering higher education is almost three times as high, at 57%.

A failure to deliver fairness
Increased participation in post-compulsory education and better examination success rates have not delivered the expected improvement in fairness and social mobility. On the contrary, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found a 41% increase in the UK income gap between 1974 and 2006. The richest fifth of the population has 7.2 times more income than the poorest fifth, a world-leading ratio. The Department for Work and Pensions confirmed in 2001 that the top tenth of the population received a greater share of income than the entire bottom half. Alan Milburn’s Panel on Fair Access to the Professions shows that privately educated individuals from unusually wealthy backgrounds dominate high-status employment destinations. Neo-liberal economic policies have produced very unequal outcomes for different social groups. School reform and the drive to increase educational effectiveness have exerted almost no influence in the opposite direction.

This is unlikely to surprise or dismay education professionals who have devoted their careers to children from disadvantaged areas. Very few teachers expect the manic pursuit of GCSE higher grades to change society. Many have expressed serious concern about the impact of tests and examinations on the quality of education. Primary heads have campaigned against the SATs because they believe test-driven reform has narrowed the curriculum, discouraging creative and imaginative approaches, and encouraging learning by rote. The authoritative Cambridge Primary Review examined the negative consequences of school reform for children, their world and their education and claims that ‘children’s statutory educational entitlement has been needlessly sacrificed in pursuit of political dogma’.

Policy-makers, however, do not accept that their reforming zeal is counter-productive, and has destroyed the traditional virtues of liberal education in the ruthless but futile pursuit of illusory social goals.
They are convinced that but for the obstructive behaviour of local authorities, and the continued weakness of some English schools, education reform would produce brave new classrooms where social background doesn’t count and where everyone can achieve. In this ideal world, every child has the chance to progress to a prestigious university and climb the meritocratic ladder. If everyone has easy access to highly effective schools and teaching, what’s the problem?

Unfortunately, ministers and officials have consistently underestimated the difficulties in creating a level playing field. Schools have consistently rewarded families and children with a prior track record of learning and success, rather than newcomers to the academic game. This is because children are heavily influenced by their parents and vary hugely in their ability to profit from apparently equal opportunities. Even when a heavy iron roller is used to prepare a flattened strip, pre-existing attitudes towards education have a disproportionate impact on outcomes.

As Malcolm Gladwell explains in Outliers, human success depends on a complex interplay of time, place and culture rather than on the high intelligence and ambition of particular individuals. Families and children accumulate many small (and sometimes large) advantages or disadvantages (eg dark/white skin, ill/good health, abuse/love) and as a result are better or worse prepared for opportunities that occur and disasters that strike. Those who deny that there are powerful contextual constraints on achievement reveal a startling ignorance of the structures that shape children’s opportunities, despite their apparently equal access to schools and teachers.

Understanding the impact of disadvantage
After over 20 years of disappointment with school reform, it is time for policy-makers to understand why disadvantage has such negative implications for children’s learning, and to recognise that poverty provides an explanation for underachievement, not an excuse. Despite government and Ofsted denials, the main barriers to effective learning are well known and understood, and contribute to relative underachievement in a variety of ways.

Long-term unemployment, fluctuations in employment, low-earnings and/or reliance on state benefits are all associated with relatively poor living conditions, poor physical/mental health, and premature mortality.

Deprivation is also strongly linked with physical weakness, stress, reduced immunity, risky health behaviours and illness. Poverty is embodied in the relative height, weight and health of individual children in lower social groups. As a result, disadvantaged families and their children have relatively low levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-confidence. These self-perceptions are based on a realistic appraisal of their social status and experience. Early, repeated failure at school, especially in competitive tests, confirms their feeling that the system does not work for people like themselves. They do not think of their lives in terms of careers and ladders to be climbed. They do not expect to succeed.

These phenomena are compounded by the accumulation of various sources of disadvantage over successive generations, reinforced and transmitted through class and culture. One 1972 study found that ‘ordinary working-class boys’ often build a ‘counter-culture of dignity’ based on male solidarity. As a result, some student groups define themselves in opposition to teachers and classroom learning. Peer pressure can discourage young men from engagement with school.

Culture and attitudes vary by social group, ethnicity and gender and are self-reinforcing. Middle-class parents, for example, are reported to be closely involved in children’s lives and activities, while working-class families often leave youngsters to their own devices. Middle-class parents expect to talk things through with their sons and daughters, while working-class parents seem less inclined to debate or explain. This is consistent with class differences in vocabulary and communication identified by Basil Bernstein. Middle-class parents tend to use an elaborated language code consistent with school expectations, while the working class use a restricted code that leaves them at a disadvantage. More recently, children from deprived backgrounds have been found to possess an average 500 words on school entry, compared with the 6,000 used by those from more prosperous homes.

School effectiveness studies confirm the power of these background characteristics. Recent studies are consistent in finding that up to 90% of the performance difference between schools can be explained in terms of the students’ social origins. No reader of official publications, with their emphasis on school improvement and effectiveness, could begin to guess that school characteristics contribute so little to the test and examination grades achieved. Policy-makers have discounted and dismissed the immense elephant of poverty, and instead have devoted their energy to changes that are unlikely to have more than a marginal impact on children’s life chances. As Guardian journalist Nick Davies once wrote, education reform has the ‘intellectual weight of a joke in a Christmas cracker’.

Disregarding ideological assumptions
There is so much that can be done, however, if we are sufficiently determined to reduce deprivation’s damaging educational consequences, and have the courage to discard the ideological assumptions that underpin reform.

In his book Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing, Warwick Mansell documents the extraordinary extent to which the performance regime has become a parody of itself. In the book he describes classrooms dominated by tests and test preparation, and explains how the subject-dominated GCSE curriculum has been restructured to facilitate robotic, mark-scheme centred teaching intended to improve results at all costs. Tests and examinations are a deeply unsatisfactory measure of education but they have taken over. We can’t go on like this.

The four principles outlined in the box (below) should inform a revised approach to school improvement, so that all students enjoy high-quality learning experiences that reduce rather than increase the impact of deprivation and disadvantage.

Four principles for school improvement

  • Schools, communities and families should contribute to one another’s growth. There should be more emphasis on mutual support and encouragement, and less weight should be placed on individuals competing to get ahead. Professional staff should be accountable to local communities, not government agencies.
  • Cease to expect quantitative measures of achievement to show results that are significantly different from what might be predicted on the basis of socioeconomic indicators. Schools should be driven by learning rather than by assessment.
  • Education should be based on the broadest possible range of participative and interactive experiences. Teamwork and collaboration should be emphasised, while success should be measured qualitatively, so that everyone’s contribution can be recognised and celebrated in its full richness.
  • Children’s worth, growth and personal development should be valued at least as highly as workplace skills, and school practices (eg curriculum, streaming) should avoid harmful differentiation between student groups.

Unless education policy is adjusted to accommodate these principles, we shall continue to fail disadvantaged families and children by exposing them to a relentless, devil-take-the-hindmost regime.

Bernard Barker is emeritus professor of educational leadership and management at the School of Education, University of Leicester. His new book, The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform (Trentham 2010), continues this discussion with an attack on the five school effectiveness principles that underpin school reform policy.