The problem of low educational attainment among white working class students

What can we do about it?

We need a strategic plan for tackling disadvantage. Photograph: Getty Images

 

“Halfway There” - an encouraging title for the iconic report on comprehensive schools written forty years ago by Caroline Benn and Brian Simon, is now quite a cross party theme. Stephen Twigg borrowed the phrase last autumn, adding that Labour’s One Nation Education system (details tbc) will demand renewed vision and a challenge to orthodoxies. For the coalition, David Laws recently described the education service as “around M on a journey from A to Z” which is halfway by any other name. If the politicians are right, then schools have been stuck since 1970 or their destination, like the boundary of the universe, is accelerating away from us. The halfway theme suggests a consensus about where we started, where we are and, critically, where we are going. Instead, we are all over the place on both service design and the content of the curriculum.

Where we decide the journey started is least important. The past provides food for thought but epochs and key dates are the stuff of exam questions. For all the difference it makes, we can choose from any of the new dawns between 1870 (first School Boards) and 1988 (Margaret Thatcher’s Education Reform Act). Knowing where we have been is no guarantee of agreement about where we are now still less where we should be heading.

We ought to be heading deeper into the 21st Century. Today’s pupils, many of whom will live beyond this century, are what Bill Gates, e-compass set dead ahead, calls “digital natives caught up in an industrial-age learning model”.  Michael Gove, apparently selecting reverse gear, quotes Hirsch and Gramsci to argue that political progressivism demands educational conservatism. If we add equity to modernity and characterise our ideal destination as a contemporary education with fair outcomes, then at the moment we are not so much travelling as in a hole, digging.  

We are confused about the knowledge, skills and emotional intelligence we want young people to develop – and whether we can assess the outcomes without corrupting the learning. We are squabbling over the design of services for children which risk becoming less coherently systemic and more incoherently commercial by the day.  We are bogged down in our failure to deal with the paradox of education as both an individual and a public commodity. That is more than just a civic failure to reduce stratification and to promote equity, it is brazen political collusion with segmentation and inequity. An enduring feature of this paradox and consequent failures has been the poor attainment, on average, of pupils from low income “white British” families. Always an ethical problem, the social harm of poor attainment became starkly evident once the demand for unskilled, manual and predominantly male workers began to evaporate and young women started to anticipate economic independence with a career in their own right.

The figures are stubbornly consistent even though there are challenges to the categories used. In England, year after year, the group with the lowest average educational attainment is white British students from low income families.  Whether this is the worst of our endemic educational inequities is arguable. Boys, for example, perform less well than girls at GCSE though the limited subject choices made by girls might be evidence of another sort of inequity.  Overall, “black Caribbean” students do less well than students from any other background. The one in seven students eligible for free school meals (FSM) do less well on average than those who are not. We should be mindful that these disappointing trends and averages also obscure triumphs and outstanding performances in every group.  Nevertheless, the differences between groups are significant and any inequity which undermines the right of a child to fulfil his or her talent is intolerable.

Last year, less than a third of white British students eligible for FSM reached the national GCSE target of 5A*-C passes including English and Maths (for boys the proportion was barely a quarter, for girls just above a third). More than double that proportion (63 per cent) of white British students not eligible for FSM reached the national target. No other ethnic group has anything like such a large gap between its FSM and non-FSM students. FSM students do better on average in schools where they are a low proportion of students (often as a result of more or less overt selection) or a high proportion (schools appearing to match their work to a largely disadvantaged student body).  Of the twenty local authorities with the highest FSM attainment, all except Birmingham are London Boroughs.  Nationally, only one in twenty students in grammar schools are eligible for FSM and the gains for those few are usually offset by the lower attainment of the remainder.  Research using socio-economic categories other than FSM confirms these trends but there is a glimmer of good news: the average performance of fsm students has improved over the past decade.  If the 2007 FSM pass rate had still applied last year, 12,000 fewer FSM students would have reached the national target. Unfortunately, because the non-FSM group’s performance had also improved over that period, the gap between the two groups eased only two percentage points (from 28 per cent to 26 per cent).  

Blame for low attainment tends to shift with prevailing fashion from schools to families and back again. So schools are good and families dysfunctional or schools create inequity and families are undermined. The current fashion is for a more technical solution. Government mandates or market forces, according to political preference, are used to orchestrate every school into mimicking the highest attaining. Unfortunately, governments have an apparently wilful inability to distinguish institutional high attainment (which is often supported by selection of one kind or another) from high leverage (where great leadership and teaching contribute to extraordinary results).  Following that confusion to its absurd conclusion would have every school aiming to become a girls’ school, preferably relocated to London and sifting its admission on the basis of its voluntary aided or academy status. To reduce the gradient of attainment across groups to its minimum, we should be interested in three particularly English features of the inextricably complicated mix of individual and social causes: ambition, parental support and school quality.  

Ambition finally rescues most of us from our adolescence. If young people from white British low income families have an ambition deficit it does not arrive until late in their school careers. Up until then, research confirms, they and their parents tend to have ambitions to all intents like those of higher earning families. That ambition evaporates because of a faultline between its two elements, aspiration (what young people hope for) and expectation (what they think will really happen).  Uniquely, the expectations of low income white British students haemorrhage along with their academic performance as they move through secondary education. On average, this is both an absolute and a comparative collapse. A reality appears to dawn on many of these students which is not widely shared by other socio-economic or ethnic groups. It is rooted in the oral history of static or declining status across living generations and, perhaps more importantly, in the disheartening narrative of young people just a few years older. These are the once admired boys and girls from a few years ahead whose school leaving has provided mean prospects and little self-respect.  

Unless a parent or two can hold it steady, the forever rickety educational ladder to social mobility, will slide from under these students. Commentators refer sloppily to “parental involvement” with an encouraging glow but little substance about what they mean or what bits of it are most useful. It is, in part, about warm relationships and encouragement overcoming the debilitating corrosion of poverty. Whether an infant plays with the latest John Lewis gizmo or a bag of clothes pegs seems less important than whether a caring adult talks with them about it.  Later, it has something to do with understanding how to support learning, what schools expect, how to negotiate secondary transfer, what GCSE or A Levels to choose, which 16+ and 18+ opportunities to go for, how to write an application and, crucially, how to get back on track after setbacks and disappointments. These are not the natural strengths of low income families. Schools which successfully help them to navigate through can often confirm the research findings that high dropout rates emerge if the wrap around unravels at 11, 16 or even 18.

Because good school provision has a greater positive effect for low income students, the persistent association between areas of deprivation and schools in an Ofsted category of concern is breathtaking. When choice is available, children from low income families are less likely to attend good schools than other children even from the same area. Schools serving areas of high deprivation have difficulties recruiting governors, headteachers and teachers. . They are more likely to have staff shortages and their students more likely to find themselves in classes with less experienced and lower qualified teachers. No commercial organisation would tolerate being so incapable of deploying its best personnel where they are most needed.

There is no silver bullet to solve these problems.  A strong economy and the prospect of well-paid work would help enormously and schools in isolation can have only a limited effect. Nevertheless, the difference some schools make in individual lives is critical. The small number of schools which buck the trend do the basics of teaching and care with energy, enthusiasm, implacable determination and a high degree of specificity. To spread that approach, the coalition has put its trust in market forces and the Pupil Premium (£900 per child next year) paid to schools for “disadvantaged” pupils. There are already concerns about how the Premium is spent and the market will surely do what markets do, favour wealth and power. In contrast, the remarkable turnaround in London schools, by far the most improved in the country, was instigated and sustained by state intervention, the London Challenge, albeit and importantly focussed on the creation of local capacity and accountability.

A national response to low attainment needs to engineer challenging collegiality rather than dysfunctional competition into the system. It will need to lever excellent school staff into the most deprived areas and encourage them to explore and use evidence of what works. There must also be spaces for disciplined experiment. There are twenty-four Enterprise Zones around the country supporting business development with financial incentives, sector specialisms, simplified planning procedures and a “business-ready infrastructure”. Is it less important to do something similar for children? In its recent report, Developing Children’s Zones for England, the charity Save the Children argues that there is a foundation for localism in England, much to learn from previous area based initiatives and something to explore in otherwise inimitable children’s zones abroad. The report concludes with conviction that a distinctly English version of children’s zones could connect the considerable resources and expertise already invested in work with children and families through schools, public services and the third sector by capitalising on the changing relationships between the sectors. Where are the half dozen localities in which a broad range of partners are prepared to collaborate by autonomous consent under a single governance structure, analyse how disadvantage “works” in their areas, formulate a strategic plan for tackling disadvantage across the neighbourhood for a good few years, leverage in additional funding and resources, do all of that under the scrutiny of a robust local strategy for evaluation and offer a platform from which the country can learn what has worked and what has not?

Denis Mongon is Visiting Professorial Fellow at London University’s Institute of Education and Senior Associate at the Innovation Unit. He is co-author of “School Leadership for Public Value and of High-Leverage Leadership: improving outcomes in educational settings”.