Educational inequality — Pondering the problems of attainment

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Education is invariably a sensitive issue. It brings to the fore ideological positions: beliefs about personal agency and meritocracy, preferences relating to social equality, and philosophical considerations about what knowledge is and what education should try to do. It is the main way in which governments seek to intervene in society to bring about improvements in future economic output, social mobility and global competitiveness. Compared internationally, our education system is pretty darn good. We have high rates of literacy and numeracy, and pretty much everyone goes to school from 5 to 16, with many staying on to 18 and then going on into higher or further education.

But it is also true that education is one of the main ways in which advantage (and disadvantage) is reproduced down the generations, partly because the ‘quality’ of education received is strongly related to parental affluence. To make a pretty bad joke: “Those Who Can… Pay”. This leads to a vicious cycle where children with wealthy parents tend to go to better schools, get higher qualifications and earn more money, thus passing this benefit onto their own children in time. It is generally thought that this effect is a key driver of social and economic inequality. So a child’s attainment is strongly related to parental education and affluence, in stark contrast to the ideals of meritocracy.

But there are many other reasons to believe that educational attainment is a poor method for judging ability (and potential). Even before children reach school, there is a gulf between those from poorer backgrounds and those from wealthy backgrounds. For example, at the age of only 3 years, the vocabulary of children from poorer families is markedly worse than that of children from wealthy families (Becker 2009), and the gap is very difficult to bridge by pre-school intervention. This is due to the transfer from parents to child of what sociologists call cultural capital. Children learn a great deal from their parents and much of it is not explicitly taught, but rather acquired passively. This should not surprise us, as children spend a great deal of time at home and don’t stop learning when they leave school at the end of the day. If particular types of cognitive stimulation are missing from the home environment, it is logical that they will be at a disadvantage.

Inequalities related to socioeconomic background are what our government has consistently tried to tackle using the education system, in order to increase social mobility. Progress has been pretty poor (Blanden and Machin 2009) and it is not hard to see why: disadvantaged children who are most in need of the advantages bestowed by the best education money can buy come from the families least able to afford it. Even worse, if expensive schooling could be made available to disadvantaged children, they would still be unlikely to do as well as advantaged children because of differences in cultural capital due to parental and home environment. It is hard to think of a sensible solution that might work.

illustration of puberty in boysIf you are not yet convinced that meritocracy is a pipe dream, I’ll try to hammer the point home with some more compelling examples. Even within a classroom, systematic inequalities are played out in the most absurd manner. Wherever arbitrary cut-off points exist, one has the possibility of researching their causal effect; in education, these are numerous. Two examples will serve to make the point: month of birth effects, and grade boundary effects. Recently, month of birth effects in primary school have been dramatically exposed by Tammy Campbell, a fellow PhD candidate at IOE. She found that ability grouping (such as in-class ability groups, streaming and setting) commonly occur in primary school. Generally, one would think this is a good idea, enabling children to be taught at an appropriate pace. On average, however, children within a year group who are younger are much more likely to be placed in low ability groups than older children, despite having the same ability on age standardised tests. Of course, these children are not less intelligent, able, or of lesser potential than older children; they are simply unlucky, having been born late in the school year. This wouldn’t be a problem, save for the fact that being placed in low ability groups is known to result in a permanent deficit throughout the educational career — those children who are put in low sets tend to stay in low sets, and end up with lower attainment overall than children in higher sets. Another example where month of birth effects are documented is in school sport (Wilson 1999). Children of up to a year’s difference in age are competing against one another at a time when puberty tends to amplify any difference (I have written in reference to this here).

Grade boundary effects work in a similar way. It is hypothetically possible for an A-level student to be marked 1% under an A grade in all three A-levels they take, gaining three B grades, when essentially their performance has been practically identical to that of a student that has scraped three A grades at A-level. Economists are very fond of estimating the effect on earnings that differences in educational qualifications result in (for example see Blundell, Dearden & Sianesi 2004). It is easy to believe that a difference in grades is likely to affect university entrance, and thus future employment opportunities. Taking all of these research findings into account, one has to come to the conclusion that meritocratic views of educational attainment in the UK are fundamentally flawed.

photo of Michael GoveAnother oft-ignored issue is that, despite what Michael Gove thinks, the vast majority of subject content learnt in school is of little direct use in the workplace. How many of us utilise the curricular content of geography, history, French, religious education, biology, physics, chemistry, etc. in the workplace? Generally, the subject matter is only of any use if you end up specialising in that subject. Even higher maths skills (such as calculus) are rarely used by the vast majority of people. The only thorough study I am aware of on skill use in the workplace is a US-based study by Michael Handel of Northeastern University for the OECD. In it, he finds that only 22% of US workers use maths skills more advanced than fractions, and only 5% use anything as advanced as calculus. Likewise, in terms of writing, most US workers only regularly write documents around a page long as part of their work (61%), with only 24% writing documents five or more pages long. I suspect the picture would be quite similar in the UK.

So what am I getting at with all this? Firstly, our educational system is not really demonstrating ability or potential. Secondly, much of what is taught is subsequently of little use unless the economy is in need of that subject knowledge. So what is the point of an education? Many studies resort to focusing on ‘soft skills’ — the things that aren’t taught explicitly but tend to result from solid cognitive and emotional development — like communication, team-working and problem solving skills. Is it not strange then that we don’t assess our children in these things too? We assess subject knowledge because it is much simpler to assess and gives us a way to compare children, teachers and schools. I have written before about the uselessness of school league tables, but my focus here is the effect on education when there is such desperation to get the highest grades possible. Essentially, the system is gamed and perverse incentives are introduced — teachers are under intense pressure to get the highest marks possible for their school, children are encouraged to take qualifications that are beneficial to the school, teachers teach to the test, the jam-packed curriculum is overly prescriptive, teachers focus on children at the boundary of five A*-C grades — and eventually, teachers become demoralised and children disengage.

Perhaps it’s time we accepted that educational opportunities are distributed unfairly in the home and in school, that tests are imprecise, that content is not of vital importance, and that the education system cannot solve all of societies ills? Can we not come up with some better ideas? I believe that there are core skills that should be taught to children, things like:

  • Learning how to learn for oneself, find support and support others
  • Critical thinking skills — learning how to question arguments
  • Learning how to deal with emotions and not to fear failure
  • Developing self-determination — taking responsibility for one’s life, actions and choices

…and of course, reading, writing and basic maths skills, which are essential. Currently, I don’t think our education system teaches the things bulleted above well, if at all. From my own perspective, I have received practically the best education available in this country, yet I did not learn any of the things in this list at school or at university. I learnt how to navigate the education system, to get good grades, without really learning anything of depth and value to my life. Perhaps I was too young to know what I wanted and learning these things just takes time and life experience? But if that is the case, we should stop pretending that children know what they want to do with their lives at 16 and can choose the appropriate A-levels to make it happen (assuming they exist).

photo of Sir Ken RobinsonThese core skills should be incorporated into an approach that is more honest about the limitations of the education system. I think we would have a more intelligent, involved, motivated and passionate population if education was designed almost entirely to inspire and motivate children rather than drill and assess them. Too often, school is a dull and laborious struggle. Children fail to see the benefit of what they learn and are simply trying to get through it so that they can get good grades or just get it over with. Their passions are hammered out of them (and their teachers) by a system which defines achievement in a very limited way. If you have not already seen the TED presentations on education by Sir Ken Robinson, then I thoroughly recommend you do: ‘Schools Kill Creativity’ and ‘Bring on the Revolution’.

How might this kind of approach work? It could be flexible enough to allow children to learn different topics at different times; to sign up to courses allowing some choice to what they want to learn when they want to learn it, at a level that is accessible to them but gently pushes them; that allows them to assess their own progress and encourages students to support each other. Teachers could be freed from the strain of a prescriptive curriculum and class control; they could be encouraged to develop lessons that inspired and evolved with the interests and learning of students who have chosen to sample or pursue that topic. Children of various ages could choose from a plethora of courses that could be taught to mixed age classes. Vocational, artistic, scientific, physical, humanity and traditionally academic subjects could be valued equally, with all being optional on top of a solid core of fundamental skills. I find it particularly unnerving that we never consider teaching our children in the same way as we teach adults. Admittedly, when very young, this probably would not work, but when children reach a level of maturity and are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves, they often do. We do not teach adults in age groups. They choose what they want to learn at a level they think is suitable. They are responsible for attending class and responsible for the effort they put in. They choose from a plethora of possible topics. They choose to learn for fun, for qualification, for future employment opportunities, etc. Learning doesn’t stop at school, or even university (see Jenkins 2013).

photo of Salman KhanAn interesting development has come about with the age of the internet. Learning is increasingly freely available online if you have the self-discipline to manage your own application. For example, some US schools are using the services of Khan Academy to provide exercises, monitor progress, test, and help children revise for their classes, with teachers freed-up to provide support to individual students and elaborate on topics of interest or problem areas. Salman Khan has described at the TED conference how maths education has been turned on its head in these pilot schools as a result of using this tool. There are of course criticisms to this approach, but as with any tool, it should be used appropriately. I think there is great promise for the future of internet learning. It provides a way in which to make high quality education available to anyone with an internet connection, and I don’t think that can be a bad thing.

Children should be empowered to do what they want with their lives; make mistakes, try different things out, move at their own pace and not get left behind and forgotten, find their passions, learn how to engage with the reality of their situations. We have to stop getting sucked into the belief that we know how to prepare for the future or can stimulate the economy with legions of young people who can recite Keats and solve simultaneous equations. Sometimes the best ideas and life decisions depend on creativity and freedom to experiment (as with Mario Capecchi’s knockout mouse). We need to make our world a safe place in which this can happen.

[ADDENDUM: Peter Wilby wrote this in the Guardian just before I finished writing this post. It sums up very well many of my thoughts on how education should be focused in schools. Funny then, that this seems to be what teachers already want of their profession. I suppose politics has a knack of getting in the way]

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