Lessons to learn about educational inequality
The start of the school year has seen the government pledge, once again, to narrow the education divide between rich and poor pupils. It certainly has its work cut out – last year children from poorer homes scored about half as well as their wealthier peers at GCSE. As a result they find it much harder to go on to further education, get into a good university and get a decent job. What’s more, the recession could be making this worse. Last year the link between poverty and academic achievement got stronger for the first time in almost a decade.
This problem isn’t just a matter of giving our children a fair start in life, it also affects our ability to compete with other countries. In the world’s leading school systems a child’s academic success is less likely to be a result of their background, and more likely to be the result of their own ability and effort. In countries such as Finland, Korea and Canada one in ten pupils fail to reach basic proficiency in reading. In England that figure is twice as high.
Tackling this problem will require changes to our education system. Children from deprived neighbourhoods don’t have access to the high quality schools, extra tuition and support at home that wealthier children get. In an attempt to sort this problem out, the education secretary Michael Gove has announced a raft of reforms including tougher inspections and a new exam system. His flagship policy is the creation of more free schools and more academies, which are free from local authority control and are intended to raise school quality in deprived areas.
If this is really the key to improving standards for all pupils then he’ll have to do much more to encourage take up in the north. Only 11 of the 55 free schools opening this year are in the north, and only 3 of these are in Yorkshire. Similarly the academy chains that he so admires, such as Harris and Ark, are firmly rooted in London.
But new research by IPPR shows that these policies don’t actually hold the key to reducing educational inequality. For even if Gove’s policies were able to turn every school into an outstanding one - and this will be very difficult to achieve of course - this would not be enough to close the attainment gap between rich and poor children. Our calculations show that if every pupil went to an outstanding school, the attainment gap would only be cut by a fifth. This is because even in outstanding schools the wealthiest pupils still tend to get the best results and the poorer pupils the lower results. It’s what happens within the school that really counts.
So if the government is serious about narrowing educational inequality, it will have to actively target pupils who are falling behind, whichever sort of school they are in – the outstanding ones as well as the underperforming ones. This is the approach taken in world class systems such as Finland, where nearly half of pupils receive some form of catch-up tuition over the course of their school career. The pupil premium could be used to do this – as schools in England are given extra money for pupils entitled to free school meals. However there is already evidence that this money is not being used effectively. A recent survey by the Sutton Trust found that a quarter of teachers did not know what the money should be spent on at all, and a further 8 per cent said they would just use the money to compensate for cuts elsewhere in their budget. The government needs to be much clearer about how the pupil premium can be used in a way that systematically addresses low achievement. This could be a job for the new Lib Dem education minister, David Laws, who will be keen make a mark in his new role.
But the answer can’t just lie with our schools. IPPR’s research shows that around half of the achievement gap which manifests itself at 16 was already present when those pupils started secondary school – and a big divide exists even before primary school. We must therefore invest in early years services like Sure Start – which help children to develop and start school on a more equal footing. Evidence from Boston in the US shows that high quality preschool programmes, with well trained staff, can help to achieve this outcome.
So the government’s focus on improving schools is a good start, but it won’t be sufficient to close the educational gap between rich and poor children. Sustained investment in our early years system, coupled with catch-up tuition in our schools, will also be required to ensure that all children get a fair start in life.