Education and inequality – a tale of two classrooms

The last quarter of a century has seen a slight closing of the gap in educational achievement between richer and poorer children. But that gap remains stubbornly large and is a major driver of high levels of poverty in the UK. So what is behind educational inequality and how do we get rid of it? Helen Barnard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggests some priorities for policy makers.

Photo credit: St Boniface Catholic College Plymouth

In 2012, 35 per cent of children on free school meals gained five A*–C grades at GCSE (including Maths and English), compared with 62 per cent of other children. There is little sign of the radical improvements in the attainment of children from poorer backgrounds that are needed to make a real dent in poverty.

Differences in attainment between children from different socio-economic backgrounds are far greater than those related to gender or ethnicity. That is not to say we should forget about the specific issues facing pupils from some ethnic minority groups, nor that we should ignore the different experiences of girls and boys. But the biggest inequalities are based on income and social background, and this is a major driver of the stubbornly high levels of poverty in the UK.

There are several reasons to worry about the low educational attainment of many children who grow up in poverty, including impacts on health and social participation. Perhaps the most important is the effect on those children’s opportunities in the job market – adults with low qualifications are much more likely to be unemployed or in low paid jobs.

In 2010, according to the Labour Force Survey, a quarter of those aged 25–29 with low or no qualifications lacked but wanted work. Where they are working, nearly 60 percent of those with poor or no qualifications earn less than £7 per hour. All this directly affects their chances of living in poverty in later life, and their children’s chances of growing up in poverty.

Another striking and worrying statistic is that two thirds of children in poverty now live in working households; low pay is now a more important factor in poverty than working hours. While we need better routes for adults to improve their qualifications, getting it right first time for children growing up in poverty is vital.

What drives educational inequality?

Educational disadvantage starts very early. Using free school meals as a marker, by age 5, 48 per cent of children eligible for free school meals achieve “a good level of development” (government school readiness measure) compared with 67 per cent of other children. By age 11, 60 per cent of children on free school meals achieve expected attainment levels compared with 79 per cent of other children.

Breaking these patterns is so difficult, because children living in poverty are often disadvantaged in many aspects of their lives.

Children from better off families tend to go to better schools because their parents can afford to live closer to these schools. A survey commissioned by the Sutton Trust suggests that 31% of children from better off families receive private tuition compared with 15% from poorer families.

A Policy Exchange report from 2013 showed that children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to attend good quality childcare or early education, as there is far less good quality childcare available in poorer areas than richer ones.

Children and parents who live in poor quality or overcrowded housing have worse physical and mental health. They are more likely to move house frequently, which has a negative impact on children’s attainment. Educational resources such as a computer and a room of one’s own are expensive.

Poverty also affects families through stress and a higher risk of depression, making it much more difficult for parents to support their children’s education.

Research suggests that there is not a general ‘culture of low aspirations’ among low-income families, but there is evidence that children and parents from poorer backgrounds develop lower expectations, as children grow older.

They may still aspire to higher education and professional jobs, but their faith in their ability to achieve those ambitions is eroded. This can be the result of:

  • lower achievement at school
  • restricted social networks
  • a labour market with high numbers of low skilled jobs and limited opportunities to progress to better work
  • parents with low qualifications and limited knowledge, confidence and skills may be less likely or able to read with/help their children with homework

Improving prospects

Educational disadvantage has multiple drivers and needs to be tackled on many fronts. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation believes there is clear evidence to suggest that improving the incomes of families in poverty can have a significant effect on children’s cognitive development and school achievement.

At the same time, increasing access to good quality childcare and early education should be a central part of any strategy to improve the education of children from low-income backgrounds. Alongside this, we should equip more parents to support children’s development at home through playing, reading and talking to them. Improving the quality of jobs and the ability of low-income families to access them would undoubtedly reduce poverty in both the short and long term.

The role of schools

Schools can have a significant effect on raising the attainment of low-income children, even if these wider improvements are not yet in place.

In 2013, 17 per cent of schools achieved a level of attainment for their free school meal pupils which was above the national average for all pupils. The gap in attainment between free school meal pupils and other pupils varies greatly between areas and schools, with some schools closing it all together. The challenge is to achieve these kinds of results across the whole country, with every school taking the most effective action to close its own attainment gap.

Since the 1980s, increasing both parental choice and school autonomy have been advocated by politicians from all sides as a means to improve children’s education. However our review found little robust evidence that either of the above is effective in closing the attainment gap.

Experience and evidence does not lead us to believe that increasing the number of academies, faith schools or free schools will have much effect.

Focus on teaching

A more promising avenue may be to focus on teachers. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are disproportionately affected by the quality of teaching they receive.

A report for the Sutton Trust found that, for pupils from poorer backgrounds, a very effective teacher enables them to make 1.5 years’ progress in one year; with a poorly performing teacher they make only half a year’s progress over the same time.

By contrast, ‘average’ students make a year’s progress with poor teaching and 1.4 years’ progress with highly effective teaching. We need to ensure that highly effective teachers are teaching disadvantaged children. This could involve:

  •  expanding the Teach First programme
  • providing better continuing professional development for teachers
  • providing schools with support and advice to analyse their own needs
  • utilising different teaching methods such as phonics, giving effective feedback, one to one and small group teaching, individualised learning, effective use of technology

Children from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to have behavioural problems, which can affect their education. Supporting families to tackle these early is important, as are school-based approaches, which are ‘authoritative’. This involves combining high standards with warmth, communication and understanding, and emphasising positive reinforcement of good behaviour.

In addition, we need to better understand the role of the curriculum. Children from poorer backgrounds often have restricted access to subjects, which have a higher value both for higher education and for the jobs market; inequalities which are exacerbated by the early choices that children have to make. There are also concerns about the quality and complexity of qualifications for those who do not follow the traditional academic route of “A” Levels and University.

Where now?

Reducing educational disadvantage has always been a dauntingly broad mission. A great deal of time and energy has been spent on reforming school structures, with little evidence of a great return in improved results for poorer children. Based on our current knowledge, there are three issues which deserve to be at the top of any secretary of state for education’s list of priorities:

  1. Improving the quality and professional development of the whole teaching workforce and making sure that the best teachers are attracted to work with children from low income backgrounds
  2. Ensuring that all schools have the data, skills, advice and networks to base their decisions on the best analysis and evidence available
  3. Fostering a culture of evaluation across the education system so that it becomes standard practice for groups of schools to test and evaluate their ideas to create a better evidence base for all of them to draw on

Further information

Helen Barnard’s article is based on her chapter, What drives educational inequality, and how do we get rid of it?, published in A Tale of Two Classrooms, a collection of articles published by the think-tank Demos.