The Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs, this month raised serious concerns about the quality and consistency of support for disadvantaged school children in England. Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, called for a ‘step change’ in efforts to close the ‘attainment gap’ and prevent pupils from less advantaged backgrounds performing poorly at school, thus perpetuating disadvantage across generations.
The MPs’ report followed hard on the heels of the publication of some of the key messages emerging from a 10-year study of how background influences Scottish children’s development. Growing up in Scotland, a longitudinal research programme tracking the lives of 10,000 children and their families from the early years onwards, found that socio-economic inequalities have a clear and substantial impact on children’s development and that these differences are apparent from an early age. By age five, it found, children whose parents have no qualifications are about 12 months behind the average child on vocabulary and 10 months behind on problem-solving abilities. These differences – important indicators of subsequent educational success and employment and life chances – are apparent in children as young as three, the study found.
With social inequality seemingly a major concern of government, these findings should set alarm bells ringing. They show that, as a society, we are failing to do anything like enough to prevent the hardening of social differences and ensure that the circumstances of a child’s birth do not, to a very large extent, determine their subsequent life trajectory. And while the Public Accounts Committee observed that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had narrowed slightly since the introduction of the pupil premium (which aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children), it also noted that the results were uneven, and that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds risked losing out if its success was not spread more widely. The roll-out of universal credit would ‘make it harder to identify children eligible to benefit from the pupil premium,’ Ms Hillier said.
It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of a society such as ours to devise an education system which, rather than calcifying patterns of disadvantage across generations, challenges them, giving children the opportunity to achieve their full potential, whatever their background. The strength and seeming permanence of the relationship between parental background and children’s educational attainment is a serious indictment of education policy in the UK over the past few decades. It suggests, sadly, a society which is prepared to tolerate the writing-off of large numbers of its citizens, almost from birth, and permit the life chances and potential of so many working-class children to be brutally stunted. The end result of this is not only entrenched poverty, but a less prosperous, resilient, democratic and cohesive society.
The government’s ideological obsession with free schools and academies, and its efforts to introduce a market into other areas of education, are making matters worse. The idea that grammar schools constitute a part of the answer to this problem reflects not only a bankruptcy of ideas but an impressive imperviousness to evidence. Grammar schools, like other forms of selection, benefit the middle classes, those who understand the system and can bring in private help to get their kids through the entrance exam, and further disadvantage poorer children. As the son of two bright secondary-modern kids, both conscious of being dubbed failures at the age of 11, I know very well the damage the 11-plus system could cause, dividing not just communities but families (my Dad’s older brother was the only one of four kids to pass). I fear we are again seeing the development of a two-tier education system, in which parents with the double advantage of money and an education get a double benefit from a system rigged to suit those who know how to work it and have the resources to pay for it. Increasingly, the benefits of a rounded, liberal education are, like the universities that offer them, largely the preserve of the better-off. The best the rest of us can hope for is the basic education and training we need to do a job. I don’t mean to disparage vocational training, which is of critical importance, but an education system which prepares people only to be employees is, frankly, not an education system worthy of the name.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even within the narrow envelope of possibilities envisaged by our austerian leaders, change is possible. It should begin with evidence and not ideology. The Growing up in Scotland report makes a number of straightforward recommendations that could make a difference to educational outcomes and help ‘build resilience in the face of disadvantage’, including the encouragement of ‘rich home learning environments’ (even simple home learning activities such as reading a book at bedtime can have a significant impact on cognitive development and reduce some of the effects of socio-economic disadvantage, the report says) and increased investment in good early learning and childcare, which can reduce inequality by the start of primary school (by which point most kids from poorer backgrounds are already playing catch-up).
There are no silver bullets, of course, but one important but often neglected intervention – family learning – has the potential to make a huge difference here, if adequately resourced and offered on a sufficiently wide and even basis across the country. Research suggests that children stand a much better chance of doing well at school, and in life more generally, if their parents are learners themselves. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that parental involvement in a child’s education has a direct causal influence on the child’s school readiness and subsequent attainment. As the Growing up in Scotland study suggests, home learning activities make a huge difference. Yet very many children still grow up in homes without books, and, as any teacher will tell you, there is only so much a school can do. A child learns best when learning is a process in which the whole family is involved and interested.
Family learning is also hugely effective hook for parents who had a poor experience of compulsory education themselves, appealing to their desire to support their children to do better than they did at school and encouraging them to overcome their own practical and dispositional barriers to learning. Many parents want to do more to support their children in school but often lack the time, resources or wherewithal to do so. Just as important, they frequently lack the confidence too, and family learning is a powerful way of building up an adult’s learning confidence and aptitude in a safe and non-threatening environment, while at the same time also improving children’s confidence, self-belief and attainment. A 2012 analysis of foundation-stage pupil data by Sheffield City Council found that the overall level of development among children who had taken part in family learning programmes could be as much as 15 percentage points higher than for those who had not.
When I drafted the 2013 NIACE Inquiry into Family Learning report, Family Learning Works, I emphasised not only the remarkable impact family learning programmes have on children and their families, but also their huge potential in addressing a range of other agendas and in achieving key cross-departmental outcomes. As well as being relatively low-cost, family learning interventions make vulnerable families more resilient, and encourage parents to become more involved in their communities, whether as citizens, volunteers or employees. One school-based project I visited in Ely, the most deprived area of Cardiff and one of the most deprived in the UK, in 2012 brought this home to me. The group of mums I met there, some of whom had previously been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, were now organising regular adult education classes, campaigning on local issues and even publishing their own newspaper, the Grand Avenue Times (named after the main road on which the school is located). What got them engaged, they told me, was, first, their desire to help their kids do better at school, and, second, the fact that the learning environment was ‘nothing like school’. In some cases, their engagement in learning had completely transformed their children’s attitude to education too.
Most adult educators won’t need convincing of the huge positive impact learning can have on adults and their families. But with participation in family learning declining, it is obvious that this understanding is not widely enough shared. As the Inquiry into Family Learning argued, family learning should be ‘integral to school strategies to raise children’s attainment’ and ‘narrow the gap between the lowest and highest achievers’, and ought to form a key element of adult learning and skills strategies ‘to engage those further from the labour market and improve employability’. National family learning policies should be part of an integrated approach to addressing educational inequality and social inequality more widely.
A government serious about reducing social inequality would be investing more in family learning (alongside other initiatives to promote learning within families) as part of a rounded, strategic approach that would see further education spending increase, alongside UK education spending overall, which continues to lag behind the levels of other developed countries. If the post-16 area review process, which includes only FE and sixth-form colleges, is anything to go by, we are as far as ever from a genuinely coherent, holistic approach to education policy and the challenges of social and educational inequality. We need a government fired up to address these real and deeply entrenched problems head on, and that means thinking about education not through the limiting lens of ideology but in an evidence-based and seriously joined-up way.