Thursday, 2 June 2011

Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic

I’ve noted a number of times that those politicians who complain about the ‘spending gap’ in education are barking up the wrong tree.  Whilst the amount spent per pupil is not an entirely irrelevant issue, there appears to be little direct correlation between that figure and educational attainment – there’s a far greater correlation between social inequality and educational attainment.
It is absolutely key that the new Welsh Government should give proper attention to the poor levels of attainment in Welsh schools, and particularly the failure to ensure that pupils leaving our primary schools have basic numeracy and literacy skills.  It is a mistake, though, to imagine or assume that the issue can be dealt with purely within the education system itself – a mistake made by all of the parties in last month’s election.
The Druid has some pretty graphs which underline the point.  It’s a very effective way of presenting the key link between attainment and inequality, and it’s good to see that even some Tories are able to understand the criticality of the link.  He fails, however, to follow that link through to the inescapable conclusion; instead he merely argues that we need to do something to ‘break the link’.
In fairness, he’s not the only one to respond in that way.  It is the same response that successive governments, both in Cardiff and London, have given to the situation, albeit that some have tried harder than others to implement such an approach.  It hasn’t worked, though – and that was part of the problem with recent election promises by parties which said that they would address the issue by changes to the education system or processes.
It’s not that schools can’t do better - of course they can – but schools and education policy alone can never get to grips with the underlying causes of under-achievement; they can only address the symptoms.  And that means that any programme which seeks to eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy by slow gradual improvement in the education system is essentially managerial, not transformational.
Nor is it the case that some of the negative attitudes towards education which also show some correlation with the same underlying social factors are totally resistant to change.  More can be done on that front as well.
But a truly transformational policy would seek to deal with the underlying social inequality.  For many years, I’ve argued that whilst it is important to do what we can to address the consequences of inequality, we will never eliminate the problems by focussing solely on those consequences.  Governments and parties have failed to eliminate under-attainment not because they don’t care, nor because they haven’t tried, but because they are only treating the symptoms, not the causes.
Politicians who try to argue that such attempts have failed not because they’re only tackling the symptoms but simply because other parties have done it incompetently - and that a different team can somehow succeed where they’ve failed - are falling into the same trap.  And in some cases, taking a huge step backwards in understanding.  It's easier, of course, to promise to 'fix' the education system than to reduce or eliminate inequality.
I truly want to transform Wales and the life chances of our children – I don’t just want to transform the rhetoric.

17 comments:

menaiblog said...

Establishing a link between social deprivation & educational under achievement isn’t a particularly difficult exercise. What’s more of a challenge is to determine to what extent the relationship is causal – i.e that poverty leads directly to educational failure. It’s quite possible that some cultural traits in certain socio economic groups that lead to poverty, also lead to educational under achievement.

I know that we’re on contentious ground here – but if we’re really serious about tackling both poverty & educational failure we must be honest enough to look at the whole picture.wiessa

John Dixon said...

menaiblog,

"What’s more of a challenge is to determine to what extent the relationship is causal – i.e that poverty leads directly to educational failure."

Fair point; causality is much harder to prove than correlation.

"It’s quite possible that some cultural traits in certain socio economic groups that lead to poverty, also lead to educational under achievement."

I'm not sure that you really mean 'cultural traits' in this context? I'd also broaden it out - the word I used was 'inequality' rather than 'poverty'. But certainly, it is conceivable in principle that the same factors which lead to inequalities also lead to educational under-achievement, and that it is those factors which need to be tackled directly rather than either the under-achievement or the inequality per se.

However, one of the key factors in inequality is surely employment prospects, which is itself a mixture of both employment opportunities and employability. Governments try to address the latter of those two elements with their much-hyped skills programmes, but do little in practice to address the former (and I'd accept that there is room to debate how far governments actually can address the former at all).

If we want to tackle both inequality and educational failure, it really seems to me that lack of employment is a key element.

menaiblog said...

I obviously use the word ‘cultural’ loosely – as in ‘socially transmitted behavior patterns’.

You’re right that employment & the expectation of employment are important – where there is little expectation or direct experience of employment the incentives to make the adjustments & sacrifices necessary to succeed educationally are greatly reduced.

I’d guess that there’s more to it though, & that we’ve discussing a situation where educational failure leads to inequity, which in turn leads to behavior patterns that reinforce the likelihood of educational failure.

The term ‘vicious circle’ springs to mind.

Anonymous said...

I'd place part of the blame on Welsh Labourism.

People who want better education for their kids are labled 'pointy elbowed' by Labour supporters. Parents who wanted Welsh medium education for their kids (if that isn't aspirational and a leap of faith, I don't know what is!) are called 'posh', 'Welshie' etc.

The casual way Labour supporters will say 'real' Welsh people when they mean people who don't speak Welsh, don't know Welsh history who's whole cultural refrences seem to be Anglo-British mass culture is also depressing. It's a way of un-culturaling Wales so as to avoid a discussion about what culture, power and Welsh culture is.

Until will get rid of Welsh Labourism I can't see the situation improving.

An interesting paper here looks at the difference between Flanders (nor Socialist run and with a high proportion of linguistic ability) and Walloonia (Socialist run and more monolingual).

There is a correlation between culture and educational attainment. How else would one explain that the Chinese and other minorities have done so well from such a low base (lack of English, poverty) whilst other minorities in England haven't?

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Totally agree with what you are saying we need a 'holistic' approach to the child. I believe this has been recognised in some quarters but not in Plaid Cymru unfortunately (Did Nerys mention poverty once in her attacks on Labour over education?)I say that the link between deprivation and poor educational attainment has been made by those ministers (Gwenda Thomas) who have introduced Families First etc and those authorities that have Team Around the Child and Parental Support Advisors...money well spent!

John Dixon said...

Plaid Gwersyllt,

On the issue of child poverty, for instance, Plaid's manifesto for the election had this to say:

"Plaid believes that greater redistribution is the key to tackling child poverty – not simply creating wealth but sharing it more equitably. Until this is recognised by the UK Government in its taxation and welfare policies, then reaching the widely agreed aim of eradicating the problem by 2020 in Wales will remain a challenge."

This is worse than not mentioning it; the message is that it's something which is (and implicitly will continue to be) decided elsewhere about which we can do little other than tinker at the fringes. It also suggests that the solution is in 'taxation and welfare' policies; but those, to my mind, can only address part of the issue of inequality.

We need a more creative - and, yes, holistic - approach which doesn't compartmentalise the solutions into 'education policy' or 'taxation policy', but which understands that dealing with inequality means challenging the system under which we live at a more fundamental level. Oh, yes - and demanding the power to do so, not simply blaming policies decided elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

'the link between deprivation and poor educational attainment has been made by those ministers (Gwenda Thomas) who have introduced Families First etc and those authorities that have Team Around the Child and Parental Support Advisors' - but didn't Plaid also call for the scrapping of Communities First?

John Dixon said...

Anon,

"...but didn't Plaid also call for the scrapping of Communities First?"

I don't think that Plaid ever called for that, although one or two individuals seemed to do so.

Anonymous said...

"An interesting paper here looks at the difference between Flanders (nor Socialist run and with a high proportion of linguistic ability) and Walloonia (Socialist run and more monolingual)."

Was England "Socialist run" when it was under Labour? It recorded better education results than Wales during that period as well. It's not about political parties, it's about the material effects of poverty and joblessness in Wales, which were caused largely by both Tory and Labour governments that were not "Socialist". It is an economic problem at heart.

The name of the party in power is not as important as the policy content of their programme, and both Tories and Labour pursue centre-right economic policies that don't deliver for the poorest in society. And Wales is sadly poor because those policies don't work here.

Spirit of BME said...

I agree with the last sentence of your second Para, but history tells us that lack of cash in the home is not a barrier to educational achievement. The history of Wales in the beginning of the 20th century is full of dedicated teachers and great achievements in education in the quarries and coal mining communities, with parents sacrificing to ensure the next generation had greater opportunities .Today the only deprivation I see is between the ears of parents who do not see the value of education
Hosing the current State educational model with more cash would produce little extra return. The money put in produces very few wealth creators and the majority end up workless or working for government who are in the words of William Cobbett “tax eaters”. The life time failure is very, very expensive for the tax payer and the Prussian Model which State education is based on in the UK is broke and not fit for the 21 century.

John Dixon said...

Anon,

"The name of the party in power is not as important as the policy content of their programme, and both Tories and Labour pursue centre-right economic policies that don't deliver for the poorest in society."

Absolutely agree with that, and it worries me that people who should know better are so willing to excuse Labour and blame the Tories alone.

Glyndo said...

When I worked in the real world, we were told "look for the root cause" There is a demonstrated link between affluence and educational achievement. Both individually and by area. The attitude of many is "let’s stop there then".
But take one more step, and that isn't necessarily the last one needed, what is the cause of the higher affluence, generally? Oh look, higher educational achievement? You can go back quite a long way with this, but, eventually, you have to ask why does affluence and higher educational achievement seem to run in families or be clustered in certain areas?
Areas - let’s say a child, in Blaenau Gwent, gets a good degree and looks for a job. Not available in Ebbw Vale, so (s)he goes to Cardiff or even London. Those are the affluent areas and therefore that’s where the jobs are. They get a good job and reinforces the affluence of said area at the expense of Blaenau Gwent. Give it two or three generations!
Once there, said person finds a partner, of like educational achievement, give or take, and produces children. Who surprise, surprise, go on to achieve academically.
What mustn’t be said is that bright parents produce bright children, give or take. That’s the elephant in the room folks. Ask any teacher.

John Dixon said...

Spirit and Glyndo,

You've both touched, in a way, on a similar issue, albeit from different perspectives. I think that Spirit is quite right up to a point to say that "history tells us that lack of cash in the home is not a barrier to educational achievement", although I think I would have said 'not necessarily' a barrier. But identifying some of the classic exceptions - of which there are plenty - doesn't demolish the underlying correlation. I remember reading JWB Douglas on "The Home and The School" in the 1960s; the relationship between social class and attainment was well-established even then. (I'm sure that there'll be more recent work on the same area, I just won't pretend that I'm familiar with it.)

I'm not so sure about your point, though, Glyndo. There is a whole debate to be had about what 'intelligence' actually is (and I assume that it's what you're alluding to by use of the word 'bright'). My old Psychology lecturer once started a lecture on the subject by stating that the working definition is that 'intelligence is what intelligence tests measure'. And without an accurate, objective, agreed definition, it's difficult to proceed very far in discussing it. But I'm going to park that issue, and pretend for a moment that we do know what it is and can measure it.

That still leaves the huge debate about how much is heredity and how much is nurture when it comes to determining intelligence, and there are some strongly held views on both sides. Both play a part. As I recall (but I can't for the life of me remember where I saw this, it was so long ago), the evidence suggests that as far as the inherited element is concerned, there seems to be a degree of 'reversion to the norm', (on average, of course - there will always be exceptions) when comparing the 'intelligence' of children to that of their parents.

What changes, though - and this is right back to the work of Douglas et al - is that the children raised in better educated households get the advantages of nurture as well. Those who move away from the poorest communities as a result of educational success don't just climb the financial pole; they also climb the social pole.

I agree with the earlier comment from menaiblog that there's an element of a 'vicious circle' in operation here which needs to be broken. That brings me back to the basic point that I was making, which is that I don't believe that circle can be broken purely within the ambit of education policy.

Glyndo said...

John
"That still leaves the huge debate about how much is heredity and how much is nurture"
It would be foolish indeed to ignore the effect of the home environment. However, I think it can only modify the final position. No amount of nurturing will enable a child to achieve the highest levels of attainment if the capability is lacking. Conversely, a lack of such nurturing could result in a child achieving less than their potential.
My beef is with people insisting on correlating academic achievement, or lack of it with poverty, when it seems obvious to me that the relationship is the other way round. If it were a true correlation then no child from a poor family would ever reach the heights and no “rich kid” would ever do badly. That is patently ridiculous. Therefore another factor must be present that explains both the attainment of the children and the affluence of the parents.
I would think there is no huge debate on this question, except in the minds of some academics. I remember screaming “rubbish” at the TV when, on a program about serial family unemployment in the Rhondda, an “academic” from Cardiff confidently stated that “intelligence” (his word) was equally distributed amongst the population.
You don’t get outstanding children seemingly randomly sprinkled amongst otherwise average or below average families. There is variation within families, obviously, as you would expect. I am sometimes amused, in a frustrated sort of way, that it is perfectly acceptable to believe that children inherit characteristics from their parents, but that somehow brainpower is excluded from this rule.

John Dixon said...

Glyndo,

"No amount of nurturing will enable a child to achieve the highest levels of attainment if the capability is lacking. Conversely, a lack of such nurturing could result in a child achieving less than their potential."

On that, I think I can agree. But when we get on to the rest of what you say...

"My beef is with people insisting on correlating academic achievement, or lack of it with poverty, when it seems obvious to me that the relationship is the other way round."

I think you're talking about causality rather than correlation here. Mere correlation is neutral as to which leads to the other; the relationship is neither way round.

"If it were a true correlation then no child from a poor family would ever reach the heights and no “rich kid” would ever do badly. "

Simply not so. Again, 'correlation' merely says that there is a tendency for two factors to occur together; the correlation can occur at different strengths and is rarely 100%. So identifying exceptions doesn't invalidate the correlation. What it does do, and I'd accept that, is rule out that one of the two factors is the exclusive cause of the other. You'd be right to argue that things are more complex than that; but saying that one thing is not the exclusive cause of another doesn't mean that it isn't one of a number of causes.

"Therefore another factor must be present that explains both the attainment of the children and the affluence of the parents."

You seem to be looking for one single explanatory factor here, and thus dismissing any factor which doesn't provide a complete explanation. I just don't think that life is as simple as that.

"I would think there is no huge debate on this question, except in the minds of some academics. "

I wouldn't discard the value of academic research as simply as that.

"You don’t get outstanding children seemingly randomly sprinkled amongst otherwise average or below average families."

Are you entirely sure about that? Can you support it with evidence? I think that the history of Wales indicates that it can and does happen.

"it is perfectly acceptable to believe that children inherit characteristics from their parents, but that somehow brainpower is excluded from this rule."

I'd actually agree with you that heredity does play a part, but where we are parting company is over the extent of that influence. You seem to want to make it the sole or at least main element, and I don't think that research supports that view. And I'm unwilling to dismiss research just because it doesn't support a particular viewpoint.

Siônnyn said...

People who are themselves educated tend to value education itself rather higher perhaps than people who were failed by their experience of it, and they may well impart those values, either explicitly or subliminally, to their children. People who did not 'do well' in education tend, in the same way, to impart a distrust, and resentment even into their children.

This has nothing to do with intelligence.

I think a large part of the problem is the way that success in education has been redefined over the years as 'doing good in exams'. In the drive to make everything academic, we have lost sight of actually what equipping our children for life actually means.

I know things like NVQs have attempted to address this, but they have always,unjustly, been considered as second class qualifications by people who had to get degrees to become teachers.

Teaching Maths does need a degree to do it properly (though I believe a lot of children are taught in that subject by people who studied other subjects - and often not even as scientific one.

We need to re-educate our educators in the value of difference, and the fact that not all valuable attainment is necessarily academic.

Then we need to engage with and educate the parents - from the ante natal classes (especially in deprived areas), onwards about the value that education can bring to their children even if they don't turn out to be 'good at exams', but first of course we have to re-evaluate why we are actually educating our children at all. So far, the only reason seems to be -"so that they can pass 5 GCSEs" - doesn't really do it, does it?

Glyndo said...

"I think you're talking about causality rather than correlation here."
Yes John, I used the wrong word.