Friday, 15 March 2013

Home, School, and Attainment

It was in 1964 that “The Home and The School” by JWB Douglas was first published.  It wasn’t the first time that anyone had suggested a direct link between background and educational attainment, but it was, I believe, the first time that a thorough approach demonstrated the nature and extent of the link in such clear terms.

It was one of the books on my pre-university reading list, so it was in 1970 that I read it; and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since.  Over the four intervening decades, the pages have started to yellow somewhat, as one might expect.  I just wish, though, that I could say that the colour of the paper wasn’t the only thing that had changed over that period.
As Monday’s report in the Western Mail told us, however, there has been little real change in the half century since the research work for the book was done.  Background, family income, social class – these are still major determinants of educational attainment.  There are of course individual exceptions (the rule isn’t a cast iron one) who manage to achieve a higher level of educational attainment than the average for people in their circumstances; but the exceptions do not disprove the rule.
For half a century we have known and understood the problem; and for half a century we’ve had politicians promising to do “something” when in opposition, and failing to do anything when in government.  Oh – and criticising “the other lot” for failure, and expressing manufactured outrage whenever the issue floats through their attention span.
Even now, the reaction of politicians and others seems to have learned little from the failures of the past.  There’s still a stress on educational initiatives and that other buzzword “interventions”, as though continuing to do what has spectacularly failed over the past half-century is going to somehow achieve a different outcome in the future.
The fundamental problem is that all of these initiatives and interventions are aimed at alleviating the symptoms and mitigating the results; they’re not getting to grips with the disease.  If we know that social background (a euphemism in reality for inequality) is a major determinant of attainment, then why on earth do people continue to act as though improving attainment will somehow change social background?  It might move some fortunate individuals into a different demographic, but it doesn’t eliminate the differences between demographics.
Does that mean that we should not pursue those initiatives and interventions?  Of course not; there is little doubt that some individuals benefit from them.  And I don’t doubt either that the children of those individuals benefit from them by having a different social background when they go to school.  It’s inevitably true, however, that on any scale or table of this sort, anyone rising up it has to be balanced by somebody falling down it.  Moving individuals does nothing to shift the problem, it merely re-orders the individuals.
We should stop pretending that educational initiatives and interventions ever can or ever will bring about fundamental change.  Nor should we allow politicians to get away with claiming to be acting on the issue as a result; their pet schemes and initiatives may salve their consciences in the short term, but what we need is a programme of action for the long-term.
Without such a program, then in 50 years time the pages in my book will be even yellower.  Someone else will probably be writing a similar piece wondering why a century has passed with no real action
To put it in words of very few syllables: if the problem is inequality, the solution is to do with increasing equality.  Anything else is fiddling on the fringes.
PS: I was more than a little disappointed by the head of one of the trade unions (no relation) who said “social background still determines educational outcomes to a completely unacceptable degree.”  The question which went through my mind when I read that is “So what would be an acceptable degree?”  I don’t believe that any degree of pre-determination of academic attainment based on social class is ever acceptable.


Anonymous said...

There are of course lessons to be learnt from the exceptions. Since your yellow faded book was published tens of thousands of 'Ugandan Asians' settled in England (many via a settlement camp in Wales). Educational attainment of this ethnic grouping has far outstripped their 'white' and 'black; contemporaries. They have no 'social class' in the sense of the English class system, and their original origins within the Indian class system are of the lowest 'cast'. They certainly arrived in 1972 as the poorest of the poor. So that begs the question of how much a role does wealth or class play in educational attainment? There is evidently a 'cultural' aspect to this. I think in Wales we should question why we have adopted the 'English Class System' as a social norm, and now that the educations system is devolved why we continue to maintain these norms. It always surprised me when applying for some senior positions in London the part of the interview that dealt with 'education I was on at least two occasions asked if 'Ysgol' as a prefix refereed to a public school. The question was symptomatic of language ignorance of the interviewer, but my answer allowed me to opt out of the stratification. If the interview had been conducted in Wales, the class system which my country has adopted from England would have allowed the interviewer to detect my secondary education was indeed from a poorly performing comprehensive. It is only ourselves and our national servitude that limit our inherent abilities.

John Dixon said...

I'd accept your basic point that there is a 'cultural' element to attainment, although of course 'culture' can also be class-related.

I'm not sure, however, that I'd agree with your assertion that the Ugandan Asians had no social class; nor I am I convinced that their original origins in India are the most relevant factor. My recollection is that, in the Ugandan society which they left, many were in what would have been the 'middle class' - often running small businesses - insofar as UK notions of 'class' ar relevant to a very different society. It's at least arguable that their out-performing their peers on arrival in the UK supports rather then undermines the thesis that social class is a major determinant of education attainment.