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Inequalities in education and society: the home, the school and the power of reading

Blog Editor, IOE Digital22 August 2019

This blog is based on Professor Alice Sullivan’s inaugural professorial lecture, presented at the UCL Institute of Education on 18 June 2019

Much of my work concerns the way that advantage and disadvantage are passed down from one generation to the next. So, for example, why do middle class kids do better in education than working class kids? And, why is there a link between social class origins in childhood and socioeconomic destinations in adulthood?

Sociologists sometimes call this relationship the OED triangle, where O stands for socioeconomic origins, E stands for Education and D stands for destinations in adult life. Social reproduction occurs when there is a close relationship between origins and destinations, and social mobility when that relationship is broken by a move up or down the social ladder.

During the course of my career I’ve worked on a set of interrelated questions regarding educational and social inequalities, and these are the questions I will address here:

(more…)

Why education policy debates need a sociological voice

Blog Editor, IOE Digital17 March 2016

Geoff Whitty
Attending a gathering of philosophers and sociologists of education this week brought home to me how much closer those two groups are now in their analyses of education compared to when I first worked as a sociologist of education in the early 1970s. That encounter also led me to recall that, at the same time, there were major battles within the sociology of education itself, between the so-called ‘old’ sociology of education of A.H. Halsey and his colleagues at Oxford and the ‘new’ sociology of education, associated with Michael F.D. Young and others at the Institute of Education in London. I discussed these disputes over the sources and significance of change in education and society in my first authored book, Sociology and School Knowledge (Methuen, 1985).
My newest book, Research and Policy in Education, published last month by UCL IOE Press, reflects my attempt to make sense of the relationship between education research and education policy in the years since I stood down from the Karl Mannheim Chair in the Sociology of Education at the Institute of Education in September 2000 to become Director. While working on the new book, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my roots as a sociologist of education. Even though such work is not necessarily undertaken first and foremost with a view to policy impact, I found sociological work really helpful in understanding why some of the policies I was discussing hadn’t had the impact that politicians claimed they would have. This applied not only to contentious initiatives (more…)

Selection at 11 – a very English debate

Blog Editor, IOE Digital5 December 2014

Chris Husbands
Originally posted on SecEd
It is a persistent undercurrent in English educational debate, but it is peculiarly English: should academic selection at the age of 11 be restored?
Boris Johnson, perhaps in response to perceived UKIP pressure, has declared himself in favour of more grammar schools, and Teresa May, more cautiously, has welcomed plans for a satellite grammar school in her constituency of Maidenhead. In Kent, the Weald of Kent grammar school is preparing a new proposal to establish what is either (depending on your view) a new grammar school in Sevenoaks or a satellite site in Sevenoaks.
The arguments for restoring grammar schools are couched in terms of opportunity and social mobility: Boris Johnson called them mobilisers of opportunity. But the evidence to support this is almost non-existent. (more…)

Parents' fortunes matter for cognitive development of 11-year-olds

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 December 2014

Lucinda Platt, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education and Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at London School of Economics and Political Science
Originally posted on The Conversation
As they reach the end of primary school, the UK’s children face persistent inequalities in their cognitive development. New findings from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a survey of children born between 2000 and 2002 across the UK, show that the level of parents’ education and family income both remain clearly associated with children’s verbal skills at the age of 11 – even when taking into account other differences in family background.
The MCS, based at the UCL Institute of Education, London, has followed around 19,000 children since they were nine months old, visiting them and their families again at ages three, five and seven and then most recently at the age of 11.
On each occasion from age three onwards, tests of cognitive skills have been carried out by specially trained interviewers (more…)

How class continues to drive the equality gap in England's adult skills

Blog Editor, IOE Digital10 February 2014

Andy Green
The latest OECD Survey of Adult Skills (SAS) generated much commentary on the relatively poor level of adult skills in England – particularly the revelation that on both literacy and numeracy tests young people scored no better than older generations and worse than their peers in all other countries except Italy and Spain. There was less discussion about how skills are spread around the population, but this is just as important. On this dimension the news is no better, because the distribution of adult skills in England is very unequal.
There is a larger gap in literacy and numeracy scores between the highest and lowest achievers than in most other countries and the impact of parental background on skills attainment is stronger than in most countries. Despite some evidence of a narrowing in the dispersion of skills in England over the last 16 years, the skills of the youngest cohorts are still more unequally distributed than in almost all other countries.
Difference in Average Numeracy Scores of Top and Bottom 20 Percent of 25-29 Year Olds
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There are large gaps in the skills of the 16-65 year olds, particularly in numeracy. Scores in SAS are measured out of 500 but the actual range of scores is much lower. In England the average score in numeracy of those in the lowest-scoring 20 percent is 153 points below the average score of  those in the highest scoring 20 percent. The gap in literacy scores is somewhat smaller at 134.3 points. Only two countries, France and the USA, are more unequal in numeracy and in literacy only Finland and Canada are more unequal. However, the situation for the younger age groups is even more alarming. For the 25-29 year olds there are no countries with more unequal skills distributions in either numeracy or literacy. England is also the only country where skills are as unequal amongst the younger age groups as the older ones.
England also does relatively badly on equality of opportunity – in terms of the degree to which social background influences skills attainment. The only country where the parents’ level of education has a greater effect on children’s skills attainment in literacy and numeracy is the Slovak Republic. Young people with graduate parents are likely to score 67 points higher in numeracy and 58 points higher in literacy than those whose parents only have GCSE level qualifications. English-speaking, ‘liberal’ countries generally show less equality of opportunity than other countries, and England and the USA the least.
Inequality of Opportunity in  Numeracy Skills for Younger and Older Age Groups
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Inequality of Opportunity for Numeracy and Literacy for 16-24 Year Olds by Country Group
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Why are adult skills in England so much more unequal than in most other countries? Some possible explanations can be ruled out. Differences between age groups play no part in England since the skills levels of younger age groups are much the same as for older age groups. Inward migration seems to contribute a small amount to adult skills inequality in England but no more than in most countries and rather less than in some. Adult learning does not appear to play a greater role in exacerbating the skills inequalities amongst adults in England than in other countries.
However, there is one likely explanation and that has to do with initial education. Skills and educational qualifications are very closely related. In England, each of the different age groups has a very high level of inequality in education qualifications compared with other countries. Since most qualifications are achieved before the age of 25 this implies that the initial education system has been producing very unequal outcomes going back to the 1950s. Our research (pdf) concludes that the primary cause of adult skills inequality in England is the exceptionally unequal skills outcomes of the initial education system sustained over a long period, fuelled and supplemented by an especially strong influence from social background.
The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Grant Number: ES/J019135/1
This blog post first appeared on The Conversation 
 

Yes, there is an alternative to England's bewildering school system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital29 November 2013

Peter Mortimore

I have been aware of problems in the education system for as long as I can remember.
As a child growing up in the late 1940s, I was persecuted by the fear of failing the 11+. Both my elder sisters had succeeded and my first brush with probability theory was recognising that similar success for me had to be questionable. And for 80 percent of each generation it was so, with many children bearing this hallmark of educational failure for the rest of their lives.
One of my jobs as a young teacher was in a school with 12 classes streamed on the basis of three timed tests. The validity and reliability of such assessment was highly questionable, yet it determined the course of future lives. One of my – very clever – pupils moved up a stream each year but, because he only stayed for the five years of compulsory secondary schooling, never even reached the upper half.
As a classroom researcher in the 1970s I sat through hours of lessons often in poorly designed, uncomfortable classrooms.  Some lessons were stimulating but others were desperately boring regurgitations of an uninspiring syllabus.
Today the education system, in many ways, is much improved.  Yet urban eleven-year-olds and their parents face a bewildering array of schools. City parents, in such a market economy, have to gamble on which preferences to express, taking into account their geographical location, the SATs results of their offspring, their religious (or non-religious) leanings and their willingness to pay for private tuition.
Academies – answerable only to the Secretary of State – founded with the noble aim of providing a better deal for poor children (just like the “public schools” of past centuries) are re-positioning themselves and using their generous resources to attract pupils with the best odds of success. Free “parent-led” schools are popping up even where there is ample provision and are frequently dedicated to particular faiths. Exams appear to be growing more difficult and universities are getting more expensive. Most sadly, English childhood appears to be much less happy than that of many of our neighbouring countries.
The English education system seems as far from a universal, inclusive, system as it ever was. Yet, the best teaching I have seen anywhere has often been in England and, in general, schools seem well-led. I believe these problems have been caused by recent governments’ (from all political parties) determination to turn the education system into a competitive market economy complete with league tables and punitive inspections.
In contrast, the Nordic school systems that I have observed operate in a different, happier, culture. They provide high quality pre-school provision and admit children into school one or even two years later than in England. The pace of learning is more relaxed and, wherever possible, failure is avoided.  Nordic young people continue developing and frequently overtake the ‘English early starters’ and become well-educated adults.
So what can we do to improve the system?  How can we learn from our North European neighbours? How can we draw on the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of our current arrangements?  And how can we persuade our Government to create a fairer, happier and more effective education system better suited to life in the 21st century?
My proposals are to try and ensure greater fairness in the system:
• Fairness in all funding: no more favoured schools getting large bonuses. The only payment above actual costs should be an extra sum for pupils with special needs.
• Fairness in governance – with all schools having uniform powers and working within the same national context.
• Fairness in what can be taught – with a limited National Curriculum available to all pupils.
• Fairness in licence to innovate in organisation and pedagogy.
• Fairness in inspections – with the aim being to ensure that all schools are above an acceptable level rather than attempting to fine grade them  on the basis of unreliable – and very limited – knowledge.
•  Fairness in assessment – helping as many pupils as possible reach the highest levels rather than seeking artificially to restrict success on the mistaken Kingsley Amis principle that “more will mean worse”.
•   Fairness in the allocation of pupils to schools so that all schools recruit a “balanced intake” – pupils who find learning easy and those who do not; those coming from relatively advantaged social, cultural and economic family backgrounds and their opposites.
Of course these are huge challenges. My suggestions require much elaboration and refinement. They will be resisted by the politicians associated with the current system and by parents satisfied with the privilege enjoyed by their children. Other people will have to be convinced that what is proposed will be better.
But such a set of ideas offer a chance of solving the worst problems and of creating a fairer education system better suited to life in the 21st century.
I’ll be talking about these ideas at a seminar at the IOE on 10 December. hope you will come along and contribute to the discussion.

What does social mobility look like? It depends on your point of view

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 June 2012

Chris Husbands 
Social mobility is news. At the Sutton Trust/Carnegie Foundation London social mobility summit last month, leading politicians from all three parties lined up to decry Britain as a country with lower levels of social mobility than almost any other advanced society.
Michael Gove, the Conservative education secretary, has said before that domination of positions of leadership and influence by those educated at private school results in ‘stratification and segregation [that] are morally indefensible’Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy prime minister, has bemoaned the failings of a society “that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life” and Labour leader Ed Miliband declares that “the doors of opportunity are open much wider for a wealthy and privileged few than they are for the many”.
Political consensus rarely holds for long and this is no exception. Proposed solutions spin off rapidly into quite different policy prescriptions. For Gove, the key is for all schools to match the best, so as to expand the opportunities available to children and young people. For him, the key is curriculum and assessment reform so that all schools mimic the best practice in independent – and, he is careful to say – state schools. 
For the deputy prime minister, “social mobility is all about creating a truly level playing field, and a fair race”, so that, for example, universities recruit students on the basis of “objective potential… not purely on previous attainment”. For Clegg, therefore, the pupil premium, which offers schools additional resources for the education of the most disadvantaged children is key, in order to bring more children to the starting line of the “fair race”. For him, it is misleading to conflate social mobility with inequality. 
For Ed Miliband, the solution is different again: it is to “improve opportunities for everyone, including those who don’t go to university. He argues that “we must reject the snobbery that says the only route to social mobility runs through university”.
Unlevel playing fieldThese disagreements are important in policy terms, but they also demonstrate something else:  when we think about social mobility, people “see” many different things. This leads to very different assumptions about what the problem is and what the policy solution should be. Some policy approaches – and Nick Clegg uses the image explicitly – talk about “levelling the playing field”.  The argument is put by the Cabinet Office 2011 Social Mobility Strategy: “For any given level of skill and ambition, regardless of an individual’s background, everyone should have an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket.” The job of government is to try to ensure that all can participate in such a race.  
ElevatorFor others, the issue is about access to the top – the elevator  – opening access to the most prestigious universities, the most prestigious jobs and the most influential positions in society. This “elevator” model focuses on the fact that – again in the words of the Cabinet Office paper – “Only 7% of the population attend independent schools, but the privately educated account for more than half of the top level of most professions, including 70% of high court judges, 54% of top journalists and 54% of chief executive officers of FTSE 100 companies”, and considers how these positions can be opened up. This point of view emphasises opening access to “elite” universities and schools – perhaps expanding grammar schools, although the evidence for grammar schools as motors of social mobility is extra-ordinarily thin on the ground.   
Esher-like staircaseA third, quite different, approach focuses on overall social movement: moving all up by expanding opportunity – the constant upward movement of Escher’s optical illusion, referenced in the picture here. Ed Miliband believes that “social mobility must not be just about changing the odds so that kids from poorer backgrounds make it to university”, but about widening routes and increasing opportunities.    
Snakes and ladders boardFinally, and most challenging for politicians, is a fourth idea: that social mobility involves movement down the social scale – from more to less influential positions, from rich to poor. The social mobility strategy is explicit on this “relative” social  mobility but it is hugely challenging for any government: social mobility is something we all agree on when the opportunities are expanding at the top of the system – as they were in the 30 years after the second world war. Much more difficult in times of constraint.
It’s naive to assume that all can agree on an issue as complex and challenging as social mobility which has some powerful implications for the sort of society we are and want to be. But recognising that when we think about it we all ‘see’ different things might help to clarify some of the differences. Level playing fields, elevators, step ladders, snakes and ladders boards: understand the image, understand the point of view.
Picture credits: unlevel playing field, John Kelleher; elevator, Dirk Anger

In selective Bucks, an academy goes comprehensive

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 April 2012

Stephen Ball
Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s seminal study of grammar schooling in Huddersfield, Education and the Working Class, was published by Penguin books exactly 50 years ago. Focused on the experiences of 88 working class children, it is about class mobility, class inequality and social waste, and what Jackson and Marsden describe as a “blockage” – selective education. The authors had both attended the grammar school which is at the centre of the research and Alan Bennett, another “local lad”, has acknowledged that the book provided the basis for his play The History Boys, which is set in Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys’ school.
What Education and the Working Class demonstrates is how thoroughly and insidiously – and damagingly, for some young people – the grammar school is a middle class institution, a “natural extension” of middle class home life as the authors put it. The grammar school was, and remains in a few places in England, a conduit of class advantage, a privileged site within which middle class cultural capital and economic investment in coaching and tutoring could be readily converted into qualifications and symbolic capital.
All of this has been rehearsed again this month in the admission by Buckinghamshire County Council that their 11+ examination carries an inherent bias which works in favour of “the affluent”. Perversely the Buckinghamshire revelation came about as a result of the insertion into the county system of a conversion academy, Highcrest, which will become the first comprehensive school in the County, with control over its own admissions policy.
Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in December that parents will be stripped of the right to object to the expansion of grammar schools, under a new school admissions code laid before Parliament. So it is ironic that one bit of government policy – support for grammar schooling – is being called into question by another bit – the extension of academy status to more, perhaps all, schools.
We might think about whether this says something about the lack of “thinking through” of policy by its makers or wonder how the support for grammar schools relates to the government’s other commitments to social mobility and tackling social disadvantage through education, or ponder what Jackson and Marsden might think about the fact that Buckinghamshire is getting its first comprehensive school 50 years after they argued in their book that the first step towards creating “open”, “bold and flexible” schooling would be “to abandon selection at eleven, and accept the comprehensive principle” (p 246). Who would have thought that the academies policy would be a vehicle for comprehensivisation?