Addressing the Social Divide in Education

A new report just published by the UK charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has highlighted need to address the educational divide. It shows that children growing up in poverty and disadvantage are less likely to do well at school. Family disadvantage is passed on from one generation to the next in a cycle of underachievement. The report says that the attitudes and experiences that lie behind social differences in education need to be addressed to break this cycle.

Only a quarter of students from poor backgrounds gain the standard of five good General Certificate of Secondary Education examination results at the end of compulsory schooling (age 16), compared to over half the overall population in England. The gap between the outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from advantaged backgrounds is wider in the UK than in most other similar countries.

The report says that the social gap in educational experiences and outcomes arises both from what happens within classrooms and what happens across children’s lives. Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.

Students from different backgrounds experience different relationships with teachers and with other adults. They have different learning experiences outside school and in particular engage in different kinds of activities that contribute to their learning and different experiences of homework.

A crucial difference highlighted by the research is in experiences of homework. Children from poorer families are less likely to have space in which to do their homework, or to get as much help from parents as children with higher socio-economic status. Poorer parents may be under greater pressure. They may also lack the confidence in their own abilities and have bad memories of school.

The research did not imply that poorer parents don’t care about their children’s education, only that many parents on low incomes lack the resources that allow them to help out, to provide conducive environments or to access relevant services.

Children from different backgrounds have contrasting experiences at school. Less advantaged children are more likely to feel a lack of control over their learning, and to become reluctant recipients of the taught curriculum. At primary school, children in poverty are more likely to have negative experiences and feel “got at” by teachers. For example, those in disadvantaged schools complained that they were shouted at by teachers, whereas those in more advantaged schools did not mention this.

The research found that many children and young people who become disaffected with school develop strong resentments about mistreatment (including perceptions of racial discrimination) and these issues need to be taken into account when working with such children. These factors are at the heart of the social divide in educational outcomes, but have not been central in solutions so far.

It also found that negative attitudes were not based on children feeling that education does not matter. Belief in the importance of education was strong among students from advantaged and from disadvantaged backgrounds. Negative attitudes to school held by disadvantaged students were more a reflection of lack of confidence in their own ability to thrive within the system. This suggests that if children were to have better opportunities and experiences, their attitudes to school would become more positive.

The report says that equality of educational opportunity must address multiple aspects of disadvantaged children’s lives. It means working with children and their families outside schools as well as within school. This involves addressing the family circumstances as well as the child’s learning needs, and making education a shared enterprise between family, educator and child. Many policy initiatives have focused only on improving the quality of schools and of teaching.

Work with disaffected young people is most effective where it creates a new environment and new relationships, where children feel more involved in their own futures. This work relies on highly skilled and dedicated workers, often without professional qualifications but able to put the required level of commitment into building productive relationships with families living in tough circumstances.

The research also shows that in order to understand and relate to children who have become disaffected with school, it is important to take account of their past history and past resentments, for example about stigma or perceptions of racial discrimination. Those who feel that they have been let down by authority need to have these feelings addressed before they can re-engage with the system

It says outside-school activities are crucial to engaging students in learning and should not be seen as auxiliary to the education process. Such activities can help children develop confidence in learning, to become active learners and to develop a different kind of relationship with adult instructors or supervisors than in a more formal school setting. In out-of-school settings, they become used to seeing learning as a partnership, rather than as something that is imposed upon them.

The report also found that extended schools, which provide homework clubs and help for children and families, offered the opportunity for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to experience some out of school learning that better off children had access to.

In conclusion, the report states that an over-arching aim should be to create a learning atmosphere with better adult-student relationships, especially in the formative primary school years. It says this involves three specific challenges policy initiatives.

The first is to create environments outside mainstream school that allow children to develop new learning relationships. This depends on having an imaginative range of activities in which children are able to develop positive relationships with supervising adults and feel more in control of learning than they do at school.

Second, there is a need to improve the homework experiences of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. A key objective of homework is to build a capacity for independent learning, but at present it all too often builds that capacity for those who already have it but undermines confidence for those who do not. New approaches may be needed, which offer better support for the least advantaged students. A key requirement is a co-operative relationship between school and home.

The third priority is to build new relationships with students at risk that address their feelings of powerlessness and disengagement from the world of education. This requires intensive interventions that may also require the involvement of parents.

Trevor Cobbold

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