Socio-economic disadvantage has negative impact on pupil performance – what can be done?

Janet Downs's picture

There is a strong relationship between a school’s socio-economic background and the achievement of pupils says data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This is what the OECD discovered about the UK: “The proportion of students in disadvantage is much lower in the UK than that of OECD countries in general.” Nevertheless, “socio-economic disadvantage has a strong impact on student performance … 14% of the variation in student performance is explained by students’ socio-economic background (OECD average 14%).” This variation is more than in Canada or Japan (9%), two high-performing nations. This begs the question: if UK has fewer disadvantaged children than most other OECD countries, why are these pupils underperforming? The OECD gives some possible factors (some of which are upheld, and some of which are dismissed):

1.Language spoken at home. If the home language is not that of the assessment language (English) then such pupils “lag behind considerably”. However, children with an immigrant background who speak English at home perform at similar levels to students without an immigrant background.

2.Inequity in access to resources. “The UK is one of a fewer number of OECD countries that favour socio-economically advantaged schools with access to more teachers”. However, all types of schools have a similar number of teachers with an advanced university degree.

3.Size of community. “Schools in smaller communities perform higher… the performance challenges for the UK are therefore tougher in larger communities, which are also characterised by lower average socio-economic background.”

4.Family composition: There are more single parent families in UK than the OECD average and 15-year-olds in such families are outperformed by pupils from other family types. But, these families are more likely to be disadvantaged and it is the socio-economic circumstances, not the composition of the family, that account for the underperformance. When OECD factored in socio-economic background there was no difference between students of different family types.

5.Immigrant students: 12% of UK schools have more than one-quarter of students from an immigrant background (OECD average 14%). However, OECD found that the reading score of pupils from an immigrant background was only slightly lower than the performance of all students. As noted above, the crucial factor is the language spoken at home, not the immigrant background.

6.Concentration in schools. 27% of UK pupils are in schools with a socio-economically disadvantaged intake (ie overrepresented by disadvantaged pupils). 23% of UK pupils are in socio-economically privileged schools (of this 23%, only 6% of the pupils are themselves disadvantaged). Conclusions: the OECD ruled out immigrant background and family composition, two factors which are regularly cited by sections of the media as being causes of underachievement. The important factors were: language spoken in the home, unequal distribution of teachers, and socio-economic background of schools. The size of the community surrounding the schools was also a factor, but this is difficult to disentangle from below-average socio-economic backgrounds. The Government says it cares about disadvantaged pupils and their underperformance, but what evidence is there that they are tackling the factors highlighted by the OECD? Is the Government even aware of them? And how far will setting up free schools and academy conversion address these problems?

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Melissa Benn's picture
Wed, 06/07/2011 - 19:36

Sounds to me like two sensible proposals need to be implemented straightaway: creating schools with a fair social/attainment balance, and concentrated resources on schools that need it most.
Instead, we have a government giving already advantaged school communities ever more resources, and greater power over admissions, furthering the possibility of yet more, subtle, segregation.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 07:40

OECD found that one-half of UK schools are segregated on socio-economic lines and that schools with an advantaged intake have access to more teachers. Increasing the number of teachers in disadvantaged schools would help improve scores while at the same time the number of disadvantaged children in advantaged schools could be increased. The pupil premium is a step in the right direction as OECD recommends targeting money where it is most needed – at disadvantaged children.

OECD also found that increasing teaching time in a particular subject increased attainment in that subject.

OECD highlights the importance that language should play in integration policies targeted at immigrant pupils and their parents, yet this Government is restricting lessons in English as a Second Language to those who are on “active benefits”. This rules out non-working adult dependents particularly women who remain at home. Yet it is just these immigrants who need targeting in order to increase the use of English with the home.

The Government professes to care about disadvantaged pupils but, with the exception of the pupils premium, is failing to address the main problems: socio-economic segregation in half of schools, inequity in the allocation of teachers, and encouraging families from an immigrant background to speak English at home. Instead, it spends millions on free schools and academy conversion. The former will only affect a tiny number of disadvantaged children while academy conversion is a distraction.

O. Spencer's picture
Thu, 07/07/2011 - 16:05


Thanks for your timely post. I believe you touch on the issues we were discussing on the previous thread about the school I highlighted in my LA vs. William Ellis. Incorporating the evidence you've highlighted above, I'd like to briefly go over the case of that school again.

The school in my LA: 15% on FSM, only 5% had English as a second language, c. 15% had SEN/statements.

I believe Janet we agreed that the pupil-teacher ratio and absence levels were key determinants of educational success.

This school has a pupil-teacher ratio of 20:1, with a persistent absence figure of 5.6%. William Ellis, for example, has a ratio of 13:1 and a persistent absence % of 3%. My former comp in the same LA had a ratio of 15:1. The second best comp in the area had a ratio of 15:1.

Interestingly, one 'rough' school in the inner-city had a ratio of 14:1 (pretty good I'd say), with a persistent absence figure of 4%. Pupils on FSM were 14%. This school achieved 48% good GCSE passes, although only 4% achieved the EBacc. [This school had a 5 GCSE pass figure of 22% in 2007 - benefited from a great Head who was formerly Deputy Head at my old school] So in comparison with William Ellis - this school had more than half fewer pupils on FSM, and a similar number of SEN pupils. Is the 1% higher persistent absence figure contributing much to the poorer results?

Another classic 'inner city sink school' in the same LA. FSM 13%, SEN higher at 30%, pupil-teacher ratio 16:1. 3% English as second language. 41% 5 GCSEs.

These last two schools have much much fewer pupils on FSM (13% and 14%). Despite having this socio-economic 'advantage' over schools like William Ellis - and with fairly comparable numbers with SEN (perhaps not last school), the attainment gap is quite significant.

This begs the questions; a) Is the FSM % a useful way of measuring disadvantage at schools?
b) Does being on FSM necessarily make it harder for pupils to achieve?

The evidence of some schools in my LA certainly make one think twice.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 11:25

The free school meals measure is an imperfect measure of disadvantage but it is the one the Government uses. The pupil-premium will follow FSM children. Unfortunately, this blunt definition of disadvantage doesn't distinguish between socio disadvantage and economic disadvantage, but puts them together. As you pointed out elesewhere this may distort the picture, since a child in an affluent household can still be socio-disadvantaged if the parenting is poor (eg if the child is showered in material goods but given little parental time).

As mentioned above, OECD using global data, has found a link between the number of socio-disadvantaged pupils in a school and the performance of its pupils. This is discussed above. There will be schools that buck the trend and it is essential that the reasons for this are discovered. Is it more individualised learning? Is it encouraging aspiration? Is it good teachers? Is it the pupil-teacher ratio? Is it time spent on particular subjects? Are there other factors I haven't mentioned? (Probably, yes).

This is where attention should be given. However, the Government thinks it can solve the problem of under-achievement by diverting money to free schools and academy conversion while at the same time it talks down the achievement of UK state education (as measured by OECD, TIMMS). In fact, Nick Gibb stood up in Parliament and said that the UK independent schools were the best in the world, although no evidence has been forthcoming to back this up. This begs the question: why is the UK government so keen to show the state education is poor, while the independent section is performing so much better, when OECD evidence shows otherwise when socio-economic factors are considered.

O. Spencer's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 15:41

Janet, I agree with nearly everything you've written.

My only comment on your last point about Nick Gibb is that he is obviously playing to the Conservative vote, many of whom educate their children privately. I'm not sure I'd necessarily argue that the UK government wants to portray state education as poor, merely that it needs heavy, overdue reform. I presume the answer to your question is that politcians don't account for socio-economic disadvantage and look at headline grades, % at top universities and so on.

The possibilities you raise when discussing why some schools with large intakes of disadvantaged children do well are all interesting. We can look at things like pupil:teacher ratio and look at how much time is devoted to each subject. But how are we to get at how schools encourage aspiration, or how we define good teachers? It's much harder to convey these into data that we can compare across regions and nationally.

Yes, I think Gove deeply believes the government can help overcome underachievement and low aspiration by this policy. We have had 13 years of a government where spending on education rocketed. That government didn't achieve the results it should have given the investment. The OECD data says we're average or 'better than average'. With the money spent we should be aiming to be at the top of, or near the top of the rankings.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 10/07/2011 - 16:40

Spencer -

You tell us how any government - particularly this Tory-led Coalition more concerned with propping up the interests of the wealthy as the same time as it strips more services and benefits from the needy, in the name of tackling the deficit they have wrongly attributed to Labour over-spending rather than the irresponsible and self-serving conduct of the banking industry - can possibly tackle low attainment in schools when they are increasing poverty? It has failed in America, so why don't you tell us what Gove is doing to tackle this, rather than just present your own deep belief that this will happen? And please don't trot out the statistics on Singapore, Finland, Sweden, Hong Kong that the DfE has been pumping out. These are territories with small populations and little, if any, poverty. Like Gove and his ilk, American school reformers have also pumped out the widely held assumption that American schools also fall well below international standards as an excuse for private and philanthropic enterprises to take over the running of schools and turn a profit in the meantime. To me, that looks like another example of the wealthy and advantaged feeding off the poor and disadvantaged.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 10:26

This is what OECD said about the effects of socio-economic disadvantage in the UK and compared the results with the OECD averages. There are countries who do much better with "resilient" pupils (ie those who are disadvantaged but nevertheless manage to achieve) than the UK. This is what OECD said:

"Disadvantaged [UK] students tend to do worse than expected in disadvantaged schools, but by about the same margin as in many other OECD countries, and advantaged students tend to do much worse than expected, in this case by a larger margin than average. In schools with a mixed socio-economic intake, disadvantaged students tend to do better than expected and advantaged students tend to do worse than expected by about the same margin as in the OECD in general. In schools with a privileged socio-economic intake, disadvantaged students tend to do better than expected (but by a margin less than in the OECD) and advantaged students tend to do better than expected (with a similar margin as in other OECD countries).

It would seem, then, that the type of school in the UK which generally produces the best outcome for ALL pupils is a school with a privileged socio-economic intake, but even here the performance of disadvantaged UK children in these schools is less than could be expected when measured against the OECD average.

A poster on the other thread (Keith, I think) thought the answer to the under-performance of disadvantaged pupils might be to have a quota system whereby all schools take responsibility for disadvantaged pupils. This, however, would entail bussing pupils around and would not be popular with parents or pupils.

The truth is that I don't have an answer to the problem of socio-economic disadvantage. The OECD highlight several factors which are given in the original thread. The OECD also said in its Economic Survey 2011 for UK that greater investment in pre-school education could help, as would directing resources where they were most needed (UK is one of the few OECD countries that reward socio-advantaged schools with more teachers, for example).

The question is: is the Government considering these factors. I do not think it is. Instead, Mr Gove has embarked on an expensive policy (free schools, academy conversion) based on ideology which does not address any of the factors above and in fact may make things worse.

Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 14:24

Hi there Janet thanks for this. Just to qualify I don't think what I proposed regards scoio-economic disadvantage and under achievement is 'the answer.' I do think it would be an important part of a more complex group of strategies. With regards the problem of bussing pupils around the place and not being popular with all parents essentially yes there would be some element of displacement which wouldn't be popular with some schools. However with regards this issue there is no way around it. You are not going to please all parents all of the time. Incidentally the bussing of children around the place is often used as some kind of excuse but actually many middle class parents send the children far and wide to 'perceived better' state schools or private schools. For the sake of the greater good this is not a valid argument. If one accepts that the system is dynamic and that in general the flow is advantaged children gravitate towards more successful schools, then there has to be some kind of check and balance system in place to mitigate against this.

However there is another issue which I think is often overlooked when people focus on socio-economic disadvantage. That is the issue of educational disadvantage/advantage. By this I mean in the Bourdieu sense where parents reject the concept of economic capital in favour of cultural capital. As mentioned elsewhere on these forums this can be partially witnessed when you examine different super output areas according to the gov's index of multiple deprivation. Some wards come in the bottom 10% nationally when weighted for economic income/output etc but then rise to 50% when weighted for education. This is important because surely we should be targeting the lion's share of education resources at communities of high educational disadvantage. We tend to focus on things like %FSM, which is basically a blunt tool in terms of identifying educational disadvantage and therefore areas of greatest educational need. That's not to say that socio-economic disadvantage isn't an important aspect to all of this too.

I agree in general about targeting more resources towards pre-school as you mention but again, one of the problems with the last government was that these resources weren't always targetted where there was the most need in my view. I think I read some research about this point too but apologies for not being able to cite.

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 18:12

Keith raises a good point regarding middle-class parents sending their children far and wide to 'better' schools. This was almost standard practice among Labour MPs and Cabinet members during the last government. Tony Blair, when Prime Minister and still an Anglican, sent his children to the London Oratory, despite there being several closer schools. This was the same Blair who said 'what I want for my own children, I want for yours'.

David Miliband, a committed atheist, and his wife, raised a Lutheran send a child to a 'catholic' Anglican school. Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington, sent a child to Dame Alice Owen's in Potters Bar, preferring it's partially selective intake to the schools on offer in her own constituency. Some, like Diane Abbott, threw caution to the wind and went private. After all, it would be child abuse for poor Diane to send her child to a school in Hackney, but good enough for everybody else.

If you're fearing this is a partisan rant, worry not. The Tories have also embraced this nice little tactic. Cameron and St Mary Abbots Anglican primary. Ditto Michael Gove.

I shall get stuck in to the indices of multiple deprivation and try find out if FSM% obscures other types of deprivation in the schools I've dealt with so far.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 06:35

Keith - I wasn't ruling out bussing as one of a range of possible solutions to achieving a better socio-economic balance in schools. It's just that I don't think this could ever happen especially with this Government. I can visualise the Mail headlines now: "Middle-class parents forced to send children to sink schools".

Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 19:14

It's worth having a play with the IMD. It's a bit clunky online but you can select specific wards/postcodes then get an analysis weighted how you want. It then gives you a graph showing how the postcode is ranked nationally. I'd be interested to hear what you find for your area.

Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 19:42

Yes glad you found it useful. The other thing about FSM% is that people use it very loosely. There is often a significant mismatch between take-up and eligibility for FSM%. Eligibility is often much higher than take-up. But often people use the take-up figures. I'm not even sure the general public has access to FSM% eligibility as this is reported on the annual school census which isn't in the public domain. I may be wrong about this but the only way I've been able to access the %FSM eligibility is through FoIs to the DfE in the past.

What all this shows though I think is that if LAs and government's are genuine about addressing under achievement and social mobility in the education system then they need to use the fine grained tools they've got (IMD, School census etc.) to target educational resources where they are most needed. Messing about with systems and merely spouting ideological rhetoric about Free Schools, Academies and so on misses the point totally. Targetted and deliberate support and resource where it is most needed is what's important.

O. Spencer's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 19:21

It certainly is a bit clunky, Keith. Initial findings show that FSM doesn't pick up the educational disadvantage. My LA is extremely patchy with regards to income deprivation, the postcodes around where my former school is were pushing the top 10%, whereas the majority in the inner-city were languishing around the 50-60% mark. Some of the inner-city schools will have below-average FSM figures but quite appalling educational deprivation figures, some being half the value of the income deprivation.

A very useful tool indeed.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 13:42

And now the Government has launched another type of new school: Studio Schools. These join free schools, academy conversions and university technical colleges on the DfE list of types of schools. Community schools, which most of UK children attend, have, as we know, been airbrushed out of the DfE site.

The Government's vision for education in England (remember that most of the Government's strategies don't apply throughout the UK) seems to resemble more and more like a patchwork quilt: hastily stitched together with some scraps of eye-catching material but with a lot of holes through which the disadvantaged are the most likely to fall.

Keith Turvey's picture
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 14:31

'If one accepts that the system is dynamic and that in general the flow is advantaged children gravitate towards more successful schools, then there has to be some kind of check and balance system in place to mitigate against this.'

Should have added that this assumes people/governments want to counter the flow towards increased segregation. I think whatever system is put in place the flow will always be towards people using whatever means is available to gain some advantage for their children. In my view it is LAs and government's responsibility to keep this in check in a civilised state system for all.

Keith Turvey's picture
Tue, 12/07/2011 - 07:10

No Janet I agree. It would take a strong government to do this but maybe in this new era of discredited media moguls????? I know I'm an idealist. Labour I feel got close with their code on admissions. It was just that they didn't really have the teeth to apply it consistently and as we found out here in B+H the Schools Adjudicator wasn't always keen to apply the code. This, despite been given evidence that the new system would merely exacerbate segregation. See Admissions dice still loaded at:

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