The 'gap' can't be closed
Two important articles appeared in the Independent of 23 September. The first, here, is entitled, 'Even excellent schools ‘don’t help poor kids to catch rich’
"The gap in performance between poor and better-off pupils is just as high in schools ranked 'outstanding' as those labelled 'inadequate', researchers have found.
“Even if we improved all ‘inadequate’ schools to the level of those judged ‘outstanding’ we would still have a free-school-meal gap of much the same size as we do today,” the study concludes.
Professor Steve Strand, the report’s author, concludes that successive governments have been wrong to blame “failing schools” for the stark differences in performance between the two sets of pupils, Instead, the reason is likely to be “factors outside the school gates (in the home, wider community or peer groups)”.
This leads to another headline, here, in the same newspaper.
'Half of all five year olds are not ready for school, research shows'
" Nearly half of all five-year-olds in England have not reached a high enough level of intellectual, emotional and physical development to prepare them for school, new figures reveal today.
"Just 52 per cent of children have achieved a 'good level of development' by the end of reception, according to updated figures compiled by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, one of the country’s leading authorities on public health and social inequalities.
"The figures, which Professor Marmot said were a worrying sign for the future health and wellbeing of the country, mean that only little more than half of England’s five-year-olds could be called “ready” for school on all measures of development."
This begs the question as to why then, do we start our children so early on the production line of formal education? The school starting age for children in many countries is much higher.
The conclusions from the first article are stark. Schools that are judged by Ofsted as good or outstanding are no better at 'closing the gap' than the hundreds of allegedly failing schools closed by Labour and Conservative governments and replaced by Academies since the early years of this century.
This represents a colossal waste of public money and assets and a gross historical injustice to thousands of teachers. Henry Stewart and Janet Downs have produced post after post showing that the costly free market experiment of Academies and Free Schools is not 'closing the gap' either.
However, this is the point where the conventional analysis of the left goes wrong, with resort to the arguments that emerge in the second article.
If the children of poorer families are failing to 'keep up' or make 'expected progress' at school then the blame must surely lie with 'poor parenting' for which the solution is state intervention, for example through 'Sure Start'.
Now helping poor parents to provide well for their children while they try to earn a decent living is fine, worthy and certainly not a waste of public money. However can it result in any closing of the 'education gap'?
We know the answer to this through extensive studies in America with the 'Headstart' programme and here in the UK.
The English experience of expensive and essentially social programmes like ‘Sure Start’ has been hugely disappointing in terms of measurable educational outcomes. Dr Christine Merrell of Durham University Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, responsible for a long-term study into the effectiveness of Sure Start was reported in the Daily Mail of 19 April 2012 as follows. She said: ‘Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools. So it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement’.
You can read a summary of the findings here.
Note the scale of the failure. It is not that there has been only a low level of educational impact, but there has been NO IMPACT AT ALL.
So what is going on? The explanation is that the basic suppositions are wrong. What if there is no 'gap'? Children are all different in all sorts of ways including their physical and mental development. There is a large variation in the age at which girls start their periods. No-one talks about a 'puberty gap'.
In the cognitive realm Piaget carried out hundreds of experiments on the cognitive development of babies. While the Piaget doubters love to nit pick about the details, no one denies that there are qualitative stages in the development of infant cognition.
Some of this is time-dependent maturation. Should we expect all infants to develop at the same rate? Of course not. Many on the left hate the fact of 'Bell Curve' variation that occurs between all individuals and which is part of the driver of evolution that is therefore deeply rooted in the Earth's living systems.
But we are talking about developmental correlations with poverty and social deprivation. No one should be surprised about these. See my post here and here.
I strongly agree with Philip Adey’s summary at the end of his chapter in his book.
Adey P & Dillon J (Edited 2012), Bad Education, Open University Press
“The persistent correlation between different types of ability shows that a hierarchical model consisting of special abilities underpinned by a general intellectual processor offers by far the most plausible structure of human intelligence.
“there is substantial reason to believe that students’ general intelligence can be advanced by appropriate curriculum intervention. Far from general intelligence being a millstone around educator’s necks, once one accepts that it is modifiable it becomes the great educational opportunity.
“The main function of the education process from nursery school – maybe as far as first degree level, should be to develop students’ general intelligence.”
For this to take place investment has to be targeted onto the right kind of educational, not social intervention.
Educational underperformance is not rooted in social inequality but in the quality of schooling. In this regard Wilshaw and Gove are right. Where they are disastrously wrong is in thinking that marketising the education system promotes the right kind of educational intervention, when it does the exact opposite.
Marketisation is a vigorous, continuous generator of perverse incentives and flawed ‘common sense’ distractions, that results in the wrong kind of behaviourist rote learning and cramming directed at meeting ‘floor targets’ and other invalid and wholly arbitrary performance indicators. If anything, it is making our children dimmer rather than brighter.
So if we are concerned about the development of cognition in our children then we should be researching and developing pedagogy that has been proven to promote general cognitive development.
Will this 'narrow the gap'? No, because children of all abilities and developmental stages will benefit from a developmental pedagogy. Will it benefit the children of poorer parents? Certainly, who knows how individuals may respond when stimulated in this way? There is no fixed 'educational potential' for any child.
But we also need to much more relaxed about the facts of human variation. We must vigorously assert the entitlement of all children for their individual development to have equal priority regardless of the stage they are at, in a comprehensive school system that is not corrupted by marketisation.
See also this updated article