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?