Social disadvantage and low attainment

Roger Titcombe's picture
The Independent of 19 Dec carried this article by columnist Owen Jones about the iniquities of 11 plus selection and grammar schools. He mainly repeats the arguments of Sir Michael Wilshaw in terms of the very low proportion of children from poor backgrounds that get selected.

However, Jones makes a further important point. Contrary to popular belief, most working class children that got into grammar schools failed to do well in them. He writes, "

What about the minority of working-class children who did make it to grammars? Generally speaking, they did badly. According to a 1954 government report, out of 16,000 grammar school pupils from semi-skilled or unskilled families, around 9,000 failed to get three passes at O-level. Just one in 20 were awarded two A-levels."

I put this down to generally uninspired teaching combined with little effort made to address the cultural awkwardness felt by children from council estates (like me). Owen Jones, like most of the mainstream left, blames the failures of the selective system on general 'inequality'

This is his closing paragraph.

"The real issue is social inequality. By the age of five, children from the poorest backgrounds have a vocabulary up to 18 months behind those from the richest backgrounds; no wonder selection a few years later purges so many. That’s why we need far more resources at an earlier age, with more investment in Sure Start and nurseries. Diet, housing, the stresses of poverty: here are far bigger factors, and the reason middle-class pupils tend to do well wherever they are sent."

But Dr Christine Merrell of Durham University Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, responsible for a long-term study into the effectiveness of Sure Start called for an urgent review of the scheme.

She concluded from her study that, ‘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". Similar disappointing outcomes resulted from the American ‘Head Start’ programme on which ‘Sure Start’ is based, so there is very little evidence that purely social programmes, however well financed, are likely to result in educational equality.

The problem for the left lies is its historic dislike of the concept of 'general intelligence'. I can't do justice to this here but I strongly recommend Chapter 12 by the late Philip Adey in, 'Bad Education - Debunking Myths in Education' Open University Press 2012, edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon.

Adey attempts to, "try to steer a narrow course between the Scylla of fixed, highly heritable intelligence and the Charybdis of multiple intelligences."

I take him to mean that he is seeking the vital nuggets of wisdom to be found between a 'rock and a hard place'.

The interventions developed by Shayer and Adey through the Cognitive Acceleration (CA) movement are not social but educational, and have been rigorously tested and evaluated. The contemporary lesson of Mossbourne Academy is that rigorous educational intervention of the right kind, that is blind to socio-economic circumstances, works. The key CA claim, developed over 30 years, is that teaching for cognitive gain in any subject context produces improved performance across the curriculum.

I strongly agree with Philip Adey's summary at the end of his chapter:

"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.
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