The 'gap' can't be closed

Roger Titcombe's picture

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

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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 10:49

While I agree that intelligence isn't fixed, there's no doubt that disadvantage is a handicap. Pupils who arrive at school hungry or anxious because financial worries are causing tension at home are less likely to be open to learning than a pupil who's well-fed and whose family has no financial concerns. And such anxieties aren't confined to pupils eligible for free school meals - they can cause misery in advantaged families who find themselves unable to cope through redundancy, say, or illness.

Dr Merrell wasn't as dismissive of Sure Start as you suggest. She said:

"It is not just a case of providing books and toys - access is still a major issue. If disadvantaged families can access and use the full range of resources, advice and expertise available, then Sure Start could offer significant help to children from poorer backgrounds."

Helen Saunders's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 10:49

An interesting post and I agree with much of what you say here, especially about "marketisation".

But if you are using the fact that some children are not ready to start formal learning as early as others to say that children should start school at a later age, I cannot agree. What about those who are ready?

As you indicate with Strand's mention of "factors outside the school gates", many children are not ready because they have not looked at a book, listened to a story learned to sit quietly or even held a pencil. Leaving school until later is not going to help with this.

There is a need for children to work at a different pace with reading and writing and in my experience reception class at school allows for this, and is tailored to help children learn together but with individual requirements catered for. To postpone a formal learning environment does not seem to be in the best interests of any children, and it is difficult to see how this would result in a closing of the gap.

Some countries begin formal learning later, but many do not. Some of the countries in Scandinavia often held up as examples with high levels of achievement have entirely different populations - eg percentages of children with another language as their first, which make comparisons difficult on this issue.

From your final paragraph I gather you set more store by nature rather than nurture when it comes to children being ready for school - or have I got that wrong?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 12:37

Helen and Janet - This is a complex topic and I knew I would not be able to make myself clear in a post of this nature. I have written a book about it.

I am not advocating a later school starting age. I drew attention to the differences in practice only to point to the complexity of the issues. In Scandanavia and other countries that have later starts to formal education, the quality of pre school provision is arguably of much higher quality and is more developmental and less judgemental in nature, with much emphasis on carefully designed structural play.

However, the root of my concern is the obsession in the English system that children should be marched together in a conveyor belt-like process. I have a granddaughter who was five earlier the week. She entered reception alongside some children almost a full year younger. That is a year in five years. When you take account of significant developmental rate variations on top of age related maturation how can it ever be appropriate to make judgements about children based on the current cohort-tested approach to KS1 education?

When it comes to parents, there is one longstanding correlation that cannot be denied. Forget all the distractions about proxy factors related to social deprivation. The children of more cognitively able parents generally do better at school. You ask me the nature/nurture question/trap that some on the left like to use to smear those that question the social science orthodoxy that social and economic disadvantage is a conspiracy against the working class that cannot be effectively mitigated by high quality schooling OF THE RIGHT SORT.

Of course children inherit some cognitive traits from their parents through genes. There is nothing the education system can or should do about that, so I do not regard it as an issue worth getting involved in. Far more important is that children's cognitive ability, general intelligence if you like, is plastic, but if you want to help it develop then the right sort of educational, not social, intervention is needed. This needs a pre-school and KS1 that is focussed on the conceptual (and other) development of children.

As Philip Adey said, this actually applies throughout the school system. In fact it applies throughout life. Guy Claxton talks about developing 'capacity for learning'. Although this has many characteristics I think this essentially means the same thing.

We do not presently have an education system that is focussed onto individual development of pupils. We have a system where children are tested to death, not for their benefit, but as a performance measure needed to drive a market based system.

Janet is right that some parents prepare their children poorly for school. But it will always be so relatively speaking. Is there really nothing schools can do by way of effective compensation?

This is not the view taken in the secondary phase by Mossbourne Academy. This school selects a cognitively balanced intake from a very poor area where some homes do not provide the structure and resources needed to meet the developmental needs of children. So Mossbourne provides these things. Isn't that what comprehensive schools are supposed to do? The result is that Mossbourne pupils generally meet expectations in accordance with their cognitive ability, regardless of social and economic disadvantage. But we would never know that if the school did not have a banded admissions system that measures cognitive ability. High cognitive ability children can perform well in a proper comprehensive system regardless of the poverty in the home. That is a general statistical fact proven by Mossbourne. Poor communities produce a greater proportion of lower cognitive ability children at any particular age. That is also a fact. But it is cognitive ability (general intelligence) that counts.

I don't have the experience or expertise in infant or junior school education to qualify me to make specific recommendations. What I am sure of however is that general intelligence is plastic and that schools can do a great deal if they focus their efforts onto developmental learning rather than getting as many children as possible to jump hurdles for fear of Ofsted or league tables.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 13:34

Not only will the gap not narrow, but it will increase. Indeed if it is not increasing then our schools are not doing their jobs.

A teacher should expect that at the end of a year if she has done her job properly her class shows a bigger gap between the performance of the weaker pupils and the most able than existed at the start of the year. This is because those who have an aptitude for a subject will, if given good teaching, make faster progress than those who find the subject difficult. This should not be in any way controversial, since it is what every teacher experiences in every class in every year.

The more our educational system offers equally good teaching to all pupils the bigger the gap will be between the high achievers and the low achievers.

Those who set targets for "narrowing the gap" do not know what they are talking about.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 14:16

Janet - I agree that access is a major problem, but Sure Start is not a solution. Insofar as schools are concerned then part of the solution has be more uniformity of school quality - A good local school for every child. The weasel word 'choice' in a market always favours those with the deepest pockets and the sharpest elbows. You have drawn attention many times to examples of inequitable admissions arrangements. Your latest post (above) highlights inequitable school funding - deliberately created by the government for ideological free market reasons in order to favour Academies and Free Schools over the 'bog standard' high quality local LA schools that are what is really needed.

D Moore's picture
Wed, 24/09/2014 - 21:26

With regard to entry to secondary school via " banded ability". The use of banding by secondary schools to suggest that they admit a full -range of abilities is a mendacious smoke-screen for social selection.

The schools are essentially setting an entrance exam for which parents have to enter their child. The vulnerable and disengaged families will not send their child to the banding exams and so effectively promote social selection against themselves

A prime example of this is Thomas Telford School, one of Gove's favourite psuedo-comprehensives. This school chooses equal percentages of pupils across 4 bands of abilit shown in the entrance test. However "higher ability" pupils exceed 60 % . If the banding intake was fair then one would expect 33.333% for each of the low/medium/high cohorts. Furthermore this school only offers 50% of places to the local catchment , the other 50% is " everywhere else". the school's popularity means it has a much lower free school meal intake than appropriate for the local area The headteacher inspects each applicants year 5 report , including photo, presumably to further aid the selection process. They are allowed to do this as they are defined as a City Technology College.

With regard to banding it is only appropriate when enforced by the Local Authority for all pupils, otherwise it's just part of the social exclusion filter perpetrated by most faith , free and academy secondary schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 07:34

The BBC publishes details of another report which confirms that streaming 'widens [the] rich-poor achievement gap'.

This confirms OECD findings that the best-performing schools systems in PISA tests tend to be those that delay segregation (eg academic selection) until at least upper secondary (age 15/16) and research published earlier this year (and misrepresented by the Mail) that found selection increased the effects of socio-economic bacground.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 10:01

D Moore - You are right that banded admissions systems can be exploited by Academies to the disadvantage of neighbouring schools. However Mossbourne Academy is in Hackney and in Hackney there is a uniform system of banding administered by the LA for LA, faith and Academy Schools. All Hackney pupils take the CATs tests that drive banding in Y6 in all Hackney primary schools.

In my view the requirements for a common LA wide system of fair banding are as follows.

1.All the schools would have the same number of bands and the same band boundaries.
2.The band boundaries would be designed to provide equal size bands within each school based on the LA, rather than the national mean CAT scores.
3.Each school’s Admissions Criteria would be applied by the LA as part of the LA administration of the admissions system.
4.A common system for dealing with spare places and unfilled bands would apply.

A simple approach would be for a school like Mossbourne with four bands and an Admission Number of 200 to operate band admission limits of 50 with excess applications in each band addressed through the oversubscription criteria in the admissions policy.

The current legal status of Academies precludes the imposition of such arrangements by LAs. However, despite being less than ideal, the Hackney system is still a major step forward, in that it is better for pupils and schools than what happens in other LA areas, which is either banded Academies competing with unbanded LA and other schools (LA schools always disadvantaged) or unbanded LA schools competing with each other (advantages/disadvantages determined by catchment area demographics).

The Hackney system probably approaches the fairest possible within the current national regulations and the league table driven market system. It provides all schools with a reasonably balanced intake and prevents schools becoming sinks in which fully comprehensive provision is impossible.

… Read it here. …

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