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Education and Social Class

John Simkin

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Interesting article in today's Guardian:


It is a familiar scene: mum and dad hunched at the kitchen table, poring over Ofsted reports and brochures, trying to fathom which is the best school for their child. But a new report, obtained by Education Guardian, suggests that these well-meaning parents, and thousands like them, are looking in the wrong place. Instead of trying to decode inspectors' reports or work out whether academies are better than voluntary-aided schools or trusts superior to community comprehensives, they need look no further than the average earnings among parents.

A study by academics at University College London (UCL) and Kings College London has given statistical backbone to the view that the overwhelming factor in how well children do is not what type of school they attend- but social class. It appears to show what has often been said but never proved: that the current league tables measure not the best, but the most middle-class schools; and that even the government's "value-added" tables fail to take account of the most crucial factor in educational outcomes - a pupil's address.

The report, which uses previously unreleased information from the Department for Education and Skills, matches almost 1 million pupils with their individual postcode and exam scores at 11 and 15.

This unprecedented project has revealed that a child's social background is the crucial factor in academic performance, and that a school's success is based not on its teachers, the way it is run, or what type of school it is, but, overwhelmingly, on the class background of its pupils.

"These are very important findings, which should change the way parents, pupils and politicians think about schools," says Richard Webber, professor at UCL. "This is the first time we have been able to measure the precise impact of a child's social background on their educational performance, as well as the importance of a school's intake on its standing in the league tables."

The findings come at a pivotal time in education with the government determined to push through its education reforms in a new schools bill, expected to be published today. If it is successful, all primary and secondary schools will be encouraged to become independent trusts with control over their own admissions. But many critics have argued that the government should be introducing more rigorous controls over admissions - to ensure as many schools as possible have a balanced intake of middle- and working-class children.

The study found that, whatever their background, children do better the more "middle-class" the school they attend, and also that more than 50% of a school's performance is accounted for by the social make-up of its pupils.

In affluent areas, such as Dukes Avenue, Muswell Hill, in north London, and Lammas Park Road, Ealing, west London, the study would expect 67% of 11-year-olds to achieve level 5 in the national English tests and 94% of 15-yearolds to get five or more passes at GCSE at grade C and above.

Meanwhile, of the children growing up in more deprived areas, such as Hillside Road, Dudley, or Laurel Road, Tipton (both in the West Midlands), just 13% are likely to get the top level 5 in the national English tests for 11-year-olds, while only 24% of 15-year-olds will be reckoned to achieve the benchmark five-plus GCSEs at grade C and above.

Put simply, the more middle-class the pupils, the better they do. The more middle-class children there are at the school, the better it does. It is proof that class still rules the classroom.

"The results show that the position of a school in published league tables, the criterion typically used by parents to select successful schools, depends more on the social profile of its pupils than the quality of the teachers," says Webber, who, along with Professor Tim Butler from Kings, has devised new school league tables from the data that take the social background of each pupil into account. "

As it stands, parents who want to do the best for their children should choose a school according to how middle-class its intake is, rather than on the type of school or the quality of the teaching.

"For schools the message is clear. Selecting children whose homes are in high-status neighbourhoods is one of the most effective ways of retaining a high position in the league table. For statisticians, meanwhile, it proves that the existing tables, which ignore the types of home from which a school draws its pupils, are necessarily an unfair and imprecise means of judging a school's achievements."

The study looked at 476,000 11-year olds and 482,000 15-year-olds. The data was analysed through Mosaic, a programme devised by the information company Experian, which divides the UK population by postcode into 11 main groups and 61 types, providing detailed insight into the socio-demographics, lifestyles, culture and behaviour of UK citizens. It is being used in key policy areas, such as health and crime, but this is the first time it has been used to assess the link between education performance and social class.

The study revealed how pupils from each of the 61 socio-economic groups performed given their background, allowing statisticians to set a benchmark score and measure each school's performance against that, in light of its intake. For this research Mosaic was linked to the Pupil Level Annual Statistics Data (National Pupil Database), provided by the DfES, to enable more accurate and context-based benchmarking of educational attainment.

The full report, which has yet to be given a title, will be published later this year and will be available from UCL.

Webber and Butler warn that introducing further freedoms for schools, as the government is, may allow middle-class parents and schools to choose each other, leaving those from poorer backgrounds stranded in an increasingly segregated system.

"Given the chance, a school will do as well as it can, and, as this research shows, that means attracting as many middleclass pupils as possible. Parentscan see that their children will do better in the most middle-class schools, so they will strive to work the system to get in. So, by giving schools more independence and creating a market in education, you run the serious risk of polarising pupils along class lines," says Webber.

He insists the government's attempts to introduce a market in education are also economically flawed: "The beneficial peer group effects caused by the children of highly educated parents means a market will not operate in the usual way. The best educational achievement for the largest number of pupils will be achieved by having a broad social mix of pupils in as many schools as possible. Some schools that currently draw their pupils from privileged social strata would lose out, but education standards would increase overall."

Ministers who have gone cold on the idea of banding school admissions by ability in last year's white paper are unlikely to take much heed of the authors' concerns, but the new school league tables created by Webber and Butler are likely to raise further questions about the validity of the existing criteria for measuring success.

The tables, which work out how well schools should do in light of the social background of their intake, throw up differences with the scores produced by the DfES. In the primary school table, many previously middling schools come near the top of the pile. For secondary schools, the differences between the DfES's value-added figures and the alternative table are less pronounced. "For the first time, we can see exactly how well schools are doing, taking into account the really crucial factor - the social background of their pupils," said Webber. "Previously even the value-added tables have failed to recognise the success of schools that serve very deprived communities. Conversely, some of the schools that are usually near the top in traditional tables are shown to be not quite as successful when you realise just how privileged their intake is."

This is a view echoed - unsurprisingly - by Christine Haddock, headteacher at Larkspur community school in Gateshead -the most successful primary in the country according to the new league table.

"This is fantastic news," Haddock told Education Guardian. "We have always known that we are doing a good job for the children here, but the usual league tables rarely reflect that feeling.

"We serve a deprived area. In the last three years 46%-59% of our children have been eligible for free school meals [the standard indicator of deprivation]. But these findings reflect what we have always known: that this is a good school that looks after its pupils as well as it possibly can. Many of them are at quite a low level when they arrive, but they make massive strides before they leave.

"In the end, it's not about where you come in tables, it's about the difference that we can make to children's lives round here, but this will be a real boost to all the people who work so hard at the school."

Another primary headteacher who welcomed the new league tables was Simon O'Keefe, headteacher of The Powell School in Dover, Kent, which came second in the country after not making the top 250 schools in the value-added rankings produced by the Guardian from the DfES performance tables.

"It is only in recent years that we are starting to feel we are getting recognition, but nothing like this," says O'Keefe. "It is obviously nice to feel we are successful in what we are trying to do here, but there is always room for improvement and, in the end, league tables are nice, but it is about teaching children to the best of our abilities so that they can reach their potential."

The school has around 33% of pupils eligible for free school meals and a similar proportion with special educational needs. "All our children, with perhaps one or two exceptions, come from the local council estate and from a fairly deprived background, but we have high expectations for them. We have high expectations of what they can achieve and of their behaviour. That, along with excellent teaching, is our fairly obvious secret."

Among secondary schools, although many community schools with more socially deprived intakes make it into the top 200, some of the more traditional table-toppers still do well, particularly those from the grammar school sector.

Webber says this is because there is more selection at secondary schools, so they often cream off the more able pupils from disadvantaged areas while maintaining high results.

He adds that the research, including the new league tables, should be seen as the start rather than the end of an ongoing discussion.

"There are endless questions that this research throws up for parents and schools and, perhaps most crucially of all, for those making the decisions on where we go from here. Hopefully, this will begin a debate that will lead to a greater understanding of what is actually working in our schools and how best we can help children from all backgrounds achieve their potential."

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