Quite rightly, getting a decent education is regarded as a fundamental right of all children, yet research indicates that equality in this sense may be somewhat of a pipe dream in England, since social background and income are inexorably linked to a child’s educational attainment.

Recent findings from the Institute of Education (IOE) in London shows that social class is a powerful force when it comes to determining the skills we obtain; to be more precise, English adults whose parents have university degrees have higher levels of literacy and numeracy than those from underprivileged backgrounds. Moreover, the educational gap in these subjects between the highest and lowest achievers is wider in England than in most of the 24 countries surveyed.

A problem for the youth

The educational gap is particularly prevalent among the youth in England, aged 16 to 24. Those in this age group whose parents have been to university were likely to achieve 67 more points in a particular numeracy test than those whose parents only obtained a GCSE-level education.

This particular gap was more pronounced in England than any other country surveyed, except Slovakia. The gap in literacy between the two groups amounted to 58 points, again topping all countries except Slovakia. The impact of social background on literacy skills in this age group is twice as high in England as in the Netherlands, while its effect on numeracy skills is twice as high in England as it is in Spain. Interestingly, the influence of social factors on both literacy and numeracy skills was found to be particularly dramatic in English-speaking countries, especially in England and the USA.

It is important to note that the problem is not exclusive to young people; researchers from the Institute of Education’s Research Centre on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) observed that “in England inequality in both skills outcomes and opportunities, relative to other countries, is quite high for the older age groups and for the adult population as a whole, and very high amongst the younger age groups. This assessment applies to both literacy and numeracy, but relative inequality appears to be highest for numeracy.”

A problem that stems from the past and threatens the future

Researchers from LLAKES stated that “the primary cause of adult skills inequality in England is the exceptionally unequal skills outcomes of the initial education system sustained over a long period, fuelled and supplemented by an especially strong influence from social background.” They noted that the differences in skill levels cannot be attributed to the effects of migrant’s skills or adult learning. Since the problem has been so long in the making, it is one that will require plenty of effort and work to overcome.

Proposed solutions

A report entitled The Social Class Gap For Educational Achievement: A Review of the Literature, authored by Emma Perry and Becky Francis, notes that both governments and charities have recognised the problem of the inequality of skills in the English population, and have made various attempts to counter it. Despite the array of initiatives, however, there is considerable debate regarding their effectiveness.

The authors note that thus far, there have been marked trends in the various philanthropic interventions which aim to address social class gaps in educational achievement. These include:

  • An approach based on ‘merit’, which targets high achieving young individuals from working class backgrounds
  • A focus on ‘raising aspirations’ of individuals and their families
  • A focus on academic paths and on the value of attending renowned universities and embarking on successful career paths
  • A focus on achievement, rather than on engaging in the educational process

These measures have failed, state the authors, for a variety of reasons: if large-scale changes are to be achieved, working class youths should be valued as a group, rather than divided according to their so-called ‘ability’. Moreover, the idea that success depends on ‘raising aspirations’ seems to suggest that those who do not achieve academic success are to blame for their so-called ‘low expectations’.

Focussing on academic paths, meanwhile, has the potential to socially segregate pupils, since current policies tend to focus on the achievements of individual schools, thus favouring families which possess significant capital.

The report goes on to say that more effective measures to narrow the educational gap include:

  • Focusing on educational engagement by working class youth, prior to focusing on academic achievement per se
  • Addressing working class youth as a whole and not just those who display a unique ‘ability’. The aim is to find collective solutions rather than on individualistic ones
  • Paying attention to other paths (including vocational careers) in addition to academic paths
  • Valuing the existing knowledge and experiences of young people from working class backgrounds

The authors note that although the issues of social class intersect with gender and ethnicity in an intricate manner to create educational gaps between the rich and poor, the overriding predictor of educational achievement in Britain continues to be that of social class.

They argue that targeting individual, so-called ‘able’ members of the working class is not likely to make a significant difference; rather, it is vital to understand the employment prospects of the youth as well as their local circumstances and to tackle the problem using a multi-pronged approach. Moreover, valuing people’s experience and expertise are an important way to foster success, without directly focussing on attainment.

Further research is required as to which factors (if any) aside from education may cause the wide skills gap in England. If the education system is the sole cause, the particular characteristics that lead to inequality need to be identified and addressed through specific rather than generic measures.

A good place to start is by analysing the factors which are common to countries showing large skills gaps based on social class. Thus far, research points to the following mechanisms which promote social stratification in education:

  • Family background
  • The particular school attended by the child (some schools have better resources; the influence of peers is also influential)
  • The design of a national education system

Raymond Boudon’s ‘positional theory of educational equality’ explains that a child’s educational opportunities are affected both by the skills and expectations they learn from their family, and by the way that social class affects the educational choices made by parents and students – i.e. depending on their social position, students are likely to calculate the costs and results of selecting the best academic routes available to achieve the academic goals they set. Therefore, the more opportunities for academic choice, the more social background affects individual achievement through the specific choices made.

There are clearly many issues at play here. But narrowing the gaps between the ‘have and have nots’ has to remain a priority in the British education system. This is truly an area where educational reform needs to focus – over to you Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.




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Joseph is a French and Spanish to English translator, language enthusiast, and blogger.