Sometimes an educational news story comes along that lingers in the mind far longer than the usual chip-paper headline. One such story, earlier this month, was triggered for me when The Sutton Trust released some research labelled ‘Missing Talent‘, about our youngsters who perform well at KS2, but don’t convert that into success in their GCSEs and beyond.The evidence was widely shared in the press, such as here, here and here. The plight of ‘poor but bright’ boys seized many of the headlines. Though undoubtedly a narrowing of the story, the focus on boys from working class backgrounds struck a deeply personal chord with me.
The numbers are large and the story is depressingly familiar.
When I read reports, like the Sutton Trust ‘Missing Talent’ Research Brief, conducted by Becky Allen, from the Education Datalab, it is another stark reminder of the issues that beset too many of our students and inhibit them from fulfilling their potential despite our best efforts as teachers.
The ‘Missing Talent’ report made the following key findings:
I doubt many of these findings come as a surprise to teachers, or anybody else living in modern Britain. The state of affairs that sees Eton boys filling the cabinet and the stark evidence that private school students are 55 times more likely to end up at Oxbridge than their FSM peers, reveals the clear social differences that beset our education system and our society.
My entire school experience, and more, was framed by my persona knowledge that my father always wanted to follow school with going to Art school, but that his father ensured that he got a job and contributed to the family earnings. Such ambition thwarted is the epitome of ‘missing talent’. Not uncommon, the limitations on working class aspiration was the accepted norm decades ago. Skip forward to my generation, to my schooling in an inner-city Liverpool all-boys comprehensive, and though the limitations were less overt, they were still tangible and implicit in our lives. A pitifully small number of my friends gained access to university and the related world of professional careers.
Some of the issues are intractable and beyond the control of teachers, school leaders and policy makers. A subtle problem is the peer culture that hardens around such ‘missing talent’ from working class communities. Appearing academic can feel like a betrayal of your friends, your roots and even your family. When you fragile teen identity is fastened so tightly to the appearance of being ‘cool’ and rejecting authority, then seeking to leave your friends and pursue university can elicit guilt and fear and more. Going against the tide of almost all your peers takes no little courage and a fistful of support factors. Making such access ‘normal’ is essential; building networks of ‘normal’ roles models is crucial too.
Better teaching and a high quality education system will no doubt help, but many more deep-seated social issues lie at the root of the problem. Outside of teaching and schooling we can ask the question: does money matter? It mattered for my father and for many it matters deeply still. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have asked the exact same question – see here. Here are some key points from their research:
- Children in lower-income families have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, not just because low income is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.
- The evidence was strongest for cognitive development and school achievement, followed by social- behavioural development. Income also affects outcomes indirectly impacting on children, including maternal mental health, parenting and home environment.
- The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.
- A given sum of money makes significantly more difference to children in low-income than better- off households (but still helps better-off children).
- Money in early childhood makes most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence it makes more difference to social and behavioural outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, money does matter.
What does this tell us? Well, we should never stop aiming to improve the quality of our schools and the quality of our teaching – that is something that we have a the capacity to control to a significant degree – however, we should not perpetuate a lie that improving schooling alone will compensate for the impact of social inequality. Cuts to the fabric of our social system will no doubt impact educational outcomes. The UK seems happy to accept the austerity narrative, but we should not stand by to see inequality grow still further. We need to be tremendously vigilant about every swing of the knife.
When I hear about the potential cut to the ‘University Maintenance Grant‘ – see the BBC story here – I get deeply angry. I think about individual stories of students at the margin of being able to enter higher education – like this story related by my Headteacher, John Tomsett, about a girl called Cat, who is crowd-funding to help her into Higher ed. – see the story here. Yes – it is recounted regularly that the increase of fees hasn’t deterred poorer students from entering university, but we will reach a critical point where is dissuades more and that it implictly discourages the vast missing talent that is already in existence to contemplate changing their lot and accessing higher education.
Plainly, there is too much missing talent already.
Schools will always struggle to provide working class students, male or female, with the professional and educational networks that are the privilege of those children in better off families. Teachers and school leaders cannot right the inequality that sees the ‘Social Mobility and Poverty Commission’ report on research showing ‘working-class applicants struggle to get access to top jobs in the UK’, but we can and should challenge such inequality every chance we get. We should make our voices heard loudly when we see policy perpetuate inequity. At the same time we can concentrate on great teaching, a powerful curriculum and shining a light on the talent in our schools before it gets lost.