Class matters more than school

02 November 2006

Social background governs educational successsays Hugh Rayment-Pickard

Education is the itch that governments can't resist scratching. Since SiKeith Joseph's Education Reform Act 20 years ago, the itching has been franticUnder successive governments, every part of the education system has beescratched - from baseline tests for nursery children to top-up fees foundergraduates. But, for all the scratching, there is the unsettling awarenesthat we still do not have the high-quality, egalitarian education system thawe want.

A question that is not often asked is whether governments really can makthat much difference to educational excellence. We tend to assume that eversocial problem must have a social-policy solution. Governments also like tbelieve in their own efficacy. No political party is going to say: "Actuallywe don't think we can do much about this issue." So education has been thvictim of numerous government fixes, each promising to be the final remedy.

The difficult truth is that government policy may have a limited effect opupils' future success. Of course, a good school system is crucial, buresearch shows that the decisive factors in pupil attainment are parentaattitudes and home circumstances.

Ofsted researchEducational Inequality: Mapping race, class and gender, 2000concluded: "Social class is strongly associated with exam success. In everethnic group, middle-class pupils achieve higher than average results thaworking- class pupils of the same ethnic group." The Office for NationaStatistics recorded that, in 2002, children with parents in higher professionaoccupations gained twice as many GCSEs as children with parents in routinoccupations.

A study by academics at the University of London (2006) concluded that thkey factor in how well children do is not what type of school they attend, butheir social class. The report used data from the Department for Education anSkills, matching almost one million pupils with their postcode and exam scoresThe project revealed that a child's home context is the crucial factor iacademic performance, and that a school's success is based overwhelmingly othe social class background of its pupils.

If this sounds overly academic, consider this: our parish community centrrecently ran a three-day course for secondary-school pupils. Students had twrite their ambitions on Post-it notes, and fix them to the wall. Nextstudents had to stick further Post-it notes listing the perceived obstacles ttheir achievement. More than half of them listed members of their family as thprincipal hurdle to be overcome.

This suggests that we all need to turn our attention away from schools, anstart paying much more attention to the influence that parents have over theichildren's future success. Legislating for good families is rather mordifficult than issuing decrees to schoolteachers. But the unspoken truth known all too well to teachers and politicians alike - is that we will make significant difference to the stubborn problem of pupil underachievement onlwhen we are prepared to tackle the issue of what does (and doesn't) happen ithe home.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Area Dean of Kensington and thco-author, with Steven Shakespeare, of Inclusive Godto be published by Canterbury Press in October

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