This is not to deny that schools are an important factor in raising educational standards, nor that schools should be strong engines of social mobility. Schools can improve the academic attainment of disadvantaged students by positive policies and actions.
Research by the OECD has shown that those school systems which do well by their poorest students have a strong emphasis on collaboration between schools – so that effective practice is shared and developed.
High teacher quality is another important factor. The poorest children need the most effective teachers working in a professional environment where teaching is a high status profession with ambitious standards and high performance expectations.
The OECD also poses a key challenge to much current school practice and political rhetoric when it concludes that segregation by ability disproportionately disadvantages the poorest children, reinforcing low expectations and denying poor children access to a broad and balanced curriculum.
However, with 80% of a child’s educational performance unaffected by the school they attend, or the policies it adopts, it is time for politicians look beyond the school when looking at factors that inhibit social mobility.
In widening their gaze politicians should be much more concerned about, and determined to end, child poverty. The USA and the UK share an unenviable record in having a large percentage of their children living below the poverty line. The figures are shocking. Nearly half (48%) of American children live in poverty, whilst in the UK 2.6 million children live in absolute income poverty, an increase of 275,000.
There can be no doubt that child poverty is the major influence on educational attainment. Developmental gaps between children born in better off and worse off families are established by the age of three – driven in large part by home circumstances. Inequality and disadvantage start at birth and quickly become entrenched.
Poor children are half as likely to be breast fed. Their mothers are three times more likely to suffer from depression. US researchers have demonstrated that children from high-income families will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than children from low-income families.
Language is central to educational attainment. Children need to use language effectively to express their thoughts, develop their ideas and understand their teachers’ explanations and instructions. Poor children do not only suffer from language deprivation – all aspects of their life are affected.
One American research study found that before the age of six, affluent children spend 1,300 more hours in places other than their homes, day care centres, or schools compared to low-income children. By the time high-income children start school, they have spent 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities.
Schools simply cannot compensate for the serious and lasting effects of child poverty. In England, the gap in attainment between children eligible for free school meals and the rest is 19% at age 5, 17% at age 11 and 26% at age 16.
In the USA, researchers from the University of Michigan have found the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion (the single most important predictor of success in the work force) has grown by about 50% since the late 1980s. Inequality blights children’s lives and their futures.
If politicians are to do more than preach about social mobility, or wring their hands about the educational attainment of poor children, then they need to address the root cause of educational inequality – poverty.
It should be no surprise to anyone that children find it more difficult to learn if they are living in poor housing and arrive at school inadequately clothed and hungry. It is no surprise to anyone that stressed parents, plagued by low incomes, job insecurity and all the instability that brings to their relationships, should have less time and resources (both human and financial) to invest in their children.
School teachers and support staff work every day to alleviate the burden that poverty places on the life chances of poor children. They do not need lectures on social mobility from politicians whose policies increase child poverty and blight poor children’s futures.