13 September 2007

Opportunities for equalisation

Peter Wilby on educational opportunities:

... more than ten million Britons still work in manual jobs. And as a report published this month reminds us ('Reducing Inequalities' by Leon Feinstein et al, from the National Children's Bureau), many of their children still suffer inferior opportunities compared to their peers from professional families. ...

Wilby does not define 'equal opportunities'. Does he mean 'the same likelihood of socioeconomic success given the same level of innate ability'? But it's not clear whether Wilby (or Feinstein et al) believe in innate ability at all. If they did, they would have to consider heritability, which would mean a correlation between success and parental status, even with perfectly equal opportunities.

The government has two big answers: school improvement and early intervention.

Early intervention? To prevent — what? The correlation from working?

Both have a role, but perhaps not as big as the priority given to them suggests. As another report published this month points out ('Experiences of Poverty and Educational Disadvantage' by Donald Hirsch for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), only 14 per cent of the variation in children's performance can be accounted for by school quality.

"Only 14 per cent". Does this mean children are only 14 per cent blank slates, only 14 per cent mouldable by the educational process?

As Feinstein shows, the rest is not necessarily set in stone by early home environment.

So the rest must be home environment, except interventionists needn't worry that it is all early home environment?

Politicians now frequently quote research showing that, by 22 months, it is too late for many children because their development has already fallen far behind that of their peers in middle-class homes. This finding, shocking as it is ...

How terrible and shocking: the possibility that by 22 months, it is already too late for interventionists to achieve equalisation of individuals.

This finding, shocking as it is, misses the bigger picture. As Feinstein reports, even those children from the lowest socio-economic groups who are doing well at 22 months then tend to fall back relative to other children. The process continues throughout childhood, and it operates both ways: the initially low-achieving middle-class children improve their position, while the position of the high-achieving working-class children declines. ...

Could this have something to do with the fact that schools spend more and more of their time imparting ideology and propaganda, and less and less of it actually teaching? So that only children whose parents are prepared to compensate for the lack of teaching at school are actually able to learn anything? In any case, the opposite effect could equally well be spun to the same propaganda purpose. Say there was more stability in the performance of working class children, while the position of middle class children was relatively mobile. Then you could argue that schools unfairly benefited the middle class children, allowing them to realign by reference to ability, while the working class children failed to benefit at all, leaving them in the same position as when they started (whether high or low).

In other words, during their school years, children's performance, far from being equalised, is aligned more closely with their social origins.

(My emphasis.) So clearly equalisation is what Mr Wilby thinks schools should be aiming at.

This might seem a depressing conclusion, but Feinstein argues it needn't be. As he puts it, children's educational development is "malleable", and if everyone were more aware of that, we might make more progress in equalising opportunities.

Children are malleable. Let's make educators and psychologists even more aware of this tenet.

But the answers, Hirsch suggests, probably don't lie entirely, or even mainly, in educational quality as conventionally measured. The nub of the problem for the disadvantaged, he argues, lies not only within classrooms but "in what happens across children's lives". Drawing on a large body of Rowntree research, he suggests that many deprived children "feel powerless as learners" and experience school as a coercive and controlling institution. ...

Extending compulsion, as now seems to be on the agenda, is unlikely to help with that particular problem.

If we are to give less advantaged children a chance, Hirsch argues, we need to rethink educational relationships. He favours, for example, extended school days

I thought it was just implied schools should be less 'coercive'?

but says these shouldn't be more of the same classroom-based, compulsory learning.

Presumably it will be compulsory to attend, just not compulsory to learn anything particular. So we are back to the problem of not learning anything while at school, which is unlikely to help those children from working class backgrounds who do actually want to learn and who would rise socially if they were actually taught anything useful.

Working-class children fall behind because their homes ... don't and often can't provide the same support for formal learning as more affluent homes. Given there's a limit to how much we can change the homes, we may have to consider changing schools, and the way they treat children and parents, more radically than we have done so far.

We can't change homes enough to achieve equality of outcome, so we will have to change the schools. Perhaps by making state schools even worse for middle class children?

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