The fight for ‘equal opportunities’ has been a major aim of education reformers and campaigners. A fairer education system has also been considered integral if ‘social mobility’ is to be increased. But for years, researchers have reaffirmed the importance of social background and social origin on school performance, arguing that ‘education cannot compensate for society’. The effects of social and economic deprivation on educational performance have been starkly exposed during the pandemic, as enforced ‘home schooling’ has widened the attainment gap further.
But there continues to be significant interest in how differences between schools can widen gaps in performance. As a result, as well as continuing to oppose the existence of grammar schools, campaigners have correctly highlighted the negative effects of Academies and Free Schools, the latest examples of the ‘internal market’ reforms imposed in the 1988 Education Reform Act and developed further by New Labour’s ‘choice and diversity’ agenda.
But competition between schools also fits an education model in which students main aim is to gain the qualifications and grades that improve their prospects in the labour market. These days this invariably means securing places at prestigious universities. As a result, the main reason for ‘choosing’ one school rather than another is because of its exam results and league table position.
Though generally no longer allowed to explicitly choose their students on the basis of academic performance, schools with higher league table positions rely on more socially advantaged families being able to ‘choose’ them. Formal challenges to admissions decisions are common place, as is moving house to be close to a ‘good school’. There’s even evidence of increasingly desperate parents being prepared to join church congregations to secure places at higher performing voluntary aided schools.
So education’s ability to increase social mobility continues to be overestimated. Much of the upward mobility during the post-war years should be understood as ‘absolute’ mobility –where white collar/professional work was expanding and thus providing space for working class children to move into this new ‘middle’. In comparison, ‘relative’ mobility –the chances of those further down the education queue moving up, compared to those in front of them, has remained extremely limited. Today, as a result of declining employment opportunities and an increasingly polarised occupational structure, for many, the main fear is downward mobility, as young people become increasingly ‘overqualified but underemployed’ – making it even more essential for the socially advantaged to protect their privileges and stay at the front of the queue.
Current discussion about closing the attainment gap is welcome, but this would require radical actions. There’s no doubt that a significant redistribution of funding to schools based on their social intakes – going way beyond the current ‘pupil premium’ – would reduce inequalities. A different type of curriculum, the reform of assessment and smaller class sizes would also help ! But other policies would also be required, like abolishing private education (still the best way of securing educational advantage), imposing quotas on schools to ensure social mixing, limiting access to private tutors, even cancelling out the benefits of moving into a particular catchment area. These measures would go further than anything even considered before, and would likely be considered infringements on the personal freedoms people enjoy in Western democracies. Those promoting them would also be accused of wanting to ‘level down’ !
Arguably, the best way to reduce educational inequalities is to improve the employment prospects of young people – for example by creating job guarantee schemes. This would make education less ‘high stakes’, less of a competitive activity and allow much greater cooperation between different schools, not to mention making learning more enjoyable. But that would be dependent on different sorts of economic policies and major changes to work and employment.