Education, educational achievement/failure, schools and class have been a common topic for recent sociological research. In January 2008 research by the BBC showed that:


White working class boys were failing in schools; GCSE data on pupils receiving free school meals released by the government show only 15% of white working class boys in England got five good GCSEs including maths and English last year; among white boys from more affluent homes – 45% achieved that level of qualification; poorer pupils from Indian and Chinese backgrounds fared much better – with 36% and 52% making that grade respectively; ministers say they are narrowing the gap between affluent and poorer pupils.


In 2008 the national average for all pupils in England achieving five good GCSEs including English and Maths (A* to C) was 46% last year. David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman prior to the 2010 Coalition government, said:


“We should be ashamed to live in a country where there is such a huge gap between rich and poor children. To have 85% of white boys from poor families failing to achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths is truly shocking. The government has failed to tackle the chasm that exists between the opportunities of most of the poorest and richest in our society. We need a massive targeted increase in funding for deprived young people, to allow more catch-up classes and additional support to give every child a chance.”


As Opposition spokesman on education (and now Secretary of State for Education) Michael Gove said at the time:


“The (Labour) government’s failure to improve standards in education has hit the poorest hardest. We need a school system that allows bright children to succeed regardless of their economic background. Closing the attainment gap in education remains a top priority, and we have made encouraging recent progress.”


Jim Knight, Labour’s Schools Minister in January 2008 said:


“We can only achieve this by focusing on the basics like getting all children reading after two years of primary school. Instead we still have a system where the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils grows as they progress through their school careers. Closing the attainment gap in education remains a top priority, and we have made encouraging recent progress. There has been good news on our efforts to address social mobility, with pupils eligible for free school meals improving faster than average. Between 2003 and 2007, pupils eligible for free school meals who achieved 5 good GCSEs rose 11.1 percentage points from 24.4% to 35.5%. For non-free school meals pupils, the increase was 7.6 percentage points, from 55.2% to 62.8%. Alongside pupils on free school meals, previously disadvantaged groups are also doing better. Over the last four years, black pupils have made the biggest improvement, at almost twice the national average.”


Knight said that policies had been introduced to try to help underachieving boys.


However, research indicates that bright poor children ‘slip back’. Social mobility has stabilised but not improved, research suggests. Clever children from poor families face being overtaken by less bright children from affluent homes. The findings are part of a study for the Sutton Trust which says UK social mobility has not improved since 1970. It says rich children are catching up with poorer peers in developmental tests between ages three and five and will overtake them by the age of seven. The government says it is too early to say what will happen to the young people the charity’s report focuses on. Researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Surrey examined the development of children born in 2000 and 2001 to see if their development was influenced by income. They looked at test studies of children from various income groups at the ages of three and five.


The report said: “Children in the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at age three to the 65th percentile at age five.” Meanwhile, those from the richest households who were among the least able at three moved up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by the age of five. Report authors Dr Jo Blanden and Professor Stephen Machin conclude: “If this trend were to continue, the children from affluent backgrounds would be likely to overtake the poorer children in test scores by age seven”. They also said while 44% of young people from the richest 20% of households were awarded degrees in 2002, only 10% from the poorest 20% did so.


The report concludes: “Parental background continues to exert a significant influence on the academic progress of recent generations of children. “Stark inequalities are emerging for today’s children in early cognitive test scores – mirroring the gaps that existed and widened with age for children born 30 years previously.” Lee Elliott-Major, from the Sutton Trust, says the environment a child grows up in is all-important. “Parental background is so dominant in terms of predicting and influencing people’s future prospects. It’s about general aspirations, being in an environment that is conducive to talking about lots of different things, it’s those sorts of very broad things.”


The Sutton Trust also studied poverty gaps. The study also concludes that a narrowing of social mobility seen in the 1970s and 80s has now stabilised. However, the report says the UK remains one of the worst among developed countries for social mobility, alongside the United States.


Beverley Hughes, Labour MP and Minister for Children in January 2008 said of the Sutton Trust’s report: “As we look to the future we hope to see more evidence of our reforms making a real difference to people’s lives. This new research is based on the Millennium Cohort born in 2000-01. It’s far too early to say what will happen to those young people over their lifetime. Those children have yet to enter Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, where overall standards are continuing to rise and poverty gaps have narrowed since 2003.”


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex