Test scores and poverty 2: parents’ education

The mountains of data which overwhelm schools are next to useless, because the categories they use don’t measure up to reality. A major reason is that the categories ‘Free School Meals’ and ‘disadvantaged’ don’t reflect the serious burden of poverty that many children face. They don’t show either the length or the severity of that poverty. There’s no such thing as a standard FSM child. (see our previous post)

On top of that, many children don’t match the criteria for claiming free school meals but are still experiencing serious hardship. There is no such thing as a standard’ non-FSM child. Some are living in poverty, and others live privileged lives.

Here we present another reason why the data is almost useless: it says nothing about parents’ education and what they have been able to pass on to their children. Statistically the biggest influence on children’s attainment is their parents’ education, particularly the mother’s.


A major government-funded study run by Oxford University tracked large numbers of children from nursery school to leaving school. Children of mothers with GCSE as their highest qualification had Key Stage 2 scores around the national average (i.e. the 50th percentile rank). The average score if mothers had no qualifications was well below average – around the 30th percentile. Few of these children score above average in SATs, and some are right at the bottom.

The average score for children whose mothers had university degrees (or NVQ level 4) was very high – averaging at the 78th percentile. Very few of these pupils score below average, and many will leave primary school with SATs scores near the top. Well educated parents are able to pass on many educational benefits to their children.

The hidden differences between schools and areas

There are enormous differences between different parts of England in terms of adult qualifications. Partly this is the result of the brain-drain south – graduates moving towards London for suitable work.

Two areas can even have similar Free School Meals levels but differently qualified adult populations. Imagine for example two areas showing 20% FSM and 80% non-FSM. Maybe very few of the FSM children have graduate parents. But suppose in one area the 80% non-FSM includes many graduates, and far fewer in the other. This is not unusual.

Compare for example Kensington and Chelsea (London) with North East Lincolnshire (Grimsby). The free meal data is almost identical, since affluent Kensington and Chelsea contains some areas of extreme poverty.

Kensington and Chelsea      49% disadvantaged                         21% current FSM

North East Lincolnshire        41% disadvantaged                         19% current FSM

In the former 64% of adults have degrees, but in the latter it is only 22%. This more than explains the proportions of pupils passing their KS2 SATs (70% and 51%).

Nationally 39% of the adult working-age population have university degrees (or other qualifications at NVQ4). In most of London it is well above average, even in areas which have traditionally not been regarded as affluent and which include serious pockets of poverty:

Hackney 59%
Islington 62%
Lambeth 67%.

In many poorer northern areas with rundown coastal towns and de-industrialised cities it is in the 20s:

Hartlepool 22%
Blackpool 23%
Knowsley 23%
Middlesbrough 26%
Hull 27%
South Tyneside 29%.

No account is taken of this very important factor when local authorities and schools are judged by league table position or Ofsted. The teachers serving the poorest populations are simply told to try harder.

Of course this doesn’t mean it’s right for children growing up in Grimsby to achieve less than those in Chelsea, but it’s pointless and offensive blaming their teachers. To change this we need a dramatic political change:

  • new investment providing good career opportunities for young people
  • highly qualified nursery staff
  • free tutorial help in homework centres for pupils falling behind
  • holiday schemes with great sports and cultural programmes
  • a curriculum which met young people’s needs.

 

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