Poverty and Education: do schools need more support?

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On 24th March 2020, the Education Endowment Foundation said the attainment gap for children from the poorest homes will widen while they are not in school. So here is a short version of the speech I was to make at a fringe conference meeting.

It has long been known that early years care and education is extremely important for people’s education for life. So why is spending per pupil on this down at the bottom?  The expansion of free childcare with inadequate funding for staff, reduces the quality of provision. Our Spring 2018 conference paper identified that.

This January an Education Policy Institute (EPI) report “Early Years Workforce Development” agreed that this is affecting the disadvantaged. There are staff in early years work with great knowledge and skill, but Early Education, an organisation representing them, is very critical of government, saying that the proposal to introduce baseline testing of children when they enter the Reception Class is fundamentally flawed. The Education Endowment Foundation expressed doubts that new government Early Learning Goals will better prepare children for schooling.

It is Lib-Dem policy to triple the pupil premium for that age group and radically change the testing regime.

The gap in progress from disadvantaged backgrounds widens with age. The EPI annual report in July 2019 says that young people aged 16 to 19 from poor homes are disproportionately on lower level, lower quality courses. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in April last year (Family Matters and NEETS) says these young people are 50% more likely to be not in Education, Employment or Training. In September last, we passed a motion stating that a young person’s premium at 16+ be introduced.

Last September the EPI analysed government increased funding plans and said that on average a disadvantaged pupil will receive only half of the extra funding that will go to a non-disadvantaged pupil. They identified other factors in the plans which adversely affect the disadvantaged. The Conservatives have the wrong priorities.

Most importantly of all, we fail to recognise that helping the disadvantaged in their Education cannot be left to schools. In June 2019 the NIESR in a report called ‘Better Schools for all’  concluded that factors outside school accounted for 90% of differences in pupil achievement and that going to a so-called good school, makes only a very small difference; so much for the Conservative idea of parental choice!

The EPI, July last and the Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation report in April last, independently say that progress in the gap for the disadvantaged has stalled and may go into reverse.  At current rate of progress it will take 560 years to close. They acknowledge that big efforts have been made by schools and say the need is to tackle factors outside school. It is now two years since I tried unsuccessfully to get Lib-Dem Conference Committee to include an amendment to Education policy about this, such is the lack of joined up policymaking in our party.

We must fight for reversal of the cuts in local services, i.e. Housing, Welfare, Public Health, Children’s Early Years and Social Care, Youth Services, Virtual Schools for Looked After Children, Transport to College, SEND and of course, Children’s Centres. That is the way to support the efforts of our schools and it is urgent.

* Nigel Jones is the Chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association.

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4 Comments

  • Nigel, thank you for posting this. We need to start thinking about things other than coronovirus, not just for our sanity but because one day politics as we know it will return and we will need policies that work.
    I wanted to pick up just a couple of the points you raised. Baseline testing in early years is, indeed, deeply flawed. As you will be aware, most schools conduct their own baseline tests as well as those prescribed by government. The schools tests focus more on things that are less easy to measure objectively, such as fine and gross motor control, social skills and speech and language. This allows teachers to immediately target the impediments to initial learning. The government tests are indeed deeply flawed and we can assume that at least some of the experts in the ministry are aware of this. However, those tests are a product of the need to measure everything in ways that can be expressed as statistical data, quantified, ranked.
    You point out that out of school factors account for 90% of the differences in pupil achievement. Absolutely, infact this has been known for the best part of 60 years. As documented in the 1966 Coleman Report, the attempts in the USA to improve educational outcomes for the deprived (part of L.B. Johnson’s Great Society) were virtually doomed to failure from the start. Certainly the quality of the schools facilities, library etc, has little effect on outcomes.
    And yet…. and yet politicians seem to ignore this reality and continue to promise the electorate that they can solve a problem that is rooted in the unequal distribution of social and cultural capital in virtually all western societies. The pupil premium is a fine, and well intentioned policy, and most head teachers would tell you that it is invaluable for providing extra resources and experiences for children in deprived areas. However, there is little evidence that it translates into better educational outcomes at 18, a comment that applies to the whole range of compensatory educational initiatives that have been proffered over the past half century.
    We have to develop policies that move beyond throwing money at schools. Nigel, you suggest a role for local authorities, youth services and other agencies. I think we have to accept that the size of the governments debt at the end of the present crisis will be such that a further extended period of parsimony is almost certain. Money will be tight !

  • I agree completely with what Nigel and Chris. But the only way of removing disadvantage due to poverty is to remove poverty. We can start with housing – the largest expenditure for families. If we ensured housing of a good standard for all, this would be a start. Then we need a income for all. And of course we need to have the resources to run good quality schools.
    The reality is of course that we have the resources to do all of these things. No doubt we will when we have no longer a virus panic.
    Can I also add that the group with the lowest attainments are children looked after by the community, in the form of local authorities. Here there is not just the question of the money the service costs, but of knowing what the ideal service would look like. Surely no 0ne can deny that we have the resources to make a real difference by supporting proper research into how to improve the life outcomes for this group?

  • Katharine Pindar 28th Mar '20 - 7:10pm

    I was glad to see this article from you, Nigel. Though distracted by other threads just now, I want to get back to considering the roots of poverty and inequality, and improving the educational outcomes of the poorest and most disadvantaged must be a vital aim. The Marmot report said much about the social context which has led to worsening health equality and falling life expectancy in the most deprived areas in the last ten years, and showed how diminished local government services are part of this. When we all talk more about the new Beveridge-type social contract needed post this health crisis and facing the realities of next winter, educational and training reforms must be part of the programme of our party as we face the evils of these days.

  • Tom, I agree that housing is probably a good place to start when looking at the material deprivation that holds too many back. You say that we have the resources to do all these things. You may, on one level, be correct, but I fear that the calls on public finance from the NHS, the desire to deliver on “Red Wall” projects like HS2 and a perceived need to keep some kind of control on the overall national debt will leave education where it has been for most of my lifetime – strapped for cash. And housing will be left to the market, with a few regulatory encouragements the only tangible help.
    Katherine, as you say, it’s education and TRAINING. I sometimes think that we look at educational outcomes from a very middle class perspective. We look at the number of children from deprived homes who become doctors, lawyers, accountants, MPs. They are the jobs we value, so they must be the jobs that really matter.
    People living in other social milieu may have other versions of success. Now of course, because we believe in opportunity, we must ensure that the talented child with the aptitude to be a doctor or a lawyer can pursue that goal, whatever their background, but we must also make sure that other roles, engineer, computer scientist, businessman, craftesman, are also available. It follows that we must put vocational education at the heart of our education and training policy, not tagged on as an afterthought.
    And one final thought. We need to stop using education as a barrier to participation. The curse of credentialism, of requiring people to have certain qualifications in order to join a profession, when infact the job could be dome by a person with lower qualifications. I don’t think my primary education suffered because I was taught largely by teachers who had done the 2 year teaching certifcate.

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