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Levelling up? No, the educational equality decline has just started

UPDATE
1st September 2020






Levelling up? 
No, the educational equality decline has just started

There is no longer much  point commenting on the educational inequalities that the COVID-19 crisis has uncovered. They are well established, and a better future will be demanded. The full impact of government inaction for a decade has risen into view as the catch-up race in schools begins in England and Wales today. The slogan of ‘levelling up’ was always a hollow one with little of substance in policy. The attitude of the government in its dealings with Ofqual further stretched their credibility to breaking point. To emphasise the need for action, two reports on educational disadvantage last week have been joined today by another from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Nuffield Foundation. Unlike the others last week, this survey is bang up to date and magnifies the inequalities already rooted in our society. The actions of the government on filling a widening chasm of inequality are going to define their legacy.



Last week, TEFS reported on two research reports that illustrated the educational divide that exists on our society. The first, from the Education Policy Institute, ‘Closing the Gap’, and the second, from the London School of Economics (LSE), ‘GCSE results: the hidden but enduring effects of parental social class’, paint a similar depressing picture. Now, the NFER and Nuffield Foundation report weighs in with further disturbing revelations. 



Their report out today ‘Schools' responses to Covid-19 The challenges facing schools and pupils in September 2020’ is the result of a survey of 2,958 heads and teachers across 1,305 primary schools and 898 secondary schools in England. The report defines the schools surveyed as ‘mainstream schools’ that I assume refers to all maintained schools or academies that are not special schools. I assume this to also means that they were not selective schools and not independent schools that require payment of fees. This being the case, divergence of some schools from the rest is much greater than the report discovered. Therefore, the dichotomy between advantaged and disadvantaged is very wide and getting wider. Indeed, this is further stressed in the findings of a report from the Sutton Trust early in August ‘Social Mobility and Covid-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality’. There they found that independent schools used online resources for interactive learning more than state schools and this was accompanied by parents more likely to use private tutors.

The authors of today's NFER report adopted a simple binary approach to compare the most disadvantaged schools with the most advantaged ones. This was done based on “the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (highest and lowest quartiles)”. Figure 1 is taken from the report’s figure 5 and shows the dichotomy well. The two very different distributions of months lost declared by teachers is profoundly disturbing. With independent schools excluded, one wonders if the x-axis would have to be extended on the left to accommodate their months gained through intensive online teaching, private tutoring and assignments done over the summer months. That scenario is just as likely.
The conclusion reached after this whole sorry episode is that potential and actual ability were always of lesser importance than attainment and application. Well off parents have figured this out and buy into better facilities at home, private tutoring and independent schools with smaller class sizes if they can afford it. It seems the state system is not going to match this any time soon.  That is why the unproductive angst over the system, revealed by COVID-19, needs to stop now and instead be replaced by genuine actions to deliver equal chances for all students to show their potential. Hiding behind the ramparts of attainment and standards doesn't convince anyone, other than the deluded, after this summer.

For any student to emerge from a disadvantaged background, and challenge better off students in the educational stakes, it would be a truly heroic task. But it should not amount to Hercules going to the end of the world to grab the golden apples guarded by the Hesperides. There is a terrible risk they might also summon the fearsome Cerberus into the living world from guarding the gates of Hades in a final revenge.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

Posting 28th August 2020
Levelling up, Borrowing up – now Evading up

Two research reports out this week illustrate the educational divide that exists in our society. The first, from the Education Policy Institute ‘Closing the Gap’, concluded that “the gap between disadvantaged 16 year old pupils and their peers has only narrowed by three months of learning between 2007 and 2016” and that at the current slow rate it would take “around 50 years for the disadvantage gap to close completely”. This comes as a major challenge to a government intent on something they call ‘levelling up’. The second, from the London School of Economics (LSE), ‘GCSE results: the hidden but enduring effects of parental social class’, paints a similar depressing picture. Their conclusion “the magnitude of the gap between pupils from the most advantaged social classes and those from the less advantaged social classes is deeply concerning” illustrates how access to resources defines the route to success. This government has vowed to tackle the problem but has yet to offer a credible strategy. Instead, we see the problem compounded further in a deliberate examination marking policy that punished less advantaged students. Instead of ‘levelling up’ the government find they are ‘borrowing up’ to support business and then fall back on ‘evading up’ to avoid responsibility. Most people are in for a rocky ride in the next four years.

When Boris Johnson campaigned in the general election almost a year ago (was it really a year?) he used the unfortunate slogan of ‘levelling up’. Levelling has deep historical roots in the political history of England and came to prominence in the first English Civil war. The ‘Levellers’ as they were known proposed radical change to ensure representation and democracy. But many of them ended up in prison and by 1649 their manifesto, ‘An Agreement of The Free People of England’ , was written from inside the Tower of London. The Johnson version amounts to a smokescreen that covers another agenda. Levelling up is a throw away slogan to convince people of some idea of equality and sincerity. But actions speak louder than words and there seems to be little of substance in actual policy. This summer has seen the smoke clearing to reveal a truly disturbing agenda. The ‘Leveller’ government has morphed into the ‘Borrowers’, spending vast sums of money that mostly favours private providers interests. The ideology of market forces has ruled most decisions. But the examinations debacle also revealed something much more sinister. There is no doubt that the government ordered Ofqual to moderate examinations to protect standards above all else. The original letter sent by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson to Ofqual back on 31st March 2020 emphasised the risk to standards with “In order to mitigate the risk to standards as far as possible, the approach should be standardised across centres". There was no mention of fairness and the outcome was sealed at that point. As it subsequently unravelled, everyone began to see the inherent bias against less advantaged students and some abhorrent injustices. The inaccuracy of the ‘predicted’ grades was so great that protests emerged quickly. This is one miscalculation that the government should not be seeking to evade. Blaming Ofqual for not delivering the impossible is not a solution.

The ‘Evaders’

The government quickly closed ranks and morphed into the ‘evaders’ in order to cover their tracks. Next week the Education Committee of parliament meet with Ofqual to try to get to the bottom of what happened. It will surely find that Ofqual tried to do what they were instructed to do but found it impossible without producing widely errant results. Their modelling (see ‘Awarding GCSE, AS, A level, advanced extension awards and extended project qualifications in summer 2020: interim report’ and TEFS 15th August 2020 ‘A-Levels bake off’) shows that they were aware of this early on the process and surely must have briefed the government of the potential for widening the educational gap.

Deep rooted educational disadvantage.

It was therefore timely that two research reports, from the Education policy Institute and the LSE, emerged this week to provide a backdrop for the drama of the summer examinations. 

The Institute of Education’s ‘Closing the Gap’, looked at data on school students between 2007 and 2016. This makes the report dated with respect to recent developments and the real test will come when a similar study looks at the impact of COVID-19 on the educational gap. The current thinking is that it must be widening.

The statistics used were derived from the National Pupil Database that has a comprehensive coverage of attainment in all state-funded schools, academies, free schools, local authority maintained schools and special schools in England. A flaw is that it does not include independent schools in the comparison. This is a valid criticism as such schools are very unlikely to have students who require free school meals and their inclusion would make the situation look even worse. The attainment data is divided into two major groups, those in receipt of free school meals (disadvantaged) and those not (advantaged). The free school meals group is further divided into those regularly needing this service (persistently disadvantaged) and those who needed some help in the past six years (disadvantaged). 

The difference in attainment between the groups is stark. In some areas of the country, the attainment gap is wider than in 2012. Many students fall increasingly behind as they progress through primary school to their GCSE’s in secondary school. The GCSEs are pivotal as they either open the door to A-levels and onto higher education or close that avenue for what is often the less advantaged student. On average, this means that those persistently disadvantaged are over two years behind their advantaged peers in 2016, having increased by 0.3 months since 2007. For those disadvantaged the gap is less at 19.3 months but still significant. This translates into the attainment of the disadvantaged being “almost half a grade in each GCSE subject” behind their advantaged peers. The gap for persistently disadvantaged pupils is greater at 0.6 grades in each GCSE subject.

The study from the LSE looks at GCSE data between 1991 and 2013 and considers the mean number of GCSEs passed between A* and C scores. Again, this is old data and a more recent analysis, spanning the COVID-19 boundary, is urgently needed (the full paper is by Sarah Stopforth, Vernon Gayle and Ellen Boeren. Journal Contemporary Social Science, online July 2020 ‘Parental social class and school GCSE outcomes: two decades of evidence from UK household panel surveys’). Instead of using free schools meals as a measure, this study considered the socio economic group of each student. These descend from relatively wealthy 1. Higher managerial, administrative, and professional occupations to 7. Routine occupations and 8. Never worked and long-term unemployed at the bottom. The simple take home message is that, by 2013, “pupils with parents in higher professional occupations on average gained eight GCSEs at grades A*-C, compared with pupils in routine occupations who on average gained only four”. More concerning was the observation that “many pupils in less advantaged social classes also fell short of the national policy benchmark of five or more GCSE passes at grades A*-C”. That stark reality means further progress has been effectively halted for many. If it is getting worse at this time, then the government has much to answer for.

Protecting the well off.

The examination system has been revealed this summer as one that measures attainment for the most part, and ability as a secondary outcome. This favours those who can afford more resources at home and especially attendance at independent schools. They chose such schools to ensure a better chance for their children because the state education system is seen a sub-optimal. They are buying into smaller classes and better resources. But the system only acts as a leveller when all students get the same resources and chances, not a sub-optimal offering. Only when everyone has the same chance, can the differential of ability become the dominant force in success. 

The government is becoming a government of evasion across many areas and evading scrutiny has become endemic. See, for example, that the Ofqual Board has yet to publish its minutes of its meetings since September 2019. It will be interesting to hear the response to this question put by the parliament Education Committee next week. Simply evading responsibility is another face of the new order. With taxation about to rise top help pay for the COVID-19 fall out, we will see where the burden falls or if ‘tax evasion’ is also promoted. 

A final word from the Leveller manifesto of 1649 ‘An Agreement of The Free People of England’ that offers an age old suspicion of government with a warning we should heed today.

“For security whereof, having by woefull experience found the prevalence of corrupt interests powerfully inclining most men once entrusted with authority, to pervert the same to their own domination, and to the prejudice of our Peace and Liberties we therefore further agree and declare”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

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