Social class is the biggest factor affecting attainment

New research released today by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) suggests that social class is the biggest factor affecting attainment.  Understanding its interplay with gender and ethnicity is absolutely key to bridging the divides between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' in our schools today.   While, on the whole, girls do better than boys -  which has captured the popular media attention and dominated educational debate -  when you look at social class and ethnicity, the results paint a very different picture.

The analysis of England's 2006 Key Stage 2 results – for 11 year olds -  reveals that whilst overall, girls are significantly outperforming boys in English, disadvantaged girls trail behind their wealthier male peers.  Whilst ethnicity and gender are major factors in the achievement gap, social class is, in fact, the biggest factor determining success.

Through analysing the percentage of children who achieve Level 4 or above in English, the report reveals that:

  1. Social class is twice as important a factor as gender in English, with an attainment gap of 22  percentage points in children receiving free school meals compared to those not doing so.  Boys' achievement levels seem to be hit particularly hard by disadvantage – with boys receiving free school meals trailing 24 percentage points behind their wealthier male peers.
  2. But girls do outperform boys across the board in English by 10 percentage points.  In maths and science, there is barely a gender gap – with boys and girls performing comparably.
  3. Taking into account social class and ethnic background,  amongst broad ethnic groups, white boys receiving free school meals had the lowest level of performance compared to boys from other ethnic groups.1  Similarly, white girls receiving free school meals had a worse level of performance than girls from other ethnic groups
  4. Social class can reverse the gender gap: girls who have free school meals are falling behind boys, of the same ethnicity, who do not have them.
  5. Overall, the lowest percentage to achieve Level 4 English were white boys on free school meals.
  6. There is also wide variation in performance across black and ethnic minority groups, with a 16 percentage points gap between the highest and lowest achieving ethnic groups in their English results.

The social inequalities that lie behind the biggest gaps in England's school results do not follow a global pattern.  International comparisons shows that in Canada, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Korea and Sweden, pupils from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds perform well. 

To tackle these complex gender, ethnicity and socio-economic achievement gaps, the research proposes a school-wide approach to achievement.  This means strong leadership from the head teacher, high expectations for all pupils and effective partnerships with parents and in the community.

The study suggests that one-off initiatives based on the view that boys and girls have different learning styles will not on their own deliver significant change.  For example, single sex classes only work where they are part of a wider culture that promotes high expectations and achievement for all.

The Gender Equality Duty, which came into effect last April , encourages schools to ensure that both boys and girls are performing well. This  research suggests that whilst gender is an important factor in achievement, it cannot be considered in isolation and it is particularly important to take other factors, particularly social class and ethnic background, into account. 

Jenny Watson, Chair of the EOC commented,

"These findings show how important it is to avoid stereotypes and generalisations in education and to move beyond the simple "girls are beating boys" debate.   Gender is one factor affecting pupils at Key Stage 2 in English and literacy but as every teacher knows not all girls are excelling and not all boys are falling behind.  Social class is the biggest factor affecting performance for boys and girls from virtually all ethnic backgrounds. 

The new Gender Equality Duty places a requirement on schools to promote equality for all boys and girls.  This research suggests the right way forward to achieve that is to challenge stereotypes about boys and girls, rather than taking the unshakable view that they have different learning styles.  If all Britain's children are to have the chance to fulfil their potential, schools need to support teachers to have high expectations for everyone.  Both schools and Government policy need to take into account gender but also ethnic background and, crucially, social class."

Posted by, Asif Yusuf



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