Creating A Level Playing Field


“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).

2 thoughts on “Creating A Level Playing Field

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