Report by Goodman, A. and Gregg, P. (eds), Joseph Rowntree Foundation
“In 2008, less than a quarter of children from the poorest families (eligible for free school meals; FSM) obtained five or more good GCSEs (at A*-C) inclusive of English and maths. This compares with just over a half of their richer peers, not eligible for FSM.” Why this might be so, and how policy interventions might be designed to reduce such inequalities, provides the framework for the investigation and discussions given in this report.
The report outlines findings derived from several longitudinal studies undertaken in Britain since 1970. The authors ask whether inequalities in educational attainment change as children progress through the school years. They give several explanations for their findings, but focus on “parental and child attitudes and behaviours that may serve as ‘transmission mechanisms’ between material wellbeing and other measures of family background, and educational outcomes.”
Separate chapters give graphical and descriptive evidence of attainment during the pre- and early-schooling years, primary school and secondary school, each chapter based on a different longitudinal study. A further chapter is based on the British Cohort Study (1970-2004) and investigates intergenerational transfer of cognitive ability.
In each life stage, important factors in differential attainment are located. These include home environment, parenting styles, material resources, parental attitudes to higher education and expectations of children’s abilities and prospects, all of whose impact is analysed through multivariate regression models. School experiences, behaviour and prior attainment are also key factors. Overall, “it is decisions and investments made considerably earlier in young people’s lives that appear to be the main drivers of differences in educational outcomes during the teenage years…. However, there is evidence that the attitudes and behaviours of teenagers and those of their parents do further contribute to the attainment gaps in GCSE results”.
In their attempt to locate the mechanisms driving inequality and lack of mobility, the authors report that “one fifth of the gap between richest and poorest is explained by a direct link between the cognitive skills of the parent and child, which is unmediated by the rich set of environmental factors observed in our surveys.” Strong correlations exist between the cognitive development of children and that of their parents’ own early years.
The authors conclude with a critical account of past and current parent- and child-centred policy interventions. Whilst recognising the limitations of their research, being based on detailed statistical correlations rather than robust trials, they suggest possible areas of need, as regards schools, parenting and the family home and children’s own attitudes, behaviours and approach in taking forward their past experiences into learning. Although early life experience is shown to be of greatest influence on later differences, as reflected in current policy focus, these differences may be heightened by beliefs and attitudes of teenagers and their parents. The authors thus conclude their report by advocating sustained policy interventions extending through high school: “25% of the attainment gap between rich and poor children at GCSE level could be closed if policy were able to even out differences in teenagers’ attitudes, aspirations and behaviours.”