In my original article on this subject, ‘The Gap Exposed’, I set out my reasons for believing the current preoccupation with closing the attainment gap cannot succeed. In this follow-up, I want to explore the mechanisms that feed the fallacy and highlight the consequences of persisting in this endeavour.
What is it that drives the Gap myth?
There is a general, mistaken consensus that social mobility can be tackled by closing the attainment gap. For the reasons pointed out in my earlier article, this idea flies in the face of the facts of human diversity. There will always be differences of ability and, whereas we can raise levels of attainment for all abilities through specific teaching strategies, differences in outcomes will always persist. As a consequence, social mobility is likely only to be marginally improved through education alone. Social immobility is clearly influenced by education. The fact is, however, outside the strict confines of education, social mobility is complex, it goes well beyond the old adage, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’. Who you know, or more accurately, who you know through social connections who may already be socially positioned to confer advantage upon you, will often outweigh natural ability and hard work.
Recently, the BBC’s Sean Coughlan commented on what is probably the richest sources of fuel that keeps the gap story blazing. I am referring to access to elite university education. In quoting from the Sutton Trust’s recent report in an article titled, “Oxbridge 'over-recruits from eight schools'” he announces that “pupils from eight schools filled 1,310 Oxbridge places over three years, compared with 1,220 from 2,900 other schools.” Now what could be more socially divisive than that finding? Who would deny gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to the best in higher education, simply because they have not attended the ‘right schools’, or come from the right side of town? The reality is, this is the way it’s traditionally been throughout our history. This is why social hierarchies first developed and persist into the present.
In the article, Mr Coughlan reports Damian Hinds, Secretary of State for Education, as saying, "Whilst potential and talent is evenly spread, the opportunities to make the most of it sometimes aren't.” This exposes a key feature of the Gap myth, one which Roger Titcombe has tackled through one of his most influential articles.
Roger reminds his readers of how meaningless the view that potential and talent are evenly spread actually is, “The key, unavoidable conclusion is that we are a diverse nation in all manner of ways that include mean cognitive abilities related to both ethnicity and affluence. The assumption of the ‘social mobility’ establishment, that variations in educational outcomes are the consequence of differential access of a cognitively uniform population to ‘good schools’ is not supported by the evidence.”
There is, unfortunately, widespread rejection of this conclusion from both the political right and left. At the same time, getting the average academic to positively engage on this subject is more challenging than running a marathon! Similarly, convincing the mass media that this is a burning issue that needs fair exposure seems doomed not to succeed as reporters fail to pick it up and evaluate the evidence, instead preferring to trot out the prevailing orthodoxy unchallenged.
Access to good quality education at all levels is a fundamental human right.
In the BBC report, a spokesman for the University of Cambridge welcomed the idea that "more support should be made available to students before they choose their A-level subjects and agree there should be more provision of careers advice". In the same interview, Cambridge rejected "lowering grade requirements", saying this would "place unfair pressure on students and that is something the university cannot support". The reason, though not clearly stated, is that the level of cognitive challenge required to succeed in such an environment is not accessible to all students. This is a given. However, the fact that very able students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being overlooked is not acceptable, but that is altogether another story.
The longer we persist with this strategy for improving the lot of the disadvantaged pupils through the failing marketplace of education solutions, the more we risk seeing growing numbers of our young people concluding that education isn’t for them. Social policy is the primary route to tackle social mobility. It will require joined-up thinking from leaders in the business community, politics and education but it must also address key issues such as differentials in earnings, quality of housing, more sensitive and responsive support for those most needy and a willingness to challenge tired old ideas that should have no place in a modern democracy.
What will it mean if we do not change the narrative?
It is refreshing that the Chief HMI is prepared to highlight the dangers of the excessive testing culture in our schools, especially in the primary phase, where she condemns the narrowing of the curriculum and the coaching/cramming that is threatening the wellbeing of growing numbers of pupils. Parents, too are waking up to the fact that what is happening in our schools is NOT designed to benefit their children. They are beginning to recognise that the present culture of accountability has supplanted quality of provision in education.
By conflating social mobility with creating wider opportunities in a more socially just society, education has been damaged. It has been requisitioned in the wrong cause. Shoehorned to try to resolve that which cannot be resolved, it has been perverted in its true purpose, to broaden the horizons of children and offer them an education that better meets their disparate needs to be prepared for a fast-changing future where resilience and being able to contribute in team enterprises to solve problems will be required by everyone. The Key Stage 2 National Curriculum tests have been proven to fail on every metric. They tell primary schools nothing that they did not already know. The information they pass on to secondary schools for setting attainment and progress targets is inaccurate and unreliable, parents lack confidence in the results and worry about the pressure their children are under and in cost/benefit terms the whole enterprise is unjustifiable. In arguing for cognitive ability tests to replace SATs at the end of primary education, all these challenges can be met.
Having taken up this matter with my MP, I have been informed that the DfE has yet to respond. However, I was interested in what Jacob Rees-Mogg had to say about the proposal. “I was interested to read your latest research. In is not surprising that, if primary schools spend a significant amount of time ‘cramming’ for Key Stage 2 SATs, this may result in pupils achieving results that are not reflective of their true ability, whereas, Cognitive Ability testing, that children are not prepared for, is more likely to produce an accurate result.”
As a result of this switch, primary schools would be able to broaden the curriculum and teaching strategies designed to help children of all abilities could be promoted, thus raising the levels of attainment across the board. This approach also has the added attraction of helping prepare our young people for their role as future national wealthmakers.