An anonymous editorial in The Herald earlier this week was remarkable for two things. First for clear and succinct way it summarised some interesting data relating to educational outcomes, and second for the way that it absolutely failed to understand the meaning of that data. First the good:
The league table of school examination results we published yesterday broadly confirms the view within the teaching profession that pupils’ family wealth largely determines their educational success. The Ministry of Education gives every school a “decile” rating depending on household incomes in its district and last year’s results reflect their socio-economic situation.
In the lowest decile of schools 66 per cent of pupils passed NCEA level 2, regarded as the minimum school leavers need for a reasonable chance in life today. In the next to lowest decile, 67 per cent passed; in decile 3, 70 per cent passed; in decile 4, 71 per cent; decile 5, 80 per cent; decile 7, 83 per cent; decile 9, 87 per cent … Only one of the 10 deciles (6) scored worse than the category below.
That’s a remarkable correlation. But wait, there’s more:
The same pattern occurs for the level 1 examinations. The 10 socio-economic divisions scored, in rising order of wealth, 58, 63, 62, 66, 74, 73, 79, 81, 83, 88 per cent of their pupils passing. At level 3, the progression was 58 per cent, 60, 60, 66, 71, 72, 77, 77, 79, 86.
This consistency is remarkable, the more so because schools are divided into wealth deciles for the purpose of additional funding.
So what’s going on?
This could mean the additional grant is too little, or it could be that no amount of extra money for the school can make up for the educational advantages of wealth at home. Wealth probably means books, computers, musical instruments, holiday travel, extra tuition if needed – a home in which educational success is valued and any cultural, sporting or intellectual interest can be developed.
There are exceptions at both ends of the income scale. It is possible for a low-income household to value education and give children a good supportive environment for study, just as it is possible to find wealthy households that do not value schooling and encourage their children to get out and earn money as early as possible. But generally, it seems, wealth determines exam results.
Shocker. As already stated, teachers have been saying this for the longest time. Data on social mobility has been confirming this for the longest time. The piece so far has been a good summary. But right at the end the anonymous author loses the plot:
Education experts invite us to measure each school’s performance in its social setting. But unless schools can do much more to overcome social disadvantage, keen parents who read these tables will do their utmost to get their child into a wealthier zone. Perhaps the lesson is that decile funding must do better.
Argh! No! What this data shows is that it’s not a matter of getting a child into a “wealthier zone”. Sending a child to a flasher school will not make up for missing out on “the educational advantages of wealth at home” as so clearly set out above. Overwhelmingly it is wealth that determines outcome, not the school that you go to! And “decile funding must do better”? It would be great if all schools were doing better of course, and that would raise the absolute levels, but it wouldn’t do anything to the relative ordering. Lower decile schools will still be disadvantaged.
Having clearly recognised the link between wealth and educational outcome, we have to take the next step and recognise that there is no quick fix. If we want to raise the level of educational achievement (and thus improve all manner of social indicators, including mobility) then we need to raise the incomes of the poor. Provide more children with the background and the opportunities of the well off. Unfortunately, the current government is working hard on doing exactly the opposite.