It is claimed that the learning of secondary school students has been disrupted by the Covid pandemic. This is not entirely true. What has been disrupted is their preparation for a range of examinations still premised on pre-pandemic conditions. And how are we to close this alleged learning gap as a result of the closure of schools? In England, it seems the solution being proposed is more of the same. It is similar to the stereotype of the English abroad, raising their voice but saying the same words when confronted by incomprehension of the English language. More of the same does not necessarily mean that things will get better, indeed often the reverse is true.
Many students interviewed recently on radio and television do not want the school day extended (which in itself is an interesting reflection on how they view school) but are more positive about the idea of tutors. But it's the old story, 'tutors will help me individually to get the grades I need'. The system is dominated by examinations, not by any notion of discovering and encouraging a student's own idiosyncratic talents and capabilities.
Education is usually seen as a general good – enabling the individual to lead a more fulfilled life and benefitting society by the provision of a more knowledgeable and skilled workforce. It is often the latter ambition which is in the minds of politicians who are aware of the claimed correlation between gross national product and better educational standards in the population. When they say, 'education, education, education', they usually mean 'production, production, production'.
However, it is on the notion of a general good that we provide compulsory schooling for children, hoping that by making it compulsory for all families we will ensure that children from less privileged backgrounds are not excluded. Thus inherent in the idea of compulsory schooling is the notion of equalising the life chances of children from all backgrounds. The question remains as to how successful this ambition has been. In a policy landscape dominated by ideologies, it is unfashionable to look for evidence but what do we know about the effect of schools?
As long ago as 1970, Basil Berstein coined the phase 'Education cannot compensate for Society' as the title for an article in New Society
. While the way in which he based his analysis on language codes has been criticised, the notion has been powerful, and one which seems to fit the present situation of schools in our society.
We know from reliable research over many years that there are clear correlations between school outcomes (expressed as examination results) and parental socio-economic class. There are similar correlations with the educational qualifications of the parents and measures of poverty. What is still a matter for speculation is the reason for these correlations. Is it a lack of reading material in the home? Does poor parental perception of school from their own experience get communicated to their children? Do children from low income families have limited academic ambitions? And there are more possible explanations, although many can be clustered under the general heading of poverty.
It is possible that some of the differential performance is the consequence of the nature of the assessment presently used and the segregation of students in schools in terms of their social or ethnic backgrounds, where a 'peer' effect may operate. Parents will often say to their children, 'I don't want you going around with that particular group, they're a bad influence on you'. In this, they recognise the likely peer effect of association.
We need to ask what our present examination system actually achieves. It places students in 'rank order' of performance. Thus, taking a simple average, this means that half of the examination population will be 'below average'. Neglecting the obviously impossible notion that everyone can get 'good' grades, the only way we can interpret the Scottish Government's policy to 'close the attainment gap' is to have an equivalent distribution of grades between schools in different socio-economic areas. But on what basis is such an equivalence to be derived?
Many schools in rural Scotland are genuinely comprehensive, so will the effects of intra-school variation (both between different pupils and between the different performance of various subject areas) be considered? All of this is based on the notion that good grades are the major gateway to success in life. They are seen as providing criteria for university entrance and access to employment but tell us little about the social and life skills that students possess.
When we ask student teachers why they have chosen to become teachers, the essential theme running though their answers is a desire to 'make a difference' to students' lives. It is my experience as a headteacher that the majority of the staff in a school are prepared to go well beyond the strict contract of the job to help students in whatever way they can. And given the freedom to innovate, they show a remarkable willingness to try new approaches. So why does the popular press so often blame teachers for the apparent 'failures' of schools to deliver against political agendas? It is because schools are easily visible targets, whereas poverty, mental heath and lack of social capital cannot be so effectively characterised in the few words of a bold type headline.
Many years ago, at a meeting of the School Library Association, I suggested that the best way to understand what was happening in large organisations might be by applying aspects of complexity theory. I made the mistake of explaining that this came from early notions of chaos theory. This aside was enough for the Evening Express
in Aberdeen to run the headline, 'Choas in the schools' predicts headteacher
. And yes, they really did spell chaos wrongly. I tell this story to illustrate how the press are keen to represent any story about schools as a crisis. Plato bemoaned the declining educational standards of the young in his time and this has been a common refrain through the ages, including the present day. It is claimed young people cannot construct proper sentences or do simple sums, whereas research evidence indicates that this is generally not the case.
It is taken for granted that students leaving school should be literate and numerate. But is this mantra either clear or sufficient? Actually being able to read is clearly a necessary condition but is the approved novel more important than the car magazine? What matters is comprehension – the desire for knowledge and the capability to understand. And is numeracy merely a grasp of simple arithmetic or will it include notions of risk and probability? Given the prevalence of gambling and participation in the national lottery, it seems that probability is not generally well understood.
So we recognise two major problems. Lower socio-economic class is associated with below average school examination performance and differential performance may be exacerbated by the clustering in particular schools of students with similar backgrounds.
The problem of the attainment 'gap' has been picked up the press and portrayed as another crisis in the education system. Consequently, a great deal of money was spent on 'schools effectiveness research', one aspect of which was to rate schools in terms of their 'value added' contribution to student performance. There are serious doubts about the methodology of this approach and it has had the consequence, perhaps unintentionally, of schools being rated as successful or failing. But these are relative ratings where the success of one is defined by the failure of another. If all schools were to improve, there would be no means of knowing as half would still be defined as failures. Schools are made to compete rather than cooperate, while policymakers discriminate between schools rather than thinking about improving the system as a whole.
Do schools make a difference? We have no means of comparing students who do attend schools and those who do not. But a study in England has looked at the situation of those who just make the entry date for entering school and those who just miss the date. Here we have students separated by only a few days in terms of birthday, but one group receives an extra year of schooling. Comparing performance shows an advantage for those with an extra year of schooling, however, the effect is no larger than the random statistical noise created by different groups of students.
As teachers, we have all experienced 'good' and 'bad' years – sometimes we have a year group that performs well and at other times there is a group less academically inclined. The terms good and bad are just a loose way of talking and are in no way pejorative. But we are able to conclude that attendance at school can make a difference to individual learning. Whether schools in their present form, particularly in the later stages, are the most effective or the most cost effective way of promoting learning is another question. Within the present system, we have no good evidence to suggest that any one type of school is better than any other.
For the population as a whole, it does seem to be the case that schooling does not compensate for society. However, for individuals, education in the broadest sense (and in a more limited way, schooling) can compensate for society to some extent. So are we to pursue policies which will improve the lot of the majority of people or are we to provide opportunities for individuals born with particular capabilities and talents? Or maybe do both?
If the former, it is clear that a raft of social policies is required aimed at a more equal society in terms of income distribution. As to the latter, secondary schools might play a more positive part if they were configured to recognise and actively promote a variety of diverse developmental goals.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University