More than forty years ago, Basil Bernstein rightly pointed out that ‘education cannot compensate for society’. Then, in 1997, an early critic of New Labour’s attainment targets argued that a serious programme to alleviate child poverty would do far more for school attainment than any modest intervention in schooling itself. Yet politicians still seem to expect schools to equalise life chances in a stratified society.
Although improving the chances of different groups performing well on conventional school tests is not the only or even the best measure of social justice, monitoring such outcomes can usefully provide some indication of how ‘fair’ and ‘inclusive’ our education system has become. So what has happened to the various attainment gaps that existed forty years ago? The gender gap has been largely reversed, although not in all subjects or at the very highest levels. There has also been a narrowing and even a reversal of gaps between different ethnic groups, at least as measured by GCSE performance at levels A*-C. And, despite frequent claims to the contrary, most measures show that, in the past twenty years, there has been some narrowing of hitherto persistent social class gaps in attainment at school and in participation in higher education, although it is not clear how much this has resulted from policy interventions as opposed to economic and demographic changes.
The extent of these changes must however be regarded as disappointing when compared with the expressed aspirations of successive government Ministers. And, while the socio-economic gap has narrowed somewhat in terms of threshold attainment levels, it has hardly shifted at all in terms of what DfE now calls ‘elite’ measures. Similarly, although entry to higher education has certainly broadened, entry to so-called ‘elite’ universities has not. Nor has the nature of the education people have access to changed as much as might have been anticipated in 1974. In some ways, the modest gains in pupil performance have been achieved at the expense of other things that schools might have done in the name of social justice. Indeed, some international comparisons suggest we have performed even worse in terms of non-cognitive outcomes for children and young people, such as health and well-being.
Forty years ago, reproduction theories ruled in the sociology of education; these data suggest they should not have been so readily ridiculed and side lined. While it is not the case that nothing has changed in schools, the system as a whole has demonstrated a capacity to remain stubbornly inequitable. Much of this was predicted by education theory and research. Peter Mortimore and I argued in advice to the incoming New Labour government in 1997 that ‘society needs to be clearer about what schools can and cannot be expected to do’. That advice remains true in 2014. But it also remains true that we ourselves, as education researchers, could have done better in identifying what schools could be expected to do and in working with others to secure more realistic reform strategies.
For more details, please see Whitty G. and Anders, J. (2014) (How) did New Labour narrow the achievement and participation gap?, published by the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies.