Edition 17

All four pieces of research reviewed were published in the Oxford Review of Education, vol 40, issue 6, 2014

Research: Social origins, school type and higher education destinations

Authors: Alice Sullivan, Samantha Parsons, Richard Wiggins, Anthony Heath and Francis Green

This paper is a little inconvenient for the pro-grammar school crowd. Using the 1970s British Cohort Study it analyses the pathways of those born in 1970 and now in early “middle age”. The researchers control for a range of influences and find that, surprise, surprise, social origins – and in particular parental education – are particularly important. Cognitive ability and school attainment help a little, but don’t overcome the importance of social origin. And the grammar schools? It seems that they don’t confer any advantage. Only private schools are powerfully predictive of gaining a university degree.

Research: Inequality – “wicked problems”, labour market outcomes and the search for silver bullets

Authors: Ewart Keep and Ken Mayhew

If we just improve the educational attainment of poorer students, then we will have “equality of opportunity” and all students will be equally able to access elite jobs. There also seems to be a belief that if we educate lots of people this will increase the demand for skilled employees.

The authors question these ideas and suggest that the causes of inequality of earnings and income are complex and reinforcing. Hence, while education and training are sometimes put forward as a “silver bullet”, the truth is more hazy.

The authors suggest that occupational congestion and over-qualification can occur when there is an inflation of skill levels, and that evidence suggests increased skill supply does not always create its own demand.

Research: The role of families and pre-school in educational disadvantage

Author: Kathy Sylva

In 1975, Jerome Bruner wrote a paper called “Poverty and childhood” in which he explained that children’s development is often affected by the income of their families. This phrase is almost trite in today’s contexts where the more important question is “how does being in poverty affect childhood?”

In this paper, Sylva argues that part of the issue for children in poverty is that they are less likely to develop the capacity to plan ahead – in part, because having a lower income means the adults surrounding the child are less able themselves to plan ahead. The second half of the paper suggests that pre-school environments can help support children to develop such capacity, along with other abilities that can help educational achievement.

Research: Equality, prioritising the disadvantaged, and the new educational landscape

Author: Harry Brighouse

More of a philosophical review than a hard-core “research” paper, Brighouse sets out to explain how educational equality has been differently considered in education policies across the past four decades. He also sets the concept of equality against a preference for prioritising the disadvantaged – as is now seen in policies such as the pupil premium, where schools receive more funding for students from poorer backgrounds. Equality is not always about treating people equally, it seems.

Brighouse also questions what equality looks like in the new “fragmented” school landscape. He argues that people often look at the benefits of a new policy for one group, and consider it a success, without considering the impact on others. He gives the example of a “free school” that might be shown to increasing the GCSE scores of poorer students dramatically. However, he asks, what are the impacts on other people? If they are negative then this policy isn’t increasing educational equality as much as it may purport to be.