Wednesday, 6 November 2013

We don't need no education

The news that Ofsted is recommending that children should be able to start formal schooling aged 2 in an attempt to close the attainment gap between children from wealthier and poorer families caused me more than a little bit of a jaw drop.

It is true that there is a significant attainment gap between some children from poorer families and some children from wealthier families, which can lead to a difference of up to 18 months at age 5. Of course there are other factors that play into this, and I think the average gap is more like 9 months. However, it has been demonstrated that it's better for a child's educational success to be born rich than clever, as many intelligent children from poor families are overtaken by less intelligent children from rich families between ages 8 and 11.

This situation is shocking and totally unacceptable. It speaks of an unfair society where wealth determines educational levels and the one route out of poverty, education, effectively is not a route at all, but actually favours the wealthy.

In comes Ofsted and suggests that rather than tackling the causes of this sorry situation (poverty and inequality), the sticking plaster of sending kids to school early in the hope to make up for all the damage our unequal society does through a few hours of early education.

This is wrong for so many reasons. Baroness Morgan claims that many deprived children have “low social skills”, poor standards of reading and an inability to communicate adequately, which apparently translates to being “not ready to learn” when they start school.

1. Children are always ready to learn. Children are wired to learn. The reason they fall behind is that they do not have a wide range of learning environments and experiences which isn't going to be helped by sticking them into a classroom.

2. Children up to the age of 6 learn through play rather than formal education. They need free play, active play, develop motor skills, and play with other children and adults to develop their language and social skills. A classroom setting is not conducive to being the best environment to achieve this. I read somewhere that children need to learn to skip before they can learn to read, which summarises how motor skills come before language and literacy.

3. School readiness in the sense of ability to become literate depends on passive vocabulary. In fact, as a parent who raises her children bilingually, I've researched this a fair bit and I know that there's a critical number of words that children have to be able to use before they are able to learn how to read and write (which in our case made me decide to delay literacy development in the weaker language). There is no point in developing letter/word recognition or writing skills before this critical mass of words has been developed. Now one could say that this is to be done through the school setting, however:

4. Any schooling only accounts for a minor part of a child's life and the best case scenario is that schooling can influence between 10 and 25% of the total attainment difference between children (the rest is due to home learning environment, community environment, innate ability). This means that any effort to narrow the attainment gap between richer and poorer kids through formal education can at best be a sticking plaster but not make a real difference.

So what can make a difference? Well, ideally, and excuse me for being political, we need to reduce income inequalities, as these are the root causes for the attainment gap in a complex interplay of factors. Great wealth disparities in a rich nation leads to people feeling they have no control over their lives, people who don't feel they have control over their lives have low self esteem and are stressed in a existential kind of way, which in turn leads to poor health and having to focus on the day to day survival, making it much harder to plan ahead or even manage to move out of the low income bracket. Stress leads to family conflict, family conflict stresses the child, a stressed child cannot learn. Sending the stressed child to school is at best tokenistic and at worst futile (in fact, the attainment gap between rich and poor kids increases during the years of formal education, schooling does not narrow it!).

I'm a realist though and in the current political climate I don't see a change to a more equal society any time soon (although I'm still hoping/waiting for a little more outrage and anger by the general public about this ridiculous situation that the 5th richest country in the world is happy to be leading the way on income inequalities). In the short to medium term, we need to support parents to be their children's first educator, in an empowering way that is based on true partnership rather than the deficit model that some parenting programmes are happy to portray. Fact is that parents want the best for their child, but circumstances mean they are unable to be the parent they want to be (and that doesn't just apply to "poorer" families!)

But if we're really serious about our children's future, this isn't enough because the vicious cycle of poverty (or rather income inequality, because it's not the absolute income that matters but the relative status and difference between the richest and the poorest) undermines healthy child development in so many ways that even the parent with the best intentions and abilities will struggle to make up for the disastrous effects of poverty on child development.

All in all it's just another brick in the wall.


sustainablemum said...

Hear, hear. A wonderful post. I agree with all you have written. It makes me weep to think of two year olds in classrooms following a curriculum. However if you cannot see a future for yourself or your children it is unsurprising that so many living in poverty have given up hope, how do they break out of it. Money shouldn't make the world go round but sadly it does.

N Winton said...

Don't lose hope for change. The UK (and Ofsted is English remember) might not want to change, but we can

NikkiiH said...

Oops - used the OHs Mac to comment - didn't realise he was logged in :)

cartside said...

Yes, we can, but I'd like to see all children in the UK (and everywhere in fact) benefit from a fairer and more equal society.

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Metropolitan Mum said...

Unfortunately, when you look at Sweden and their sudden drop in the PISA results, it shows that income equality does not equal educational equality. Although I hate how the system is set up in the UK and I absolutely disagree with classifying children into the age old cast-like system from an early age (that's what happens at least in London), income equality seems not to be the key to our schooling problems. Although it is of course desirable to create a more equal income system for a million of reasons. Introducing 2yos to school however.... ridiculous!



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