The gap years: education and social immobility - part 2

Only around three-quarters of children from the poorest fifth of families reach the expected Key Stage 2 level at age 11, compared with 97 per cent of children from the richest fifth.

"Throughout the school years bright children from poorer families drift away from educational achievement – through lower aspirations, a lack of belief that their own efforts can lead to academic success, and fewer material resources in the home to support learning, for instance internet access," explains Professor Gregg.

Alissa Goodman and Paul Gregg point to several reasons why poorer children fall ever further behind during primary school – including parents' aspirations for higher education, the belief of parents and children in determining their life course through their own actions, and children's behavioural problems. Findings show that only 37 per cent of the poorest mothers said they hoped their child would go to university, compared with 81 per cent of the richest mothers. "Such adverse attitudes to education of disadvantaged mothers are one of the single most important factors associated with lower educational attainment at age 11," the researchers state in their report.

By the time the children finish primary school these gaps are wide and established. Analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (Next Steps) showed that further widening through teenage years is relatively small in comparison to the childhood years. At this stage it is harder to reverse patterns of under-achievement, but attitudes and aspirations continue to be important factors. Pupils are more likely to do well at GCSEs with a good home environment, parents expecting them to go on to higher education, and access to computers and internet. Their own attitudes are also crucial, such as a belief in their own abilities, a belief that their actions make a difference, an expectation of applying for and entering higher education, and avoidance of anti-social behaviour.

"These findings suggest that attitudes and behaviour are potentially important links between socio-economic disadvantage and children’s educational attainment," conclude the researchers. They argue that policy measures should target two areas in particular: the home learning environment and parents' aspirations, and the child’s own attitudes and behaviours.

Without success in closing the 'education gap' between poorer families and the better-off, true social mobility and an equal society will remain an elusive political goal. As the American educational reformer Horace Mann declared: "Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equaliser of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery."

From the ESRC magazine Society Now

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