Inequality begins at home

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Forget the gender gap, social class has the greatest impact on the school system

The planned changes in the curriculum and qualifications are unlikely to do anything to resolve social inequalities in schools, according to the author of research on 20 years of comprehensive education.

Linda Croxford, of Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology, fears that the emphasis on personalisation in A Curriculum for Excellence will lead to a class divide in what pupils study. "All students should study science, but research in the past showed that working-class girls were significantly less likely to study any science than those in higher social classes," she said.

"One of the things that worries me about A Curriculum for Excellence and personalisation is that it could lead to pupils from different social classes studying different subjects - an internal segregation in the school in the way the pre-comprehensive system worked, when there was woodwork for the lower classes and Latin and Greek for the higher social classes."

Dr Croxford plans to research this issue further, once ACfE is fully implemented. Her warning accompanied the publication by the Scottish Government of her research on social inequalities in secondary schooling, based on the results of the Scottish School Leavers' Surveys (SSLS) from 1985-2005.

Future analysis of this kind will be more difficult, she warned, as the Scottish Government decided last year to discontinue the survey because the postal response rate had fallen to 45 per cent.

On the basis of results up to 2005, however, Dr Croxford found that the underlying social inequalities in the system remained as powerful as ever.

The introduction of Standard grade had led to improvements in the attainment of working-class pupils up to the age of 16 and the Higher Still reforms had had a similar impact on young people aged 18, making this the critical period for educational inequalities.

Despite evidence of attainment gains, the effect of social class on both age groups was still very strong: the curriculum and qualifications reforms had benefited all young people, but those from middle-class families got more out of them.

All other things being equal, girls out-performed boys at both 16 and 18, and the gender gap increased over time. Social class, however, "trumped" gender in its impact, said Dr Croxford.

She also reported that, for 16-year-olds, schools in remote areas had higher average attainment than those in urban areas - a finding she felt merited greater investigation.

For pupils aged 18, however, the pattern was different, with schools in the four big cities having higher average attainment than other schools. These schools had higher social segregation than others.

The use of setting and streaming also widened the attainment gap, she told The TESS: "I know there are pressures to introduce these measures to improve the numbers passing Credit level at Standard grade, but the research shows that they have a negative effect on high attainers and low attainers. It also has a socially segregating effect within the school."

Dr Croxford blamed these continuing disadvantages in part on the "Thatcher years" when the emphasis was on personalisation and selfishness, competition and markets - "everything that encourages people to get the best for their own rather than thinking of a concept of doing the best for everyone in society, the old public service ethos".

She did not believe today's comprehensive schools were what was originally envisaged. Nevertheless, she said, there was a great deal more support for the comprehensive principle in Scotland than south of the border, because "the middle classes get so much out of it".

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