It's their peers, not nature or nurture

25th July 2008 at 01:00

A recent article in The Times by Daniel Finkelstein investigated the driving forces behind aspiration and social mobility. Are the genes (nature) the big factor or is it the attitude of the parents (nurture)? Mr Finkelstein believes that the most important ingredient is neither of these but peer pressure and peer role models.

Why is it that a child brought up and educated in, say, the Springburn area of Glasgow should have much less chance of success in education or in life than one brought up a mile away in Bishopbriggs? If we knew the answer to this, we might be closer to tackling the problem of post-coded delivery of personal educational success, which is distinct from, though not unrelated to, the quality of education in certain schools.

In thinking about these questions, I reflected on my own experiences. I was brought up in the Knightswood area of Glasgow, a large 1930s council estate that was populated predominantly by skilled manual workers and their families. After passing the qualifying examination, I went to Victoria Drive Senior Secondary, where I was regarded as a highly successful pupil.

However, I left school at the minimum leaving age and entered employment as a clerk with Glasgow Corporation. I cannot recall either the teachers or my mother attempting to alter this decision. My mother's attitude had always been that her sons should go into white-collar jobs and should leave the house dressed in suits and carrying a newspaper. Call that parental aspiration if you wish. All the previous generations, on both sides of the family, were manual workers.

What was it that altered my career path? It was not any real discontent with my job, but the fact that my younger brother, who went to the same secondary, got Highers and matriculated at Glasgow University. I felt this to be something between a challenge and a debasement. Over two winters, I went to evening classes, obtained the Highers and entered Glasgow University myself, three years behind my age cohort.

I went on to become an honours graduate, a teacher, a parliamentary candidate and an official of the Educational Institute of Scotland. None of this could have been predicted when I left secondary school.

Was there an element of inherited ability? Yes, but it was not enough in itself. There is educational research which shows that very few outstanding fathers produced outstanding sons. Was there an ethos of aspiration in the family? Yes, up to a point, but it was not a decisive factor. However, many working-class families at present seem to have given up entirely on aspiration and this must have a negative effect on the children.

Was peer influence the decisive factor, as argued by Mr Finkelstein? Yes, I think so. So how do we ensure that today's pupils obtain the best possible outcomes from the influence of their everyday contacts? How can we promote positive educational and social role models for the young, without appearing to be stuffy or old-fashioned?

These are huge questions which ought to be examined urgently by politicians and educational thinkers.

Fred Forrester is a former depute general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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