Mind the performance gaps

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Final Part: The combined impact of gender, race and class

Final Part: The combined impact of gender, race and class

Christine Gilbert, the chief schools inspector, last week promised more action to help pupils "likely to underachieve", as she launched a debate on the future of Ofsted.

Few in education would disagree with her sentiment. But the question that looms large is who, exactly, are these children?

As the previous three issues in this series have shown, the spotlight has fallen on numerous groups over the years. There have been initiatives to close the performance gap between boys and girls, and schemes directed at helping black and ethnic minority pupils get better results. More recently, concern has fallen on the failure of white working-class boys to break free from a cycle of underachievement.

This final group neatly encapsulates the three preoccupations for experts worried about vulnerable pupils - gender, race and class. In some combination or other, these are established as key determinants of a child's educational success.

Many academics believe that class is the most important of the three, and exam results appear to bear them out. But not all share this view.

David Gillborn, professor at London University's Institute of Education, claims that his research, which was the first to plot the relative impacts of gender, race and class on educational achievement, has been widely misinterpreted.

A report he wrote for Ofsted in 2000 mapped the relative achievements of each group on a graph. The impact of class on attainment appeared to dwarf race and gender. The gap between groups at the top and bottom end of the social scale seemed three times as big as the gap between black and white pupils.

But those findings have now been updated and - published for the first time in the graph above - show that class may not be the overriding factor after all.

Professor Gillborn places pupils on a five-point social scale. Comparing the results of pupils from categories one and five, social class is responsible for an amazing 44 per cent difference between the proportions of children achieving five good GCSEs. But pupils from the extreme ends of the spectrum account for only a third of children.

Comparing the results of children in the second and third social class categories, which represent more than half of pupils, the difference in results is a far smaller 12 per cent.

"The same data gives very different readings," said Professor Gillborn. "It can show that, in fact, class has less impact than race.

"At the moment there's a panic about white working-class children. But a lot of that panic is built on a misreading of the statistics.

"Class is very important. But it's being treated like some kind of competition between working-class kids and ethnic minorities. The suggestion is that you can't help one group without hurting another, but that is patently ridiculous."

He is worried that the importance of race is being marginalised in a debate on underachievement that focuses increasingly on class.

The problems affecting ethnic minority pupils cannot be understood without looking at institutionalised racism, he said. "It's like looking at why someone drowns, without looking at oxygen intake."

He is also critical of schools that use setting and streaming, claiming that these reinforce the disadvantages of children from ethnic minority and working-class homes.

Professor Gillborn, a specialist on race issues, does not think it "sensible" to single out the most important factor affecting educational success, but others are less reticent.

Christine Skelton, professor of gender equality in education at Birmingham University, and Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University and also a specialist on the impact of gender, are firmly in the camp that believes social class is critical.

Looking at 2006 key stage 2 tests, they found there was a 22 percentage point gap between the results of pupils eligible for free school meals and those who were not.

Their research, carried out for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, also highlights the dangers of viewing ethnic minority pupils as a homogenous group. There were great differences in performance between ethnic groups, including a 30 percentage point difference in KS2 maths between Chinese pupils at the top end of the results scale and black Caribbeans at the bottom.

The relative failure of pupils from poor backgrounds is more of a problem in the UK than in many other countries. "It is a British phenomenon," said Professor Skelton. "There is a history of class being very important in this country. Changes in ideology at the top can take a long time to feed through."

In Canada, Finland and Korea, children from poor and rich backgrounds both do well at school.

The KS2 gender figures buck the common misconception that girls outperform boys in all subjects, with there being almost no gap in maths and science results.

Last month, Professors Francis and Skelton presented their findings to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It recently launched the Gender Agenda, events with schools, universities and local authorities to develop ideas on how to improve the results of underperforming pupils.

Notes from the department's session with the academics acknowledge that more is known about teaching strategies that do not help to improve gender-related performance than those that do. "Ten years worth of interventions do not seem to have had much impact on the gender gap," it says. However, it is accepted that the effects of gender, race and class need to be looked at together and not individually.

Professor Gillborn acknowledges it can be difficult to strip out the effects of one social factor. Looking at different indicators, such as level of parental education, often just analyses the same data in another guise.

"Gender, race and class are all approximations," he said. "They are blunt instruments, but in many cases they are the best that we have."


What differences do gender, class and race make to pupils' results? The graph above, published exclusively, shows how different groups have performed in getting five A* to C grades at GCSE over the past two decades. It is based on the percentage points above or below the national average that year.

Gender is in red, with lines for girls (solid) and boys (dotted).

Ethnicity is shown in green, with lines for white and black pupils.

Class is in blue, with the top line for pupils in social class II and bottom for social class III (out of five social classes, with I the top class).

The illustration, based on data from Professor David Gillborn, is different to previous graphs because it looks at the two biggest social class groups, rather than the extremes of rich and poor. As a result, race appears to make a bigger difference than class or gender.

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