Home Background and School Achievement

David Pavett writes

Some politicians like to talk of “breaking the link between home background and school achievement”. There is a sense in which this is well meant since its aim is to remove hurdles produced by home. But meaning well is not enough when dealing with such a complex issue. Talking nonsense is even worse.

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of educational success and the various factors that contribute to it knows that to talk of breaking the link between home life and school achievement makes no sense.

This is not to say that someone from a very disadvantaged background cannot achieve educational excellence and even rise to the top. It happens but it is exceptional and there are usually exceptional reasons for it. Children who have little or no intellectual stimulation in a home with scant interest in the affairs of the world outside and in which the modes of expression and communication are simple, even crude will, on average, find it more difficult than others to connect with the new worlds of thought and experience offered by school.

We can attenuate the link between home and school, we can even enhance it, what we cannot do is to break it. To pretend otherwise might be thought of as mere loose expression: “When he/she says ‘break’ the link he/she just means ‘weaken its worst effects’.” I suggest that its implications are actually more significant and more negative than that.

The first problem is that pretending that a complete separation can be made between the child’s experience of home and school puts the blame for underachievement not on poverty and social inequality but on teachers and schools. Making this point always brings the response “It is not right that teachers and schools shuffle off their responsibility to children by blaming the problems on society”. Of course it isn’t right, but it is not what is being said. People on the left are those least likely to write children off as hopeless because they come from the ‘wrong’ background. Let’s not forget that the right-wing mantra of the 70s (as expressed in the Black Papers) was that some children have got what it takes to succeed well in education and some have not and that it was socially harmful to require them all to go to the same type of school.

The right has changed its tune, or rather, it has changed its words but they are still sung to the same old tune and, if you watch closely, they can still be seen mouthing the old words when no one is looking.

People on the left are the first to agree to the idea of extra resources to help close the educational gap for the disadvantaged. Sure Start boosted achievement and the withdrawal of funding and closing of centres will have a predictable negative effect. Greater equality has always been an ideal on the left (even if some Labour leaders in recent decades lost sight of that). It is notably not so on the right.

We should not fall into claiming that the impossible (breaking the link between home and school) is possible. We oppose poverty and social inequality not just because we don’t like them but because  they have real effects on people’s lives, especially the lives of children. Home life and society in general impact on what goes on in school. Children bring their experience of world outside into school with them. That experience can be a rich basis for the educational process but it can also be a barrier to it. We all want to attenuate the negative effects, which most teachers make great efforts to do, but they cannot be abolished.. Schools cannot solve society’s problems. The connection between home and school, for good or ill, cannot be wished away.

Claiming that we can break the link between home background and educational achievement is closely associated with another positive sounding, but equally fallacious, claim: that teachers are the single biggest factor in educational achievement. No one doubts the importance of teachers but is it so clear that they are more important to educational development than home background and wider social life? That’s like asking what are the relative contributions to flight of a bird’s wings and the existence of an atmosphere (apologies to Kant). The problem with exaggerating the role of teachers is that (1) it makes them responsible for things that are outside their control and (2) it can be used to justify weakening teacher tenure and even sacking them on grounds of a failure which is not theirs. This is exactly what the themes of breaking the home backround/school achievement link and exaggerating what teachers can achieve has been used to do in the Charter School movement in the USA. We should be warned.  Some compliments it is better not to have.

We should argue that disadvantaged backgrounds do, on average, hold children back. That is why we are for greater social equality and an end to poverty. At the same time we must do everything we can to compensate for the shortcomings and difficulties that disadvantage generates. Teachers can and do make a difference but they are not supermen and superwomen. Their achievements are often great but those who talk of them as miracle workers reserve the right, in their next breath, to sack them when miracles are not forthcoming.

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2 Comments on “Home Background and School Achievement”

  1. Peter Rowlands says:

    A very well argued piece. It is of course true that some teachers are better than others, and we should always seek to improve standards, but it does not follow that even the best teachers can fully compensate for an inadequate home background.

  2. Melanie Levick-Parkin says:

    This seems to be the only place where I can consistently find someone, writing eloquently about the worries, dismay and frankly – sheer terror I feel regarding the destruction of educational system. My sons primary school has just been failed by OFSTED for the third time and will now become an academy. We knew this would happen from the start of the process, as OFSTEDs is blatantly assisting Mr. Gove blackmailing schools into private partnership. This was in no way a failing school.
    This is happening up and down the country, everybody who is connected to education in any kind of way knows it, but why is not making the news, where is the outcry??
    Mr. Gove is the single most dangerous conservative out there and he is after our Children!