Wendy Piatt: The class divide is not all about money

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The Independent Online

Clarke's recent pledge of extra funds for schools may receive a warm welcome from parents, teachers and LEAs. But is spending on education the most effective way of raising educational attainment? The Government is certainly marrying investment with reform of the education system but are we still tackling the symptom not the cause of underachievement, particularly of the disadvantaged?

This question is burdened with ideological baggage from both ends of the political spectrum - the defeatism of left-leaning sociologists about overcoming the impact of social background or traditional Tory scepticism of the power of money to improve public services. But it has been given renewed relevance and a fresh perspective by recent research.

Leon Feinstein became something of a celebrity in the education world for his stark graph which demonstrated how the child from the top social group with a low IQ at 22 months has overtaken the poor but clever child by the age of six in terms of cognitive development. The gulf widens even further after the age of 11. By school leaving age, the pupil from the lower social strata is at least three times more likely to drop out than her more privileged peer. It comes as no surprise that lower social groups are so under-represented in HE.

The link between class and educational performance is well-attested. But identifying the key ingredient which boosts the life-chances of the middle-class offspring is more complicated. It may simply be wealth. We know that poverty has an adverse effect on life-chances from the moment of conception, that diet affects ability to concentrate and lack of space and resources handicaps educational performance. In this case measures to achieve the Government's goal of halving child poverty by 2010 are probably more effective than direct funding of schools.

Many argue that the key factor is not money per se but parental particularly maternal education. Educated parents create an enriched cultural and linguistic environment which nourishes the child's cognitive development. Ideally, governments should aim to replicate those conditions for less fortunate children through high quality nursery education and, of course, schooling. But children spend only a quarter of their time at school. Moreover reducing the advantages afforded to the offspring of the educated is well-nigh impossible. Many on the left might wish to legislate against private schools but would probably stop short of banning bed-time stories. But the latter are probably more instrumental in perpetuating the gulf between rich and poor.

Feinstein's latest research identifies parental interest rather than education as the magic ingredient. He found that having a parent who takes an active interest in a child's education is eight times more important in securing good exam results than wealth or social class. Substituting for parental interest is an even more formidable challenge.

Feinstein warns against simplistic responses to all these findings - either despair that our fate is effectively predetermined by class or the eager belief that throwing bucket-loads of cash at the early years is a panacea. He cites further research which shows that any gains made by investment in the early years may be lost if they are not sustained by financial and educational support for the child's development between the crucial years of five and 10.

The positive flip side of this sobering message is that if children can be helped to improve at primary school, the negative effects of low initial attainment and a disadvantaged background can be reduced. Researchers in Tennessee are even more optimistic - they claim that teacher effectiveness is 10 to 20 times as significant as ethnicity or socio-economic background.

It is, of course, possible that there is a magic formula for effective schooling and our eureka moment is imminent. But in the meantime policy-makers should have no illusions about the complexity of the task of overcoming the adverse effects of a disadvantaged background and appreciate the political and financial investment needed to make a reality of equal opportunity.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research