A review of research to aid examination of the links between poverty and educational attainment in the UK.
Although there is widespread agreement that poverty and poor educational outcomes are related, there are competing explanations as to why that should be the case. This report provides a framework, which organises the research literature around studies that focus on:
The framework is then used to examine current policy in the area of education and poverty and suggest possible future directions.
There is widespread agreement that poverty and poor educational outcomes are related but there are competing explanations as to why this should be. This study identifies the thinking behind different approaches and the implications for policy.
This review examines research which explicitly addresses the relationship between poverty and educational outcomes. It identifies a framework that organises studies of the link between education and poverty around three different levels:
The most fundamental difference between studies at these levels appears to be what counts as 'good education'. The review identifies two broad perspectives: 'functionalist' and 'socially critical'.
Research taking this perspective assumes that education plays an important part in the proper functioning of society but that these supposed benefits often do not materialise for individuals and groups from poorer backgrounds.
These studies highlight concerns about individual identity and actions and about notions of hereditary differences, particularly IQ levels:
These studies examine the social and cultural effects that peer groups, families and neighbourhoods have on young people and their understanding of, aspiration towards, and capability within schools. The studies also look at how schooling and other public services have aided or constrained educational achievement. The main themes in this work are:
These studies tend to see the relationship between poverty and education as resulting from underlying social structures (though, of course, individual characteristics and immediate social contexts also have an impact). Many analyse the impact of globalisation and the resulting forms of social exclusion. This is reflected in aspects of 'ghettoisation', health inequalities, high levels of unemployment, poor housing and poor infrastructure for such individuals and communities. Together these factors are linked to, and compound, poor educational attainment.
Some studies integrate these different levels in their analysis:
Research taking this perspective assumes that education is potentially beneficial but that the ability to engage with economic and social developments is itself inherently inequitable and that education in its current form reflects unequal distributions of power and resource. Since research from this perspective tends to be socially based, there is little which focuses primarily on individuals. Likewise, there are few studies from this perspective which integrate these different levels of analysis.
These studies focus on neighbourhoods, community radicalism, different curricula and cultures within schools and the potential that these have for changing power relations within education. These can be summarised as follows:
These studies assume that education can both challenge existing power structures and enable democratic development but that current forms of education create, reproduce and enhance inequality. They do not view the development of education as enabling and teaching all young people to challenge existing social structures. Broadly they are critical of 'functionalist' policy interventions such as educational choice and conclude:
Recent years have seen a plethora of policy initiatives in England such as Excellence in Cities, Connexions, Sure Start, Educational Maintenance Allowance and full service extended schools.
A review of these initiatives suggests that almost all appear to take a functionalist perspective and focus in a piecemeal fashion mainly on factors concerning immediate social context, such as family and neighbourhood.
There is very little in educational policy that focuses on explanations based on broader social structures or interventions at this level. In addition, none of the socially critical explanations appear to be reflected in policy. It is also clear that interventions so far have had only a very partial impact in breaking the link between poverty and poor educational attainment.
The review suggests that policy needs simultaneously to address a whole series of factors at different levels if it is to have any meaningful impact. It needs to have an overarching vision of how various interventions fit together and for what purposes.
The researchers conclude that the following are the most fundamental issues facing educational policy-makers:
There is no single explanation for why learners from poor backgrounds do badly in educational terms. Rather, there are multiple factors implicated at the individual, immediate social and broader societal levels. There are no magic bullets that will enable such learners to perform as well and derive the same educational benefits as their more advantaged peers. Instead, what are needed are interventions which address the full range of factors and which operate at all three levels.
A related problem for policy-makers is the coherence of their interventions. An attractive alternative to the 'magic bullet' approach is the 'scattergun' approach – in other words, undertaking a wide range of relatively small-scale initiatives in the hope that separately or together some of them might make a difference. The issue facing policy-makers is how to make multiple interventions coherent, how to sequence them chronologically, and how to prioritise the most effective or most important interventions amongst all those which might or should be taken. This suggests that policy-makers need to develop more fully their own 'theories of change' about how interventions are likely to work and then develop these through the careful monitoring of the actual impact of interventions.
The socially critical perspective outlines clearly the view that the relationship between poverty and education is unlikely to be disturbed unless fundamental issues of power and interest, advantage and disadvantage are addressed. This perspective suggests that simply tackling the immediate problems of poverty and education will ultimately prove to be ineffective if underlying inequalities reproduce these problems in other forms.
The review was undertaken by identifying research-relevant literature which explicitly addressed the relationship between poverty and educational outcomes. This literature included research texts, policy papers, evaluations and various other reports. A provisional mapping framework was developed and tested in a seminar with academics across the University of Manchester. As the framework developed a wider group of researchers and policy-makers was invited to an international seminar in order to examine and challenge the framework. The seminars and advisory group provided advice on key literature to help refine the framework. The enhanced mapping framework was used to structure database interrogation, keywords searching and screening criteria and the development of a database categorising framework.