The trouble with education is that politicians keep trying to fix it

The debate about failing schools and league tables obscures the more significant issue of the gap between richer and poorer children’s results, says Helen Barnard.

School League Tables are back in the news today. So too are all the debates about failing schools and the importance or not of their league position. This annual debate is important, but often obscures an even more significant issue: the stubbornly large gap in the results of richer and poorer children. This gap is not just between schools – much of it is between children within the same school.

In 2012, 35 per cent of children on free school meals (a rough proxy for deprivation) gained five A*–C grades at GCSE (including Maths and English) compared with 62 per cent of other children. Gaps between richer and poorer children start in pre-school and continue throughout their educational careers. Children who leave school with low or no qualifications are much more likely to be unemployed or low paid and to live in poverty as adults. In 2010, a quarter of those aged 25–29 with low or no qualifications lacked but wanted work. Where they are working, nearly 60 per cent of those with poor or no qualifications earn less than £7 per hour.

I wrote an article recently in which I suggested that politicians focused on the wrong aspects of education policy and should concentrate on those that would make more difference in practice. One expert in the field contacted me to say that she agreed with the points I made but asked me not to make them again as she’d rather politicians concerned themselves with things that didn’t matter too much, rather than interfering in those that did.

At the risk of sparking further annoyance, this week's Education Committee report is another indication that policy-makers on all sides may have been obsessed with the wrong things for the last 20 years. Last year, JRF funded a review of international and UK evidence about poverty and education. It showed that the gap in educational attainment between children from richer and poorer backgrounds is one of the most persistent and serious problems in the UK’s education system. It also showed that there has probably been a slight narrowing in this gap over the last 25 years, but there are no signs of the scale of change that would be needed to genuinely change the lives of the poorest people in our society.

Policy and political debate about education over the last 20 years have been dominated by a focus on school structures. Who runs schools? How much autonomy do they have? How much choice do parents have? Our review concludes that there is very little evidence that either school autonomy or parental choice make much difference to outcomes for children from low-income backgrounds. The Education Select Committee today found that the evidence for an impact from academies or free schools is ‘inconclusive’. Successive governments have devoted massive amounts of time and energy to something that appears to have made little difference.

What makes this doubly frustrating is that there is good evidence of the things that do make a difference. Outside the education system: decent, affordable housing, good-quality childcare, family incomes and parental support. In schools: the quality of teaching and leadership, intelligent use of good data and decisions informed by a growing research and evidence base.

The search for a big, new innovation that will fix the UK’s educational problems makes political sense – unfortunately it does not lead to good policy, or better results for the nation’s children. Weariness with political interference is not a new trend but acting on the evidence of what really creates change could create a fresh start for politicians and educationalists alike.