Social Harm of Poor Education

19 July, 2013

Professor Denis Mongon

Visiting Professorial Fellow at London University’s Institute of Education

Senior Associate at the Innovation Unit 

Presenter of Osiris Educational course “Close the FSM Gap”

The social harm of poor educational attainment became starkly evident once our national demand for unskilled, manual and predominantly male workers began to evaporate and young women started to anticipate economic independence with a career in their own right.   In England, year after year, the lowest average educational attainment is amongst White British Students from low income families.   This is not our only endemic educational inequity.  Boys, for example, perform less well than girls at GCSE though the limited subject choices made by girls suggests another sort of inequity.   On overall average, ‘Black Caribbean’ students do less well than students from any other background.  The one in seven students eligible for free school meals (fsm) do less well on average than those who are not eligible.  These disappointing trends and averages obscure individual triumphs and outstanding performances in every group, children’s backgrounds are not predictors of their potential.   Nevertheless, the differences between groups are significant and any inequity which undermines the right of a child to fulfil his or her talent is insufferable. 

Let’s start with the good news: the average performance of fsm students has improved over the past decade.   If the 2007 fsm pass rate had still applied in 2012, 12,000 fewer fsm students would have reached the national target.  That is the end of the good news.  The performance of the group not eligible for fsm also improved so the gap between the two groups eased only two percentage points (from 28% to 26%).   In 2012, about two thirds of White British Students not eligible for fsm reached the national GCSE target of 5A*-C passes including English and Maths.  In sharp contrast, less than one third of White British Students eligible for fsm reached the target (about a quarter of the boys and just over a third of the girls).  No other ethnic group has such a large gap between its fsm and non-fsm students.

To reduce the gaps, we should be interested in three particular features of the complicated mix of individual and social causes: ambition, parental support and school quality.   

  • Ambition evaporates when there is a fault-line between aspiration (what young people hope for) and expectation (what they think will really happen).    Uniquely, the expectations of low income White British students tend to crash along with their academic performance as they move through secondary education.
  • ‘Parent involvement’ is always praised with a warmth which disguises our ignorance about what we mean by ‘involvement’ and which bits of involvement are most important.  That said, unless someone holds the rickety educational ladder to social mobility it slides away from under the most precarious students.
  • School quality is most important for low income students but when choice is available, children from low income families are less likely to attend good schools than other children even from the same area. 

There is no silver bullet.   A strong economy and the prospect of well-paid work would help enormously.  Schools in isolation can have only a limited effect though the difference some schools make is critical.   The small number of schools which buck the socio-economic trend do the basics of teaching and care with energy, enthusiasm, implacable determination and a high degree of specificity.  That is the challenge for individual schools and networks.

A national response to low attainment would then need to engineer challenging collegiality rather than dysfunctional competition into the system.  It will need to lever excellent school staff into the most deprived areas and encourage them to explore and use evidence of what works. There must also be spaces for disciplined experiment.  There are twenty four Enterprise Zones around the country supporting business development with financial incentives, sector specialisms, simplified planning procedures and a “business-ready infrastructure”.  Is it less important to do something similar for children? 


Professor Mongon is also co-author of School Leadership for Public Value and of High-Leverage Leadership: improving outcomes in educational settings.

He will deliver a new Osiris course in December:

Close the FSM Gap, December 10th, London

Close the FSM Gap, December 11th, Birmingham


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