Bad Education

With a new report claiming that educational outcomes are decided by the time a child turns seven, Anna Carnegie investigates whether it’s the education system or deeper societal inequalities that cause some children to get left behind

A recent study has shown that an adult’s educational achievement can be tracked back as far as the age of seven. Highlighted in a study commissioned by UK-based charity, Save the Children, the study found that over 80% of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who were falling behind in school will go on to achieve poor GCSE (an equivalent to the Irish Junior Cert) results, thus damaging their chances of continuing to higher education.

This isn’t a purely British problem. UNICEF argues that inequality is a problem for the vast majority of developed nations. In Ireland, for example, a child is 90% more likely to progress to further education if their parents are high earners.

Why is this? We don’t have problems with access to education, as the majority of our primary schools are free. State-employed teachers staff almost every school in the country, so it is unlikely to be related to the calibre of teaching.

Some commentators think the fault lies with the parents. One British head teacher stated that being on benefits has caused parents to suffer from a “lack of ambition,” which is passed on to their children. Others believe that poorer families aren’t bothered reading to their children, and don’t seem to care about their education overall.

Such viewpoints conveniently forget a couple of vital points about the world we live in. Not all parents who fall into the low-income threshold are lounging about on the dole. Many parents work incredibly long hours in low-paid sectors in order to provide for their family. These individuals, termed “the working poor,” neither have the time nor the money to provide their children with opportunities for educational advancement.

The number of books in a home is a good indicator for future academic achievement. Limited financial resources are likely to mean fewer books in the family home. In a society where more and more children are arriving at school hungry, can we really expect less well-off families to provide for items that, by these standards, would be deemed luxuries?

The realisation that such stark inequality exists to this day in the western world begs the question as to how far we have moved on. Yes, all children have the right to attend school. Not all children, however, have equal opportunities once they arrive.

Many of us currently in college are extremely fortunate. We were able to attend pre-school, which Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman showed has the effect of increasing the likelihood of graduating from secondary education by 20%. We had books to read growing up. We were able to take part in extra-curricular activities, which increase cognitive ability.

Many are not so lucky. For children who have a family member who is ill, or in need of care, it is not always possible for the focus to remain on their schoolwork. Parents who have physical or mental health problems, conditions that disproportionally affect the poor, are far more likely to be distracted in school and unable to do homework in their home environment.

Furthermore, for parents who are not able to read or write, helping a child with their homework can prove a daunting and often impossible task. Branding parents as lazy or disinterested is not the answer. So what is?

Might it be time to follow in the footsteps of our American counterparts? They have responded to widespread educational inequality by providing initiatives whereby children from low-income families are provided with social, emotional and cognitive skills in order to enhance their early years and improve their readiness for school.

The Head Start program is one such project, based on the research that pre-schooling can improve a child’s chances of academic achievement. Their website features a number of success stories, with parents praising the noticeable improvements in their child’s schoolwork.

Nevertheless, the program has come under criticism, with the Washington Post claiming that, despite its modest benefits, more work is needed to make the project worthwhile. President Obama’s proposed changes to Head Start’s funding may make some impact, but for now, the efficacy of the organisation remains uncertain.

The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) is another program tackling a range of issues from truancy to obesity in the poorer sectors of society. This program focuses on both increasing individual academic ability, and trying to change social factors that limit involvement in education.

Unlike Head Start, the HCZ is not a government-run organisation. It was founded by Geoffrey Canada, who invested in schools and extra curricular activities while also addressing issues of poor parenting. Canada hopes to create a society in which children from poorer backgrounds can claim equality in outcome as well as access. Of course, the HCZ project has not been immune to negative press. Reports that it is too costly and its impacts too modest have been rife.

Evidently, these programs are not perfect. They need work, but so does anything worth having. Is it not better to try and try again rather than stagnate and complain? Even though the Irish education system is often looked upon fondly by many of our overseas neighbours, if this inequality gap widens, it is doubtful as to whether that will still hold true.

Even leaving this aside, don’t we want to live in a society whereby people of all social standings can live, work, and learn together? Education should be about expanding our horizons, not narrowing them.