Social class and educational achievement: Beyond ideology

In this paper Professor Ivan Snook attempts to go beyond simplistic finger pointing to look at the challenges many students bring with them when they enter the school gates, and how these can be dealt with.

Recent discussions of league tables and standardised testing have once again drawn attention to what is often called "the gap" - the wide variation in success rates for different groups gaining school-based qualifications.

"In New Zealand this has tended to focus on differences between Māori and Pakeha but it arises also in discussion of social class … in relation to proposed standards, the tone is of outrage that teachers should be 'scared' of being held accountable.'"

Professor Snook says it is "ethically wrong" to hold teachers accountable for achievement differences that are largely the result of social class and home background.

"The dispute is often ideological rather than data based and, because of this, each side tends to see the other as merely providing excuses."

Professor Snook believes the gap boils down to one question - "can educational inequalities be removed by changes in the school or must they be tackled in the wider community?"

According to Social class and educational achievement, the latter is most definitely the case. Professor Snook cites research that shows the education gap is not restricted to New Zealand - it happens in every developed society.

"Students with good family resources out-perform those who come from poorer backgrounds."

These inequalities are not just restricted to educational achievement.

Professor Snook says that within any society, including New Zealand, those who are poor are much less healthy, have lower life expectancy, lack adequate housing, are over represented in the prison population and are more often the victims and the perpetrators of violence.

"Educational inequality is one part of wider social inequality," he says.

Professor Snook then looks at studies which show those social problems are due, not to the amount of income, but to its spread.

"To give just one example: USA, New Zealand, Portugal and Ireland (with high income inequality) have high infant mortality rates, while Japan, Sweden, Finland and Norway (low income inequality) have low infant mortality rates. The same picture is basically true of health, violence, life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, rates of imprisonment, abuse of alcohol and the use of illegal drugs."

Although good schools make a difference, the biggest influence is family background, making tackling each problem separately ineffective.

"All this leads to the conclusion that, on their own, schools are relatively powerless to close the educational gap: closing the gap requires an emphasis on policies to remove the causes of poverty. To hold schools and teachers accountable for differences in the attainment of social groups is unfair and unreasonable."

Professor Snook does not just assert this point - he also provides a careful critique of the reasons given by those who place responsibility solely on teachers and schools.

He looks at, and refutes, the argument that some schools have beaten the odds so all schools should be able to - looking at the motivations behind the way schools are set up, how they select students, the individual backgrounds of the students and the results of standardised tests.

"We have to recognise that achieving on standardised tests is not all of education and may not even be the most important part. The business world often argues that affective characteristics are more important to them than cognitive ones: they want employees who are loyal, trustworthy, creative, flexible and able to work co-operatively. Standardised tests do not measure these traits and may indeed discourage them."

Professor Snook's paper looks at the approaches of various different schools in New Zealand and highlights the success of those that work with their community instead of in isolation.

"These approaches show that education of parents is as important as the education of their children. And yet, there have been recent savage cuts of funding for Adult and Community Education which will hurt lower socioeconomic groups most.

"Educational policy should not proceed apart from social policy."

(Article published in PPTA News November 2009)

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 April 2017 10:26