Atheist Miliband and his son’s CofE Primary School

The Daily Mail today runs a story about that the well known irreligious member of the Labour Cabinet, David Miliband.  Miliband is an atheist, but  his son attends a Church School. 

It is a situation that the Daily Mail could not resist.  It has accused him of ‘hypocrisy’ and of playing the admission system to get his son  into a Church School.  This accusation arises because David Miliband is an atheist and there are a number of non faith schools closer to the Miliband’s home.

However is this accusation  really fair?  Today, the Labour Government presides over a quasi market in education.  Introduced by a Conservative Government, the 1988 Education Act introduced the concept of parental choice in education.  This meant that parents have the freedom to choose the school they want to send their child to.  The theory behind this was that this would drive up standards, parents would choose the ‘best’ schools, forcing other less popular schools to improve their standards in order to attract more pupils.  ‘Bad’ schools would close, and rightly so as they weren’t very good at providing education.  Parent power would rule and standards would rise.

Except, of course, as sociologists of education will tell us, this quasi market place has resulted in a ‘parentocracy‘  (see Brown, P (1990) ‘The ‘Third Wave’: Education and the Ideology of Parentocracy’,  British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 65-85) and the playing out of class strategies, (see Ball, S.J (1993) ‘Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: The Market as a Class Strategy in the UK and the USA’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 3-19). 

So, we now have a system whereby middle class parents can work the system to get their child into their chosen school. They can do this in numerous ways, by moving to the right catchment areas, in the case of faith schools by demonstrating their religious dedication by attending school, and, by using different addresses.  They are able to seek out the best schools in the first place, exercising their ‘cultural capital’. 

The exercising of cultural capital is not discouraged by the current Government, although rule breaking in relation to schools’ admissions is, and has been highlighted .  Several local authorities have investigated the claims that some parents have made in an attempt to get their child into their chosen school.

The Milibands then, are just doing what they expect other parents to do.  Choosing a school that is not your nearest school is quite acceptable in the context of parental choice.  The Miliband’s are simply choosing the school they want.  David may well be an atheist, but his wife is not, and David has not been attending church so cannot himself be accused of feigning a religious conversion to get his son into a Church school.  The accusation that he is a ‘hypocrite’ is not substantiated.

Of course, parental choice in the education market does have consequences, especially for those children who have little choice or ability to engage with this market place, and, end up, attending their local school, which then appears as a ‘failing’ school, because of its disadvantaged intake.  The Miliband children would doubtlessly do very well whichever school they went to.  They are middle class, and the education system is, to borrow from their Grandfather Ralph Miliband “rigged from the start against its working-class competitors


League tables

School League tables based on the GCSE results of pupils were published this week.

The Department for Children Schools and Families hailed the results as a sign of continuing success.  The Schools’ Minister Vernon Coaker pointed to the increased proportion of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C at GCSE, with a higher percentage of pupils gaining good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics.  London was identified as the region of top performing schools, a dramatic improvement on GCSE results since 1997.

The Government also pointed to the reduction of the number of  schools designated as ‘National Challenge’ – this is where GCSE passes have been typically low, with schools challenged to improve their results. 

The Government also claimed that Academies have demonstrated that they are successfully reversing low levels of attainment in neighbourhoods they serve.

So, the Government have used the latest statistics to demonstrate that their education policies have been successful. 

However there is another side to this apparent success story. The Guardian reported that a 10th of schools had failed to meet GCSE targets and claimed that Academies, while being hailed as key to raising stands make up a significant proportion of ‘National Challenge’ schools.

A form of ‘value added’ which measures the progress a child has made between the ages of 11 and 16 has been introduced this year, this indicates that over half of state schools are failing to meet expected levels of progress.

Interestingly however, it is the schools in the most deprived areas that have improved the most.  As sociologists of education will observe it is such schools that are most likely to struggle, with the social class of their intake impacting of educational attainment.  While these results do not prove that social class no longer influences educational attainment it indicates that policy interventions may lead to improvements in some areas.  Funding has been targeted in these areas, and rightly so, given the consistent evidence for low levels of attainment in these areas.

Now the Lib Dems have criticised the Government for failing to provide the same amount of targeted intervention in ordinary towns, with schools in this area demonstrating less improvement, with some schools struggling to meet targets.

It is almost as if the Labour Government has become a victim of its own success.

At the bottom of the scale, the number of schools where a large number of pupils are leaving without 5 good GCSE’s is increasing.  This indicates a polarisation of attainment – with more pupils gaining more good GCSEs while at the same time more pupils with few qualifications.  An added problem is that these pupils are likely to be concentrated in these so called ‘failing schools’ which then struggle to improve, because their levels of attainment are largely shaped by their intake. 

Perhaps to put the criticism into context we should take note of what Vernon Coaker has to say:

“A decade ago, just 35% of children left school with five good GCSEs including English and maths, now with our best results ever it’s 49.8% for all schools. In fact, the average school performance in 1997 is now roughly where we put the absolute bottom benchmark expected. This hasn’t happened by chance.”

Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools

Professor David Woods, the Chief Adviser for London Schools this week criticised a number of middle class parents for their reluctance, often refusal to send their children to local comprehensives.

In London, the area his role is focused on, the problem of middle class parents abandoning the local comprehensive school is greater than in other parts of the country.

In the Guardian article which reports Woods’ concerns it is stated:

In London, the proportion of parents choosing private schools is higher than in the rest of the country, with 9% of 15-year-olds attending private schools. Across England, the number of 10-year-olds who attend state primary schools and transfer to a private secondary school is 2.3%, while in London it is 3.7%

Why are these parents abandoning the local comp?

Comprehensive Schools do not get a good press, especially in the Daily Mail as indicated by these headlines:

State pupils can be uncontrollable and are unlikely to achieve academically, says private schools chief

State pupils ‘miss out on university because of bad teaching, not bias’

These kind of headlines must contribute to and reinforce parents’ fears about the local comp.

In drama too, comprehensive schools just don’t appear to be very attractive.  Remember Grange Hill from the BBC?  According to the Daily Mail, again, it was cut because real comprehensives are worse than the fiction portrayed in that drama series.

Today we have Waterloo Road which as has been described elsewhere on this blog isn’t exactly attractive to middle class parents wanting the best educational experience and outcomes for their children.

Sociologists of education have studied the behaviour of middle class parents in the education market place that was created by the 1988 Education Act.  Most notably there is Stephen Ball.  Middle class parents employ strategies to get their children into the school of their choice, this can range from moving house to a different catchment area to secure a place at a more desireable school.  It can mean immersing themselves into the life of the local church in order to get their child into a church school.  Sociologists often refer to the ways in which middle class parents are able to use their cultural capital (see Bourdieu for more) in order to secure advantage in the education market.

The education system itself does little to discourage the use of cultural capital by parents, following the 1988 Education Act we have a quasi education market in which parents have (in theory) a choice over which school to send their child too, supported by a range of different school types, including comprehensive schools, grammar schools, specialist schools and academies.  For those who want out of the state system and can afford it there are private schools.  Choice may appear to be democratic, expect that some parents are better able to exercise a choice and get what they want than others are.  The result is that there are class advantages to be seen in education.  Those whose parents have little cultural capital and who can’t afford to move to ‘better’ catchment area have little choice to go to the apparently failing local comprehensive school.  Though in reality the local comp may not actually be failing, standards may be rising, and as educational attainment is related to social class, those who are in the ‘failing’ schools are more likely to be working class pupils who traditionally achieve lower grades than their middle class counterparts – this may go someway to explaining why ‘standards’ may appear to be low in these schools.

Professor Woods is right, however when education has become a commodity it is hardly surprising that parents will employ whatever they can to get their child into the school of their choice, even if that child would do equally as well at the local comp.

Continue reading “Middle class parents and prejudice against comprehensive schools”

School attendance linked to poverty – shocking new statistics reveal?

Over the recent festivities the UK Conservative Party issued a news story: Persistent truancy concentrated in deprived areas in which they apparently exposed the relationship between deprivation and school attendance.  The party’s analysis revealed that children living in the most deprived neighbourhoods were more than five times more likely to miss school than pupils living in the richest neighbourhoods.

Commenting on the analysis, Michael Gove the shadow education secretary highlighted the need to invest in schools in the most deprived neighbouhoods in an effort to tackle this problem.

Why is Michael Gove so surprised by these figures?

Though the figures may be shocking in that it indicates the existence of educational inequality (and therefore the existence of society – which a certain Conservative Prime Minister claimed did not exist) which is something to be concerned about as it damages both individuals and society, the  figures are not new. 

Any examination of the link between social class and education, whether it be participation in education, experience of education or attainment reveals a link, with children and young people from poorer backgrounds coming of worse than their more wealthy peers. 

Sociological understandings have sought to understand the complex relationship between social class (in itself a complex concept) and education.

A Level Student studying sociology might have been able to help out Michael Gove by referring to the work of J.W.B Douglas and the National Child Development study which indicated that a lack of material resources, such as physical space to work or a lack of books impacted on a child’s education. 

Sociologist might have also told Gove that material factors such as overcrowding and a poor diet may lead to increased incidences of ill health in deprived areas leading to increased rates of absence from school.  Or  perhaps a need for the child to take time off for caring responsibilities, again more likely to adversely impact on a child from a poor background.

Gove and the rest of the Conservatives probably know all this already, but they have attempted to use these figures to criticise the current Labour Government for failing to tackle the inequality which they helped to entrench in the first place.

Since coming to power the current Government have gone someway to tackling the link between poverty and educational outcomes, for example by the provision of Sure Start in deprived areas – working class children have been the least likely to attend nursery education and to start school behind their middle class peers.  It is likely to be years before the impact of this is to be seen. Educational Action Zones were set up to raise aspirations and attainment in working class areas.  Extra funding through specialist schools were steered to schools in deprived areas.  While these have been controversial (as I have discussed in other posts) they have been attempts to tackle the long term problem of poor educational experiences among children from the most deprived backgrounds.

Perhaps Michael Gove might like to consider the impact of the educational market place that his party introduced through the 1988 Education Act which allowed the further reproduction of class inequalities in education by allowing middle class parents to exercise their cultural capital and choose the best schools for their children while so called failing schools were unsurprisingly found in the most deprived neighbourhoods?