‘Close the gap’ has been the clarion call of ministers since Tony Blair picked up where Disraeli (and briefly Ted Heath) left off with the ‘one Nation’ philosophy. Now, the view that we should and will be one Nation, equal in advantage, permeates the rhetoric of the major UK political parties. The gap that concerned Disraeli continues to take the number one spot; that between rich and poor. In education, other gaps that remain high in the charts include those between girls and boys, different ethnic groups, good and bad schools, local and national attainment data, and national and international attainment data. Gaps are seen to be problematic as differences in educational attainment are by implication equated with differences in the quality of learning experiences or inequalities in the meeting of needs on either side of any gap. Gaps are also taken to indicate our capability or otherwise, as UKPlc, to have competitive advantage over other nation states.
The problem with gaps is not what they purport to be about, but the lack of attention to detail concerning what they are actually about. At a recent induction event for a National College (NCSL) training programme, delegates were invited to identify an achievement gap in their school and lead an initiative to close it as part of the assessment of their leadership skills. This is typical of the way in which policy initiatives drive education professionals to view and close attainment gaps. What no one is ever asked to consider is who defined the gap, how and why. Take the poverty gap. The Child Poverty Act (England and Wales. statues 2010) uses four measures: relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty and material deprivation. Politicians freely flip between these measures in order to use statistics in the way that best serves their political agenda. It is easy to show a drop in child poverty if you move from absolute to relative measures, for example. Most school data and policy driven education initiatives use Free School Meals (FSM) as a rather more blunt indicator of poverty. An indicator that itself changes as the criteria for eligibility for FSM change. Some gaps can be closed simply by narrowing the range of children eligible for free school meals.
Whatever the measure, the evidence is persistently clear that family income and status are the most significant indicators of achievement (Feinstein 2003; Mongon and Chapman 2008; Strand 2008; Goodman and Gregg 2012 and many more). It also seems persistently clear that policy initiatives in education cannot on their own make any difference to the overall gap in attainment between rich and poor. Social mobility, one indicator of the success of education interventions in diminishing this attainment gap, has not changed in relative terms since it levelled off after the second world war. (Goldthorpe 2012) Education on its own can do very little for social mobility and poverty without significantly more structural change to society.
Whilst the previous labour administration reduced child poverty to some extent through a progressive tax and benefits system and parental employment policies, poverty still only fell by a seventh and income inequality grew more than at any other time since records began. (Child Poverty Action Group, p3; Joseph Rowntree Foundation p10) Under the current coalition government poverty in general and child poverty in particular is already starting to increase at an alarming rate (Elliott 2011; Institute for Fiscal Studies 2011) and the poverty gap continues to increase faster than in any other European country (OECD 2011 p23; Beckford 2011). The call to school leaders and teachers is to close attainment gaps despite poverty and despite the evidence that whatever small gains for supreme efforts school leaders and teachers may achieve for some children, whilst there is poverty, there will be underachievement.
Let us consider then why poverty has such an impact upon attainment. The most significant influence on attainment in school by far is language development in general and vocabulary development in particular. For a range of reasons, children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have lower levels of vocabulary development by the time they enter the school system. These include a greater likelihood of lower levels of parental education, less or no time for parents to talk with, tell stories or read to their children, less or no leisure time for living outside the necessities for daily survival, less or no money for wider cultural and perspective widening experiences. Talking, reading and story telling in particular are key to vocabulary development through exposure to language that is different from day to day functional talk. The amount of vocabulary that a child is exposed to before they come to school significantly affects their attainment in reading and comprehension throughout their time in school. A study by Biemuller (as cited in Wolf 2007 p103) in the US showed that children coming into nursery who were in the twenty-fifth percentage quartile for vocabulary development remained behind their peers in reading and comprehension, reaching a gap of three grades difference by the time they were in year 6. The gap between these children and those who started nursery in the seventy-fifth percentage quartile for vocabulary development was even greater. Similar findings have also been reported for children in the UK (DfE 2010). Ridley and Harp show that by five years of age some children from impoverished language environments have heard 32 million fewer words spoken to them than the average middle class child. Children are entering the school system from a position of disadvantage that is hard to compensate for. Interventions that do offer compensation require a great deal of time, specialist knowledge and resources. Most significantly, the older the child, the less effective the intervention. The most effective interventions are those that take place before the child enters the school system, a fact that is well known and poorly attended to by policy makers.
Let us also consider what counts as an effective intervention to counter the impact of poverty on language development. Word poverty is not just a matter of how many words have been heard and learned. As Wolf (2007 p102) notes:
‘When words are not heard, concepts are not learned. When syntactic forms are never encountered, there is less knowledge about the relationship of events in a story. When story forms are never known, there is less ability to infer and predict. When cultural traditions and feelings of others are never experienced, there is less understanding of what other people feel’
Learning new words and learning how to decode words is only part of what is required to develop good reading and comprehension abilities and the cognitive skills necessary for successful learning across all subjects. Semantic development and an emotional engagement with the world of stories is also crucial, and no more so than for children who begin school from a position of disadvantage.
There is much to be argued about the extent to which school leaders and teachers can raise attainment despite poverty. There are all sorts of ways in which young minds can be trained to better perform in tests, particularly if this includes coming to school on Saturday or missing recreation time for more of the same learning and teaching they are exposed to in the week. Coaching, another mechanism for controlling behaviour, can also be effective in training children to improve their performance in tests. The problem is that the interventions that are known by reading and language experts to be effective for language development are not aligned with the narrow focus and non negotiable timing of language tests. If the measure of attainment is predominantly concerned with decoding and vocabulary counting then the related initiatives aimed at raising attainment and closing gaps will only appear to address deficits due to word poverty rather than actually address them.
Let’s take another gap that school leaders and teachers have been urged to close – the gap between girls’ and boys’ performance in reading. Reading depends on the ability of the brain to connect and integrate various sources of information: visual, auditory, linguistic and conceptual. The brain’s capacity to make these connections depends upon a process called myelination – the development of a conductive material around the axons of brain cells. For most children the myelination of the areas of the brain concerned with reading is not sufficiently developed until they are between five and seven years. It has also been shown that myelination in the critical areas for reading develops more slowly in boys than in girls. Boys simply do not have the physiological structures to read until later than girls. Attempting to close this gap could actually turn boys into ‘reluctant’ readers if they are made to feel that they are under performing when they can’t do anything about it, as well as take resources away from girls. Claims that this gap has been closed can only be highly suspect. (For an account of the research and evidence for these claims see Wolf: 2007 pp95 and 96). The interesting things about this gap is why, in the first place, it was ever conceived as a problem rather than a celebration for girls, and why, despite the evidence, it continues to be framed as one.
So where does this leave us? There is the certainty that poverty is the single most influencing factor on a child’s attainment in school and the clear evidence that interventions for language development in the pre-school years is the most effective educational way of addressing many of the deficits due to poverty. There is much evidence to show that closing any other gap is dependent upon the support of language development and that this requires higher levels of resourcing as children get older, as well as a high level of expertise. There is the knowledge that some gaps are simply not relevant in the context of what is known about learning, and a mismatch between what is known about learning and how it is measured. There is the confusing and slippery issue of the ideological construction of methodologies for data collection and the definition of what counts as a problem. There is the more specific issue of how poverty is defined and what counts as sustained and effective learning in relation to language development, reading and comprehension. In the meantime, we are all colluding, wilfully, knowingly, ignorantly or helplessly, in the myth that closing the gap is as simple as asking delegates on a leadership programme to identify a gap and lead their teams to close it.
- Feinstein, L. (2003) ‘Inequality in the early cognitive development of British children in the 1970 cohort’ Economica. Vol 70. Pp 73-79
- Mongon, D. and Chapman, C. (2008) Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class pupils. Nottingham, National College of School Leadership.
- Strand, S. (2008) Minority ethic pupils in the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England: extension report on performance in public examinations at age 16 (DCSF research report 029), London: DCSF (removed from DfE web site!)
- Wolf, M (2007) Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Brain and Reading. Icon Books