Disadvantaged children do better at school if in a minority, finds report

OECD study advises not clustering poor children would improve social mobility

Disadvantaged pupils do much better in schools where they are in a minority, research by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has found.

The OECD report suggests the government could boost social mobility by breaking up clusters of pupils between schools and persuading talented teachers to work in impoverished areas.

A survey of OECD member countries found a wide gulf in England between the performance of pupils from disadvantaged households who attended schools with a majority of other disadvantaged children and those who attended schools elsewhere.

Schools with only a small proportion of disadvantaged pupils were found to produce results that were on average two and a half years ahead of those with a majority of disadvantaged pupils.

The report criticizes the promotion of school choice and academic selection as a way of improving educational equality – contradicting the government’s assertion that grammar schools and parental choice can aid social mobility.

“Most empirical evidence in countries as diverse as Chile, New Zealand, Sweden, the UK and the US suggests that reforms introducing greater school choice also tend to increase academic and socio-economic sorting because more advantaged, highly educated families are more likely to make better-informed choices,” the report concludes.

The problem can be avoided “by improving disadvantaged families’ access to information about schools, and also by restricting the possibilities for schools to skim off the best students through selective admissions criteria”, as well as by putting more resources into schools attended by disadvantaged pupils.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, said the fact that 46% of disadvantaged pupils in England were concentrated in schools where they are in the majority was a barrier to social mobility, along with pupil behaviour.

Schleicher praised the use of the pupil premium, which gives higher funding to schools with pupils from poor families, but said talented teachers needed to be given a strong incentive to work in the worst-off areas.

“Having more teachers is not the necessarily the solution, it’s getting the right teachers into the most disadvantaged schools and making it not just financially but intellectually attractive for teachers to work in those circumstances, to build teachers’ careers around challenges,” Schleicher said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in England has narrowed since 2011.

“We’re targeting extra support at the poorest areas of the country to raise standards in schools and attract great teachers. Earlier this year the education secretary also set out his plans to boost social mobility by improving education support for children before they start school,” the DfE said.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the OECD report was alarming, showing wide gaps in attainment between children from social classes emerging by the age of 10.

“Despite the improving standards in schools and two decades of sustained effort, narrowing the gap between richer and poorer students is taking too long,” Whiteman said.

“Some of the areas where it is hardest to be socially mobile have suffered from decades of underinvestment and shrinking opportunities for well-paid and highly skilled work. If we’re serious about improving equality in the UK we’ve got to look at all these factors. Schools can’t do it alone.”

The OECD’s research also found that just 15% of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in England said they were happy and felt socially integrated at school, a figure far below the 50% in the Netherlands and the 43% in Switzerland who reported the same.



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