It’s becoming blatantly clear that social class or socio-economic status and not gender or ethnicity, is the key factor whether a child does well or badly at school across the North-East. The higher the class (measured by wealth or job) of parents, the more successful a youngster will be in schooling. Lower working-class children, living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, compared to middle-class youngsters of the same ability, generally get poorer exam results according to the ‘Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’(October, 2014) report. For instance, around 90% of young people living in the leafy suburbs of Gosforth, Jesmond, High Heaton or Darras Hall get five or more GCSE results at A*-C, compared to less than a third from lower-class backgrounds, especially in the region’s inner-city areas or outer council estates.
Strikingly, less than half of young people from unskilled manual families stay on in post-16 full-time education compared to nine in 10 from managerial or professional households across the city. 18% of 16 to 24-year olds Newcastle are NEETS, (not in education, employment or training) ,with over 28% living in the five ‘priority wards’ of the city, such as ,Benwell, Elswick, Kenton, Westgate, and Walker.
So how can we explain what’s going on, and what can we do about it.
Some critics put in it down to the quality of schooling. True, the City Council and Government were quite right in their policy decisions to close down the ‘failing’ Blakelaw School and West Gate College in the noughties, on the grounds of falling standards and high truancy rates. In the case of Westgate College, in the city’s west end, the GCSE pass rate of A-C stood at 9% in 1999! For Ofsted this was largely attributable to weak leadership and mediocre teaching in some subjects – though in all fairness there were examples of ‘good practice’, especially in History and other humanities subjects. Tony Blair’s controversial decision to convert the school into Academy Status, set up in the disadvantaged district of Scotswood, was arguably one step in the right direction. The school is doing well.
However, there is substantial evidence to support the former PM’s view that a ’good school, in a poor low-income neighbourhood, can make a difference. According to top educationalists, Mortimer and Rutter, good schools can make a difference to the ‘life chances’ of all pupils. For example, teachers who are well prepared for lessons; Teachers who have high expectations; who set high examples of behaviour and place emphasis on praise rather than blame; Teachers who treat pupils with respect and show an interest in their development. But above all, there is an expectation, set by competent, high striving head- teachers, who are committed to a strong achieving ethos, which promotes self confidence and self-esteem amongst students.
Take St Mary’s Comprehensive school in deprived Longbenton, Newcastle, with a mixed intake both socially and culturally, where an exceptional Head-teacher, transformed a ‘failing school’ into a successful one. Four years ago the school was awarded a Grade One (outstanding) by Ofsted. 30 years ago, it was regarded as a ‘sink school’, due to weak leadership, poor senior management and demoralised teachers, who too often labelled pupils as under-performers, leading into a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy,’ where the youngsters believed they were failures. Most left going into low paid, low –status jobs or worse the dole queue, with a deep legacy of hatred of formal education. What a waste of talent.
Despite these accomplishments, schools, however, good or outstanding, can’t compensate for the inequalities in the real social world. Good schooling can help to mitigate inequality but it can’t eradicate it.
One of the key factors for working-class under-achievement, is poverty and material circumstances. In Newcastle Central, over 37 per cent. of youngsters experience child poverty, an increase from two years ago, which has clearly had an impact on their educational success or failure. According to the report, ‘Children’s Life Chances’, produced by the North East Child Poverty Commission in November 2015, there is an attainment gap between pupils who receive free school meals and those that don’t. 15% of boys receiving free school meals didn’t get 5 GCSEs. Likewise, according to the Newcastle Education Commission in 2005, problems at home are to blame for poor exam results than schools such as low incomes and poor parenting. The reality is too many poor youngsters living in our inner-cities and outer-council estates are living in overcrowded conditions, where there is little space to do homework, and many lack computers – what the experts call ‘digital exclusion’.
Sadly, in some workless households, there is a lack of parental interest, and a deeply ingrained ‘anti-learning culture’; though amongst more aspirational white and BME working class communities, this appears to be slowly breaking down across the city and other urban centres of population across the region.
Of-course, the fact remains that professional/managerial parents possess the ‘cultural and social capital’ to get their kids into the top Universities like Durham, Newcastle and York. Many middle class youngsters can afford to follow unpaid internships in attractive careers such as journalism or Public Relations. Only last year an important report by Alan Milburn, the Government’s Social Mobility Czar, noted that many employers are biased in favour of the elite Russell Group Universities where 80% of middle-class youngsters attend.
Locally, Newcastle City Council established the ‘Newcastle Learning Challenge’ (based on the London model) made up of head-teachers, school governors, the universities, business, the ‘Third Sector’ and Newcastle College. This consortium collated empirical evidence drawn from a wide range of expertise and experience with a published report capturing some emerging thinking about how the ‘’attainment gap’’ can be addressed in Newcastle.
To reverse this trend on national level, some policy experts have argued that Central Government needs to abide by the Child Poverty Act, to minimise inequalities, brought in by the last Labour Government in 2010, and eradicate child poverty by 2020 as recommended by the Milburn Report last year To date Labour’s radical educational policies have placed a spotlight on the issues.Educational Achievement Zones committed to compensatory schooling, including breakfast clubs in poor neighbourhoods, introduced by the last Labour Government, are to be restored, and Sure Start programmes aimed at deprived pre-school children under five will be safeguarded and increased.
The restoration of EMAs and student grants for youngsters from low-income households will play a key role in boosting educational participation.
Most Schools and Colleges in the region are doing their best, with able and dedicated teachers, with an emphasis on inclusive learning, but they can’t compensate for the iniquities of a socially divided region. If we’re serious about raising the attainment levels of disadvantaged youngsters, elected Labour Mayors, devolved combined authorities and a future Labour government must adopt public policies to bring about a more equal and fairer society. Contrary to popular belief social class hasn’t vanished. It’s alive and well. As Christine Skelton in her book, ‘Schooling the Boys,’ says, it’s social class, not gender, that affects overall educational performance both in the North and elsewhere in the UK.