Social Class, Pupil Progress and School Performance: An Analysis in English Primary Schools Hugh Lauder, Daphne Kounali, Tony Robinson, and Harvey Goldstein. Abstract
This paper raises fundamental questions about educational policy with respect to three key issues: the factors that create school success and failure, the related ways in which school performance is judged in terms of league table rankings and the role of social class, and in particular income, in pupil progress at primary (elementary) school. As a point of entry to these issues the paper investigates the effects of pupil composition in primary schools, finding that while there are small but significant compositional effects on pupil progress the inclusion of composition variables has a profound effect on rankings of school performance. These findings suggest that most value added analyses of schools are misleading. Underlying this problem is a systematic failure by policymakers to consider the way that social class affects pupil progress. However, it is also suggested that policies for increasing the incomes for those close to official poverty levels may have a beneficial effect on pupils’ progress.
Key Words: Social Class, Pupil Progress, Accountability, Value Added
This paper raises questions about educational policy with respect to three key issues: the factors that create school success and failure, the related ways in which school performance is judged and the role of social class and in particular income, on pupil progress at primary school. As a point of entry to these issues it investigates the effects of pupil composition in primary schools. It does this by studying factors affecting pupil progress in a sample of English Primary schools and contextualises findings within the current educational policies of the New Labour Government in England. The general issues, however, are more broadly relevant to educational systems elsewhere that involve elements of public accountability through judgements made about the performance of school students.
There has been considerable debate about the nature and effects of pupil composition, by which we mean the effects the student body may have on school outcomes independent of individual pupil characteristics such as their social class, gender, and ethnicity backgrounds and whether they have learning difficulties. The debate has been ‘alive’ since the publication of Coleman et al’s (1966) celebrated report because it is central to two related concerns: the nature of school effectiveness and appropriate policies to raise school effectiveness. With respect to the former, Thrupp and Hirsch (2006) have argued that we can identify two apparently opposed positions. The first claims that school effectiveness is a function of school management and teacher performance, while the latter claims that social factors (e.g., social class) determine pupil outcomes in schools. In this respect, pupil composition can be seen as one social factor that may be significant in determining pupil outcomes. However, they note that we can consider these two positions as at the ends of a spectrum and that much of the debate centres on the relative contributions of schools and teachers and social factors.
In policy terms, the debate is crucial because if indeed it were the case that school management and teacher performance are key factors determining school effectiveness, then the focus would be on the policies that would best raise school performance. It can be argued that policy makers have focussed, over the past twenty years, on these factors by enlisting the support of some school effectiveness and improvement studies (Goldstein, 2001). Some policy makers have even claimed that reference to social factors, is no more than an excuse for poor performance made by educators (Thrupp,1998).
In England and to some extent the United States this has led to two specific sets of policy: a) what may be called the state theory of learning (Lauder, Brown, Dillabough and Halsey, 2006) and b) the introduction of market mechanisms. The state theory of learning has been a primary focus of developments in England, but also underpinned by a bipartisan government commitment to the use of market mechanisms. It is based on the idea that a combination of the repeated high stakes testing of pupils, a national curriculum with mandated pedagogy, and the publication of school rankings or ‘league tables’ will raise ‘standards’. High stakes testing with publication of results is meant to hold schools and increasingly teachers to account while it is also intended to provide feedback for students and parents. Students and schools are set targets related to the tests and their progress is monitored in relation to them. These policies presuppose a theory of motivation in which children are stimulated to achieve the test results while teachers similarly have the spur of achieving high test results since their school with be judged against others in the published league tables.
Of particular relevance to the findings presented below, schools have usually been judged only in terms of their overall test results and more recently ‘value added’ measures have been accepted by policy makers since they are more closely related to pupil progress. In our study, we discuss value added measures which include social class, deprivation and prior achievement. Official studies have used only limited contextual measures of value added (CVA), and there remain major issues as to how they can be used (Goldstein, 2008). The CVA measures adopted by the DCFS are derived from data collected by the Pupil Annual School Census database (PLASC) maintained by the Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCFS) where the only compositional variable that even approximates social class composition is the proportion eligible for free schools meals.1 In a separate paper (Kounali, Robinson, Goldstein and Lauder, 2008) we have explored the problems associated with using that variable, and especially its low reliability. We note that the inclusion of compositional or indeed any variables measured at the school level, may be relevant to judging schools for the purposes of accountability, for example when carrying out local or national inspections. For the purposes of school choice, however, it is not appropriate to include such variables since interest lies only in comparing school ‘effects’ and not in ‘explaining’ how such effects may be caused (Goldstein and Leckie, 2008). It is clear, however, that the way in which school performance is judged is important because where schools do not achieve targeted test results, a battery of measures can be externally imposed on a school to secure better test results (Lauder, Brown, Lupton, Hempel-Jorgensen and Castle, 2006), raising questions about teacher’s professional autonomy and morale.
The market mechanism of parental choice is also seen as a way of raising ‘standards’, in that schools which do not attract pupils to fill their allocated rolls may be penalised financially and ultimately threatened with closure. This latter policy is particularly germane to the question of the nature of the pupil body since studies have shown that parental choice has an impact on the flows of students to schools, according to social class, gender and ethnicity (Lauder, Hughes, et al, 1999).
In summary, the question of whether pupil composition has a significant impact on school performance assumes a central position within the debate over school effectiveness for two reasons: in so far as aspects of pupil composition do not enter into official judgements about school performance, it may be that schools and teachers may be wrongly held responsible for their school’s performance. Official government statistics in England take into account various contextual measures in assessing school performance but they do not take into account as to whether, for example, a disadvantaged pupil in a predominantly high social class school will perform better than one in a predominantly low social class school. Moreover, if parental choice significantly alters the pupil composition of schools such that, for example, they become more polarised in terms of social class intake and this is found to have a bearing on pupil outcomes, then fundamental questions will be raised about this policy.
The Debate The literature on the effects of pupil composition has been extensive and while it is probably fair to say that the balance of evidence favours the existence of such effects, there is no consensus (Thrupp, 1997, Nash, 2004). After three decades of studies reporting either the presence or absence of composition effects attention has turned to the basis for disagreement and these have turned on both theoretical and methodological issues. Theoretically, the question of how pupil composition might affect school and individual pupil outcomes, was not given sustained theoretical consideration until the advent of Thrupp’s work (1999), although earlier empirical analyses had included, more sophisticated compositional variables (Nuttall, Goldstein, Prosser, and Rasbash, (1989) Thrupp outlined three ways in which pupil composition might affect school and pupil outcomes: through peer subcultures, instruction and the curriculum and school policies and illuminated his theory with an ethnographic study of working and middle class schools. He hypothesised that peer subcultures might either support school aims and processes or resist them. In schools with a high proportion of working class youth there was a greater possibility of classroom disruption. In turn instruction and the curriculum were changed to arrest pupils’ interest. However, at a policy level more time was spent on issues of discipline and ways of funding non core activities. At these three different but related levels, Thrupp (1999) argues that pupil composition has a significant impact on school and individual performance.
However, Thrupp’s theoretical work arose out of the study of secondary schools and it is not immediately obvious that the pupil level aspect of his theory has application in primary schools largely because while we might expect to see issues of discipline and social control as of significance in some schools (Hempel-Jorgensen, 2007), these are unlikely to coalesce around sub-cultures of resistance in the sense, described for example, by Willis (1977).
The contrary view has been most consistently advanced by Nash (see, e.g., 2003, 2006), who makes two points. The first , which reflects a position he has developed over twenty years, is that the experiences of the early childhood years develop a cognitive habitus which largely determines future school careers, hence;
Discussion of the school composition effect and its relevance to school effectiveness should be located more securely in the larger debate about the relationships between social class, early childhood socialisation, the development of cognitive and no cognitive habitus and the responsibility of the school for the learning outcomes of its students. (2003. p.453).
Added to this theoretical position is a methodological critique in which he argues that the causes of what we observe in schools may lie outside the school and composition effects may be one example. He cites Bourdieu (1999) who argues that:
[t]he perfectly commendable wish to see things in person, close up, sometimes leads people to search for the explanatory principles of observed realities where they are not to be found (not all of them, in any case), namely, at the site of observation itself (p.181).
Nash’s critique is directed at ethnographic studies such as Thrupp’s and not at quantitative studies which he sees as the essential precursor to qualitative studies which seek to explain observed quantitative effects.2 There are three points to make in thinking about studies investigating compositional effects to emerge from this debate. Firstly, causes that can be attributed to school effects as opposed to wider societal effects are always a matter of theoretical contest, especially in relation to those processes which appear to cross the border between school and society (Lauder, Jamieson and Wikeley, 1998). This is one reason why studies of school effectiveness should be theoretically driven. Secondly, Nash’s view seems reasonable, since quantitative studies can identify effects, if not necessarily the causes. Finally, and most importantly for this study we need to unpack the notion of social class that is being used because it is germane to the two positions outlined above and more directly to present government policies: in particular, whether we can distinguish between four components that are often associated with social class: occupation, education, income and wealth. In this study we use home ownership as a proxy for wealth. The latter has been largely unexplored in the sociology of education but it may be that as (and when house prices rise) this gives home owning parents a stake in society which then translates into aspirations and educational hopes for their children.3
Social Class, Income and Education Typically in class analyses the underlying variable that links these factors is that of power. Power in this respect has three dimensions, power over others, the degree of autonomy that it confers at work and the power that accrues at home through disposable income. In this context education can be seen as related to the technical demands of work and also to the authority and status that it confers. Here Kohn’s (1977) research is significant where he argues that it is professional middle class parents’ sense of power over their destiny which is given to them by autonomy in their paid work and which they communicate to their children that enables them to perform relatively well at school.
In relation to this study we are interested in distinguishing, where possible, between social class as reflected in occupation and its attendant relations of power, income and wealth. This is for two reasons. The first concerns the theoretical position outlined by Nash (see especially his 2006 paper). For Nash, it is family cultural resources, in particular reading, that are germane to future educational performance. Here social class is translated into a particular cultural orientation. The material basis in terms of income, although not dismissed, is downplayed. Mayer (1997) has perhaps the clearest argument that it is the culture of parents in poverty and the nature of their parenting rather than income which explains the relationship between class and school performance.
The early 21st century (New Labour) government’s strategy for reducing child poverty is largely focussed on raising the income of those in poorly paid work through amongst other policies, working tax credits. These are given to families where one adult is in low paid work. In 2005, when the data on our families were collected, a couple or lone parent with one dependent child under 11 and a gross annual income of up to about £13,500 would have been eligible for WTC, although those with higher incomes would also be eligible if they were paying for childcare, or were disabled, or working more than 30 hours per week, or if they had more children.
If Mayer (1997) is correct then we should not expect this policy to have any effect on schooling, indeed it could be argued that with respect to schooling at least this policy merely ‘throws good money after bad’.
In this paper we have attempted to distinguish various measures of economic and social deprivation from the more omnibus measure of social class. In particular our data enable us to identify those that are either unemployed, in rented accommodation and/or in receipt of WTCs. The distinction between rented accommodation and home ownership may be considered important since home ownership presupposes a degree of wealth accumulation which is absent for those that are renting.
It will be apparent that there is considerable overlap between concepts of social class and income, most clearly seen perhaps in relation to the unemployed where paid work confers no sense of status and reduces choices outside work due to low income. However, it may be that raising income to a certain minimum level reduces stress within the home and confers a note of hope, both of which may translate into school performance. In this paper we have categorised social class according to the Goldthorpe-Hope (1974) scale (see Appendix 1) because it allows for changes in the social class structure to include routine non-manual workers such as those in personal and protective services. Our classes are termed respectively: professional; middle and working class, with a further category of those not working. It has typically been the case in the sociology of education to refer to professionals as ‘the middle class’ but this excludes potentially significant groups of non-routine workers, such as semi-professionals, lower level managers and administrators.
Testing the Pupil Composition Thesis in Primary Schools There are several reasons as to why a study of primary schools might be considered a particularly stringent test of the different elements of the pupil composition thesis. Firstly, given the view that it might well be the creation of pupil sub-cultures of resistance that are the source of a composition effect, for the reasons given above, they may well be absent from primary schools. Secondly, one of the reasons why this might be the case is that primary schools tend to be small and pupils are unlikely to avert the ‘gaze’ of teachers. Hence, even if sub-cultures of resistance were nascent within the primary school they are less likely to develop. Thirdly, pupils in primary school may not have generated the identities necessary to create groups which challenge the teachers’ and school’s goals. However, at the organisational level, because primary schools are smaller schools the compositional effects on the organisation may be larger, and by the same token, the issues raised by composition may be easier to handle. In the event, there have been few large scale studies of school effectiveness in primary schools that have taken composition into account and where they have the analysis using social class has been relatively crude (e.g. Mortimore, Sammons, Stoll, Lewis and Ecob,1989).
These considerations provide a theoretical framework for this study. However, in addition to the theoretical debate, there has been a related debate about methods. This latter debate is concerned with the extent to which conflicting methods and especially measurement error could give rise to dubious claims over compositional effects. It is these methodological differences, we argue, that have led to disagreement over the presence and nature of compositional effects.
The Methodological Debate There are two major issues with respect to methodology that can explain the unresolved nature of the debate over compositional effects. These relate to the techniques and sampling used in order to identify compositional effects and which have sometimes been termed phantom effects (Harker and Tymms,2004). Thrupp, Lauder and Robinson (2002) have noted that there are few studies that conform to what they argue would approximate to the ideal with respect to techniques and sampling. As a consequence, it may well be that whether composition effects are identified will be a function of differences in the sample and techniques used. In outlining what they consider to be a desirable model with respect to sampling they argue for the following criteria:
First, the sample should include schools from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. School compositional effects are unlikely to appear in reasonably well-mixed schools because there may be countervailing factors involved: the effects of school composition could be cancelled out by student sub-cultures in which those of high prior achievement excelled, while those of lower prior achievement generated a culture of resistance and school failure.
Second, a full set of entry-level variables, including prior achievement variables, need to be included. Entry level variables should include measures of social class for the school population, this has rarely been the case in England and Wales where a measure of eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM) typically has been used. We noted above that we have shown this measure to be unreliable in identifying disadvantaged pupils and as a predictor of subsequent performance (Kounali, Robinson, Goldstein and Lauder, 2007; Goldstein, Kounali and Robinson (2008).
Third, there should be measures that can capture the possible correlations between the theoretical dimensions of the school composition model (such as peer group processes, instructional, and school organisational and management processes). It is noteworthy that many school effectiveness studies are not whole school studies in the sense that not all pupils are measured. Typically, it is particular years that are used. This then raises a question about how representative a year can be of a school and whether it is the characteristics of a year group and/or the whole school that are relevant. For analytical purposes then we can distinguish between the notion of a school as reflecting the current characteristics of the pupils in the school and the notion of a school as having characteristics independent of these. These points will be germane to the discussion below.
Fourth, a combination of compositional variables (e.g., prior achievement or social class composition) should be used in order to measure the various dimensions of pupil composition.
Fifth, different techniques for measuring composition should be used. The typical measure employed is the mean, for example, of the social class composition. Additionally, ratios of high to low social class proportions could be used or other measures of ‘spread’. In this study we use ratios because they better capture the distribution of pupils within schools. For example, from our qualitative study of a sub-sample of 12 of the schools in this sample, it is clear that some school compositions comprise a significant proportion of pupils from professional backgrounds and working class backgrounds. These tend to be on the rural fringes of the urban centre which is the focus of this study (see below).
However, social class composition is not the only composition variable that can be considered. In this paper we also develop a measure for prior achievement composition effects. While we show that there is a strong correlation between social class and baseline measures at age 5, thereafter there are differences between social class and prior achievement. Our outcomes measures are reading and mental arithmetic and these differences are more marked for the latter. Here the hypothesis is that it is not only factors associated with social class, such as cultural capital but also he composition of prior achievement that needs to be considered since the context created by prior achievement composition may influence pupils’ orientation to learning.
Sixth, where possible, a mix of school types would be included in the sample including denominational schools. This is because for example, catholic schools have been identified as performing a little better than state schools (Bryk, Lee and Smith,1990) Sixth, it is essential that any study should be longitudinal. Finally, we assume that studies should conduct their analyses using appropriate statistical methods which respect the dependence structure characterizing such data i.e. multilevel modelling.
In addition to these criteria, there are several other factors that need to be taken into account: these include seeking to capture elements of the dynamics of the markets in primary schools and the question of pupil turbulence. By turbulence we mean ‘A child joining or leaving school at a point other than the normal age in which children start or finish their education at that school, whether or not this involves a move of home’ (Dobson and Henthorne, (1999:5). The question of turbulence is of significance because some 43 per cent of pupils move primary school at least once between the ages of 7 and 11: in some areas and schools the turbulence is far higher. The issue of turbulence has not been widely considered in the school effectiveness and improvement literatures but it was part of the remit for this project. Indeed, it is only since the inception of this project that a detailed analysis has been undertaken, (Goldstein, Burgess and McConnell, 2007). Finally, within our sample there are schools with high proportions of students that had been categorised as having special educational needs. How such pupils are categorised is problematic because there is variability between local authorities and between schools with respect to how the ‘school action’ and ‘school action +’ categories of SEN are determined and especially with respect to the latter because of the resource implications involved.
It is also important to be aware that, if a statistical model is mis-specified, for example by omitting relevant predictors, or by failing properly to take account of the multilevel data structure, spurious estimates for compositional effects can be obtained.
Given these considerations we move to a description of the sample.