It is becoming blatantly clear that social class and not gender or race determine how well a child does at school. The more affluent the family , measured by wealth or job, the more successful a youngster will be.
The defining mission of the labour movement must be to eliminate these differences and ensure every child has the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, regardless of family background.
A study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was just the latest to report that working-class children or those from poorer neighbourhoods achieve poorer exam results than those of their peers from more affluent families.
Strikingly, less than half of young people from unskilled manual families stay on in post-16 full-time education, compared with nine in 10 from managerial or professional households across Newcastle. Around a fifth of 16- to 25-year olds in our region are NEETS (not in education, employment or training), according to the think-tank Policy North.
And in a report produced by the independent Education Policy Institute last month, the most disadvantaged pupils in England have fallen further behind their peers, and are on average more than two years behind non-disadvantaged pupils by the age of 16. The worst-hit areas are in the north of England – Cumbria, rural Durham, Derby, Tyneside, Knowsley and Northumberland – as well as the Isle of Wight.
So how can we explain what’s going on, and what can Labour do about it?
Some policy-makers, such as Lord Adonis, put in it down to the quality of schooling. Negative stereotyping of working-class pupils too often led to the self-fulfilling prophecy whereby youngsters believed they were ‘failures’. Some formed a pupil anti-school sub-culture that manifested itself in ‘’laddish’’ behaviour, as noted by former government minister Steve Byers in 1998. Until the 1990s, millions left at 16. Some did apprenticeships. Others joined the local FE college, while a minority ended up in badly paid low-status work with the badge of failure hanging around their necks.
There is substantial evidence to support Tony Blair’s view that a “good school, in a poor low-income neighbourhood, can make a difference”. According to top educational academics, 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; teachers 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 that promotes self-confidence and self-esteem amongst students.
In 2003, the Labour government set up the London Learning Challenge based on this perspective. In the past decade schools across disadvantaged city boroughs such as Hackney and Islington, with child poverty rates of 41 per cent, have seen the class gap gradually narrow.
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 on two years ago, which has clearly had an impact on their educational success or failure.
According to the Children’s Life Chances report, 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 who don’t. Some 15 per cent of boys receiving free school meals didn’t get five GCSEs. Likewise, according to the Newcastle Education Commission in 2005, problems at home, such as low incomes and poor parenting, are as much to blame for poor exam results as schools. 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 among more aspirational white and BAME working class communities, this appears to be slowly breaking down across the city, though not in urban coastal communities.
Of course, the fact remains that professional/managerial parents possess the cultural and social capital to get their kids into top universities like Durham, Newcastle and Oxford. Many middle-class students 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 tsar, noted that many employers are biased in favour of the elite Russell Group universities, which 80 per cent of middle-class youngsters attend.
To reverse this trend, some educationists have argued that central government needs to abide by the Child Poverty Act, to minimise inequalities, brought in by the Labour government in 2010, and eradicate child poverty by 2020, as recommended by the Milburn Report.
To date, Labour’s radical education policies have placed a spotlight on these issues. Educational achievement zones committed to compensatory schooling, including breakfast clubs in poor neighbourhoods and free school lunches for all primary school pupils up to the age of 11 would be restored under a Labour government. Sure Start programmes aimed at deprived pre-school children under five would be safeguarded and expanded with the election of a Labour administration.
The restoration of EMAs and student grants for youngsters from low-income households would also play a key role in boosting educational participation.
Most schools and colleges in Britain are doing their best, with able and dedicated teachers and an emphasis on inclusive learning, but they can’t compensate for the iniquities of a socially divided nation.
If we are serious about raising the attainment levels of disadvantaged youngsters then elected mayors, devolved combined authorities and a future Labour government must adopt public policies to bring about a more equal and fairer society. The setting up of a North East Learning Challenge based on the successful London model, made up of those who can walk the walk rather than talk the talk, is a regional priority.
Contrary to popular belief, the distinctions of social class have not vanished. They are alive and well – and it is these that affect how well children do in their exams and the future laid out before them.
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle city councillor and former lecturer in sociology, history and politics.