Last week, researchers at Lancaster University published findings which suggest that social class had a bigger impact on school performance than any government policy. This was based on an analysis of PISA data on mathematics attainment for fifteen year-olds across nine countries. In five of the nine countries, including the UK, the social class of students had the most bearing on performance. The next most important factors in student performance were anxiety towards tests and students’ own motivation.
The authors of the research argued that their findings showed that the UK’s most effective schools are defined by their “size and social class of their students”, rather than issues like teaching resources or management which often attract government attention. This led co-author and professor of economics Geraint Johnes to conclude “if any difference is to be made to school performance, it is clear that social policy rather than educational policy needs the most attention.”
Key findings in the research included that having students considered to be ‘disadvantaged’ (according to the PISA definition) in a school’s population led to a deterioration in performance across the entire school. In the UK, schools where over 20% of their pupils were from disadvantaged backgrounds saw lower attainment across the entire school. This was a stronger effect than in the US where the proportion of disadvantaged children needed to be 70%-80% before school performance was affected. This could have implications for the renewed debate surrounding grammar schools and social segregation in schools.