Tim, nice-but-dim

by therealityofschool

In June 2015 the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published research by Dr Abigail McKnight from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics suggesting that middle-class parents support their children so that even less intelligent middle-class children do quite well in life.

17,000 children born in a week in 1970 took an intelligence test when they were 5 (British Cohort Study).  When they were aged 42 their income was recorded.  Less intelligent middle class children were earning more than more intelligent lower income children. In the post-war period the number of good white collar jobs grew faster than the size of the middle-class workforce and this enabled working class children to obtain middle class jobs.

The theory is that this is no longer happening, so for able working class children to have upward mobility some middle class children will have to have downward mobility.  The fact that middle class children do not generally experience downward mobility is the ‘glass floor.’ Dr McKnight suggests there are 2 main pillars supporting the ‘glass floor’: More advantaged parents securing educational opportunities to help their children overcome lack of ability and overtake their more gifted but poorer peers by:

*investing time and resources in education to help children showing early signs of low attainment to recover and achieve good qualifications and even to enter higher education – a major stepping stone to a professional job

*providing better careers advice and guidance – this is likely to be important in explaining why parental education has such a big impact on their children’s earnings even controlling for qualifications and schooling

*placing a high value on polish and ‘soft skills’, such as self-confidence, decisiveness, leadership and resilience

*prioritising school choice, with more advantaged parents able to move house to be in the catchment area of a great state school, invest in private tuition to coach their children to pass the 11+ in selective areas, or give their children a private education

More advantaged parents securing advantages for their children into the labour market that are unavailable to less well-off parents by:

*helping their children into employment through informal social networks

*securing informal and unpaid internships

*investing in their children’s ‘soft skills’ which are highly valued in employment recruitment processes.

Chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, said: “No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want. But Britain is a long way from being a meritocratic society when the less able can do better in life than the more able. “It has long been recognised that there is a glass ceiling in British society that prevents children with potential progressing to the top.  This research reveals there is a glass floor that inhibits social mobility as much as the glass ceiling. “It’s a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain. The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them.”

There are a number of issues with this research, as you would expect of something coming out of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.

1 Middle class children overcome any lack of ability by working hard and indeed working harder than some brighter children from lower income homes. I have taught many dim pupils from wealthy homes, not least at Eton in the 1970s and 1980s when the school operated an admissions system based on registration with the school before the child turned one.  After the child’s first birthday it was too late.  For eight years I operated this admissions system, meeting the parents of the nought-year olds and then subjecting the child (average age four months) to a series of demanding tests which I am sorry to say failed to nail down their intelligence.  On this basis future Etonians were selected and, unsurprisingly, when they shipped up aged 13 the spread of ability was as wide as could be. But as the years I passed I noticed two things.

Firstly, less intelligent pupils who worked hard (nearly all my pupils worked hard) achieved good exam results.  This was not because of extra tutoring or resources – they just worked hard.  All my pupils had to do well, so if they failed a test they had to retake the test as many times as it took for them to pass.  In this way the material was driven into their brains. When pupils come to a private school they often take an entrance exam called Common Entrance.  Once I reached senior management I started to correlate Common Entrance results with GCSE and A-level results and found that the correlation was poor.  The Maths papers at Common Entrance correlated a bit, but generally the correlation was poor.   Every few weeks at the various schools in which I taught pupils were given an effort grade and an achievement grade.  What did correlate with GCSE and A-level results were the effort grades.  So we could say with complete certainly that results depend in part on intelligence, of course, but in good measure on effort.  All teachers know this to be true.

The Report acknowledges this: ‘Children in private schools work hard to achieve good exam results…’  It is these exam results which enable them to go to good universities.

The second thing I noticed was that some of the least intelligent boys I taught did really well in life.  Some were saved by the fact that before 1990 they were not encouraged to go to university.  They went straight into a job, and that was often the army.  In the army they learnt to be organised, they were taught leadership, they grasped hard work.  They developed skills that were going to be valuable to them when, after seven or so years, they left the army. There are many paths to success and it doesn’t help to suggest that children who are found to have a lower IQ score at age 5 should not expect to do well in life.  The basis of this Report is the assumption that children with poor test scores at age 5 are ‘less likely to have successful careers’ and children with high test scores aged 5 ‘are more likely to have highly successful careers.’  This is, fortunately, a false assumption.

2 When the scores of the cognitive tests taken at age 5 were examined, children from middle class homes were found to do much better than children from lower income homes.  37% of children from social class I had test scores in the top quintile at age 5 compared to 8% in social class V.

3 Women are considerably less likely to be in high paid work than their male peers whether high attaining or low attaining at age 5.  This crucial fact reminds us that the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s obsession with social class conceals other things which have a huge impact on social mobility such as gender, ethnicity and geographical location.  Social mobility is multi-faceted.

4 Intelligence is not fixed, so just because you do badly in a cognitive test aged 5 that does not mean you are dim.  Your brain is still developing.  By making a bit of effort you can become more intelligent.  Indeed this research shows that dim children of middle class parents seem to have improved their mathematical ability by the age of 10.  Their brains have developed.

5 The research acknowledges that middle class children develop superior social and emotional skills when compared to children from lower income homes.

6 The research only looks at people born in 1970 but concludes with recommendations applying to children born since 2000.  This is always a problem with research of this sort.   Education moves on, the jobs market moves on, the quality of parenting moves on – and that begs the question whether it is sensible to apply lessons from forty years ago to the current generation of children.

7 The report talks about children from better-off families ‘hoarding’ opportunities.  This implies that they are doing something wrong doesn’t it?  People who hoard are normally felt to be greedy.   But in fact all they are doing is working hard to achieve good results.

If you really want to help children from lower income homes achieve their potential you have to be sure that your analysis is right.  I have helped set up a state school in a disadvantaged part of London in order to try and improve the exam results and university entry scores for that area.   So far (it is early days) we have been very successful.

The way in which you achieve good results for disadvantaged children is to have high expectations – of all of them.  This is the main reason why countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan do better than the UK and USA.  We attach too much importance to measured intelligence.  We give pupils of lower ability unambitious target grades, we put them in for unambitious public exams, we are accepting of mediocrity.  But in the Far East there is an assumption that all children can do well if they work hard.  So less able children are given extra lessons, they are held back if they have not mastered a subject, and they are retested until they prove that they are capable of moving onto the next level – which most are.

The best way to help a pupil from a low income home is to make them to work hard, in the knowledge that they will succeed if they do.  There are two ways to do this:

*very strict discipline of the sort Michael Wilshaw demonstrated at Mossbourne, or Dame Sally Coates at Burlington Danes– very good behaviour, insistence on high quality work.  This requires a strong head teacher who is able to ensure that all teachers are operating to the same high standards and it requires regular testing so that both pupils and teachers who are failing to live up to the high standards are quickly identified.

*excellent teachers who are able to inspire their pupils to work hard using the methods described, for example, by John Tomsett.

That is how you do it.  Regular testing with consequences which flow from the results.  In England pupils who achieve good exam grades in sensible subjects go to good universities.  Most people who go to good universities have a good salary by the age of 42.  Research which obscures this simple fact is missing the point.