Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

I return to the work of Professor Rebecca (Becky) Allen, Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science, UCL Institute of Education, who has published a set of three articles analysing the fallacies peddled by DfE, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Foundation, the Education Policy Institute and others that are so frequently and uncritically echoed in the mainstream media. I discuss her first two articles here.

I now move on to her third article, which addresses profound issues at the heart of the debate that Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman raises in her letter to the Public Accounts Committee, which is currently causing tension within OfSTED and the DfE.  Janet Downs discusses this here.

The following selection of quotes (in italics) from Becky’s third article are my attempt to summarise her arguments. My comments are in square brackets.

I used to think social inequalities in educational outcomes could be substantially reduced by ensuring everyone had equal access to our best schools. [However EEF research found that ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘Special Measures’ schools in closing ‘The Attainment Gap’.]

That is why I devoted so many years to researching school admissions. Our schools are socially stratified and those serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to have unqualified, inexperienced and non-specialist teachers. We should fix this, but even if we do, these inequalities in access to experienced teachers are nowhere near stark enough to make a substantial dent on the attainment gap. In a rare paper to address this exact question, Graham Hobbs found just 7% of social class differences in educational achievement at age 11 can be accounted for by differences in the effectiveness of schools attended [my bold].

Despite wishing it weren’t true for the past 15 years of my research career, I have to accept that inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom [my bold]. If you want to argue with me that it doesn’t happen in your own classroom, then I urge you to read the late Graham Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, to appreciate why you are (probably) largely unaware of individual student learning taking place. This makes uncomfortable reading for teachers and presents something of an inconvenience to policy-makers because it gives us few obvious levers to close the attainment gap. [But you have already argued convincingly that the ‘attainment gap’ is a distraction. Pupils become inattentive and frustrated when they are bored, or more seriously, when despite their best efforts they don’t understand what the teacher is going on about and the school culture is so oppressive that they are afraid to ask the teacher and not permitted to ask their peers for help.]

New cover with new type

In an increasing number of Academies and Free Schools the two students illustrated on the cover of my book would get a detention, or even ‘solitary confinement’ for revealing their cognitive discomfort in such a way. Such punishments would no more enable the understanding of complex concepts than does the ‘instructional’ approach of the teacher.

So, what should we do? We could declare it all hopeless because social inequalities in attainment are inevitable. Perhaps they arise through powerful biological and environmental forces that are beyond the capabilities of schools to overcome.

It is true that inequalities are indeed inevitable, but this does not mean that schools are powerless to enhance inherited levels of intelligence.

The basis for the incredible diversity of patterns of life on earth is evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is driven by inequalities between offspring. Rare, large scale differences can emerge through genetic mutations, but significant smaller scale differences are the inevitable result of sexual reproduction. The reason why sexual reproduction is near universal amongst  dominant species of complex animals and plants is because it has so successfully driven natural selection through the generation of diversity of offspring. Every parent with more than one child knows that siblings (except identical twins) often vary greatly in temperament, personality, physical ability, talents and intelligence.

Schools need to adopt the same policy that comes naturally to parents – unconditional love, celebration and support for all their children to develop their abilities and talents without limit. No sensible parent expects ‘equality’ of attainment between their children in all aspects of their talents and abilities. Before the disastrous marketisation of the English education system, the common law dictated that schools and teachers should always be guided by the principle of ‘in loco parentis’ – respond as would a reasonable parent.

This principle is as sound now as it has ever been and all schools should act on it at all times.

If you read a few papers about genetics and IQ it is easy to start viewing schools as a ‘bit part’ in the production of intelligence.

But this would be a mistake. Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters’ comprises my study of the importance of admissions systems to the effectiveness of schools, using the example of Mossbourne Academy in particular and the London Borough of Hackney in general. Mossbourne demonstrated that a good, well resourced comprehensive school can, to a very considerable extent, overcome disadvantageous home backgrounds such that the strong link between cognitive ability and attainment persists, despite variations in Social and Economic disadvantage (SES).

Similarly, children’s home lives heavily influence attainment, but how we organise our schools and classrooms is an important moderator in how and why that influence emerges [my bold].

I disagree with Sir Michael Wilshaw about a great deal (especially his enthusiasm for academisation), but he is right in his confidence in the power of comprehensive schools to enhance the life chances of pupils of all abilities, from all social backgrounds and for his persistent, soundly-based criticism of the destructive impact of selective schools.

Focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status

In earlier blogs I have argued that noting the letters ‘PP’ on seating plans does not provide teachers with useful information for classroom instruction. I think paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status [my bold][You are right.]

The neuroscience of socio-economic status is a new but rapidly  growing field and SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention. There is much that is still to be understood about why these inequalities emerge, but for a teacher faced with a class to teach, their origins are not particularly important [my bold].What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess. 

But what we also now know is that ‘instructional’ is a poor descriptor of the collaborative approaches to teaching and learning that have been proven to enhance cognitive development in all pupils regardless of SES.

Implications for the classroom

There are a number of very successful schools I have visited where shutting down the choices about what students get to pay attention to during class is clearly the principal instrument for success.

But, there is dangerous circularity here. ‘Successful’ schools are presumably those that get ‘outstanding’ judgements from OfSTED. But there is growing evidence that OfSTED inspectors have favoured extreme, punishment-based, oppressive approaches. This incentivises schools to adopt such methods.

I am glad I have visited them, despite the state of cognitive dissonance they induce in me. On the one hand, I am excited to see schools where the quality of student work is beyond anything I thought it was possible to achieve at scale. On the other hand, their culture violates all my preconceptions about what school should be like. Childhood is for living, as well as for learning, and I find it uncomfortable to imagine my own children experiencing anything other than the messy classrooms of educational, social and interpersonal interactions that I did [my bold].

But beware – the Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) that tend to impose such approaches are often the very ones that increasingly concern the Chief Inspector of Schools in relation to ‘off-rolling’ and other ways of seeking to ‘unload’ the pupils unlikely to boost the GCSE results of the school.

There is also growing evidence that the apparent success at GCSE achieved through ‘zero tolerance’ enforced by harsh discipline does not survive well from Y11 to Y12 in terms of the take-up of demanding academic subjects at A Level, because students have been so ‘turned off’ by their KS4 experience. Even when such courses can be filled, the drop out rates are often high. This has led to OfSTED concerns.


The pupil premium, as a bundle of cash that sits outside general school funding with associated monitoring and reporting requirements, isn’t helping us close the attainment gap. [True, but in your Part 1 you correctly stated that] tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level [my bold].

We shouldn’t ring fence funds for pupil premium students, not least because they may not be the lowest income or most educationally disadvantaged students in the school. We should stop measuring or monitoring school attainment gaps because it is a largely statistically meaningless exercise that doesn’t help us identify what is and isn’t working in our school. In any case, ‘gaps’ matter little to students from poorer backgrounds; absolute levels of attainment do [my bold].


Why absolute levels of attainment are far more important than futile attempts at ‘gap closing’.

Let us consider an analogy with physical ability and health. I am a member of a Nuffield Health Club gym and swimming pool in Barrow. Members can have a ‘physical ability check’. Let us hypothesise that ‘physical ability test scores’ (PATs) could be provided on a standardised scale like IQ.

1. A ‘bell curve’ distribution (like IQ) would result.

2. There would be a ‘PATs attainment gap’ related to SES (like IQ).

3. As in Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) scores, the Cumbria coastal band associated with  low CATs scores would be replicated with PATs scores. See my previous article.

4. Part of PATs scores would be attributable to genetic inheritance (think Usain Bolt and Simone Byles) and part to environmental factors (training) , with ongoing debate as to the relative weightings (as with IQ).

5. PATs scores would indicate general physical ability that transfers to other physical activities and sports (think Usain Bolt and football), just as general intelligence/cognitive ability transfers across different cognitive challenges in different subjects (eg music).

As a gym member I witness high levels of obesity and poor health, such that many older members (and some younger) struggle to walk up and down the pool, while the fitness machines and high intensity exercise classes cater for the younger sport and ‘body shape’ enthusiasts.

So what should be the aim of the gym? To achieve physical ability equality, or to maximise the health and physical capabilities of all members at all levels of health and fitness? It is obviously the latter and the benefits to the costs of the NHS, welfare/disability benefits and to individual mobility and quality of life would be huge, for even modest gains in absolute levels of health and physical fitness.

So why should it be any difference for cognitive ability and performance? The national benefits of raising the cognitive ability of the whole population from school children to the very old would be massive. I discuss some of these here and here.

There is a direct transfer to physical and mental health. Millions of people make irrational decisions about nutrition in response to clever marketing, and millions more suffer disastrous mental health consequences, including suicides, from becoming addicted to forms of gambling, like fixed odds betting terminals and ‘betting in play’ during televised football matches that disproportionately entrap those with lower absolute levels of cognitive ability.

Daniel Kahneman makes a huge contribution to this field through his distinction between ‘System 1’ (fast and reactive) and ‘System 2’ (slow and cerebral) thinking.

I first came across Daniel Kahneman by accident on listening to BBC Radio 4 in June 2012, when he was being interviewed about his new book. He repeated the following puzzle and the programme presenter asked the audience to phone in their solutions.

A bat and ball costs £1.10 in total.

The bat costs one pound more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

System 1 provides the almost instant answer of 10p, which is of course incorrect. The correct solution requires the conscious slow thinking in the cerebral cortex that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action. You can find the explanation here.

Many pupils in genuinely good primary schools are taught to acquire System 2 thinking ability in KS2 (eg through P4C). Genuinely good secondary schools will extend this to still more pupils in KS3 (eg through CASE) to maximise the attainment of the highest GCSE grades in all subjects in KS4.

None of this will be happening in many of the ‘outstanding schools’ that use the ‘instructional’ methods that Becky’s instincts and experience rightly judge to be so repugnant.

I conclude on the same theme by expressing strong support for Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ and Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary. This is an exciting idea that provides real hope and optimism for the future in the current depressing times of Trump and Brexit.







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1 Response to Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

  1. John Mountford says:

    This is a very significant article. As Roger acknowledges, Professor Allen has added enormously to efforts to define and explore the ‘gap’ story, for that is what it is. Like Roger, my concern is that, as the story is currently told, it is in the main a fiction. As Becky rightly informs us, “having formed the gap story, we are then naturally drawn to thinking of pupil cases that conform to the stereotypes.”

    The story revolves around closing an attainment gap that has more to do with long established and deeply entrenched economic and social inequality than business leaders and governments are prepared to acknowledge. They are happy instead to ask how schools should best combat social and educational disadvantage.

    For my part, it is not unreasonable to expect the education system to improve the lot of disadvantaged pupils by helping them to develop their cognitive abilities. The fact that too many of these vulnerable youngsters are not receiving the type of education that is needed to do this is a national disgrace.

    In Part 2 of her bold exploration into the effectiveness of the pupil premium Professor Allen poses the question, “Is it possible to teach in a way that disproportionately benefits those in the classroom from disadvantaged backgrounds?”
    In reply, Roger writes, “The answer to this is no, but it is possible to enhance the cognitive ability of all students, which is of greatest benefit to those where the starting point is lowest.”

    Professor Allen reminds us, “If we care about closing the attainment gap and we accept the relationship between SES and cognitive function, then surely our first port of call should be to create classroom environments and instructional programmes that prioritise the needs of those who are most constrained by their cognitive function?”

    As to how all of this impacts on teachers in their classrooms, the Professor adds, “What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess.” What we know from a growing body of evidence, highlighted in many of Roger’s recent blogs, is that by focusing on teaching for cognitive growth students of ALL abilities benefit. Programmes such as CASE and CAME and Philosophy for Children have proven to work to this end.

    The task now is to convince those who fear that even by discussing cognitive ability we are opening the door to the threat of eugenics, with all its dark associations. Such fears help to paralyse opinion and stifle open debate. This is a response that cannot go unchallenged in the 21st century. But we need to understand that equality of outcomes will always elude us. In education, the most we can do is to provide the best teaching approaches with the aim of creating the most stimulating and developmental learning opportunities for all pupils throughout their school years and encourage in them a thirst to go on learning well beyond that point.

    Beyond that there is much we have to challenge and change about societal values. We cannot continue to ignore the need to look closely at inequality in housing, social care, health, earning differentials, etc. While such gross inequalities persist the impact of ‘the gap’ will continue to blight the lives of those left behind.


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