Academic Opinion: Chasing an Impossible Dream

Posted by er134 at Jun 10, 2014 09:35 AM |
A new research study claims that Michael Gove’s plans to increase upward social mobility are badly flawed

The government is working hard to tackle social injustice, especially the big achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.

Students at independent schools are three times more likely than those at state schools to obtain three A grades at Advanced Level. Only one in a 100 of those receiving a free school meal wins a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Only 25 per cent of boys from working-class backgrounds secure professional or managerial jobs.

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, blames schools and teachers. His radical reforms aim to raise standards so that more children do well at school and end up in higher social positions than their parents.

He insists on a rigorous academic curriculum, with tough examinations to match. His new academies must emulate the best independent schools. He demands that results improve. He has set his heart on helping children overcome disadvantaged family backgrounds.

Gove wants students on free school meals to have similar opportunities to those at Eton or Harrow, and expects many of them to rise to the highest positions in the land.

Our new book, Education and Social Mobility: Dreams of success, is based on 88 interviews with pupils aged between 15 and 19 at two high-flying academies where the Gove formula has been applied with enthusiasm. Our findings expose serious flaws in the government’s strategy to improve results and upward mobility.

Talking to young people has made it painfully clear that Michael Gove is chasing an impossible dream, where every student, regardless of family background, is supposed to achieve excellent results and a place at a Russell Group university. We question whether everyone can win prizes and rise to the top.

Our findings are as follows:

Participants valued examination success and assumed that the future was in their own hands, provided they worked hard. But all 88 students, including those on free school meals, emphasized the role of their family in providing cultural, social and economic resources.

Respondents attributed their own values, dispositions and occupational decisions to family models and guidance.

There was little evidence that the gap between more and less advantaged children has been closed. Despite the excellence of teaching at both academies, 36 per cent of the year 11 students failed to obtain five good GCSE results.

Student aspirations were not consistent with an increase in upward mobility. Participants were pleased with and depended on their families. Few expressed a wish for wealth and social advancement. They most valued intrinsic job satisfaction and personal and family happiness.

Academies seem unlikely to overcome family background or create favourable conditions for social advance. Policy-makers need to reconsider their approach.

Bernard Barker Emeritus Professor, School of Education


The views expressed above are the views of the academic and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Leicester

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