Educational attainment is a defining factor in people’s future success, and helps reduce inequality. But it’s not just what happens in the classroom that affects how well pupils perform. If we want to get the best from today’s kids, there’s much to be done outside school too.
- Improving outcomes for today’s kids means addressing numerous factors that drive educational inequality in our societies – including wealth, ethnicity and access to technology.
Parents’ income is still highly predictive of their children’s success. In the US, despite talk of the American Dream, the general rule is that poor kids stay poor and rich kids stay rich. This is partly because of high college fees, but it starts way before kids turn 18. Wealthier families can relocate near the best schools, pay for the tech and extracurriculars that help children excel, and hire tutors if all else fails. No wonder that literacy, numeracy and secondary school graduation rates are all better for children from well-off households.
But it’s tertiary education that has the biggest impact on future income, and it’s here that the intergenerational poverty trap is sprung. In Europe, the average salary for those with at least one year of tertiary education is about 50% more than those who have only completed secondary school, and a whopping 70% more than those who have not finished secondary school. Despite this promise, young people from poorer families may be reluctant to take on the burden of loans to pay for university, particularly as tuition costs have increased in many countries.
Scores for the tests taken at age 18 in the US have been falling for a decade among children of African-American and Latino heritage, and are significantly below the average scores for white pupils. Meanwhile, de facto segregation continues, and attending a predominantly black and Hispanic school is linked to lower achievement among black, Hispanic and Asian pupils (it does not appear to affect white pupils).
These factors play out differently in different countries. In the UK, ethnic minorities from lower socioeconomic groups do better than white working class pupils at age 5, 11 and 16, according to a 2015 government report, and a higher proportion of ethnic minority A-Level students go on to university than their white counterparts. However, from this point on, they are more likely to drop out and less likely to get a good (first or upper second) degree: 50% as opposed to 78% of whites. What explains the gap? Aside from the overt racism many suffer, a report by The Economist found that black students often feel alienated. They are more likely to live at home, the curriculum is still too Europe-focused, and less than 1% of professors are black.
The role of children’s own determination and self-belief is explored in a study by consultancy McKinsey on what drives pupil performance in European countries. When McKinsey mined the OECD’s data, it found a pupil’s mindset was the most important factor in determining their success in maths, reading and science.
A key mindset factor is what McKinsey calls “motivation calibration”: knowing what you want and gauging how much effort it will take to achieve. Positive factors also included feeling the material will help you in future, pride in your school and feeling you will succeed if you work hard. McKinsey’s report concluded, “mindsets alone cannot overcome economic and social barriers… However, [they] matter a great deal, particularly for those living in the most challenging circumstances”.
4. Not dropping out
Research from the OECD found that the number of years a child spends obtaining high-quality education is critical. It’s particularly true for children at the lower end of the ability scale. The average dropout rate in OECD countries was 18% in 2015, and as high as 25% in countries like Spain and Mexico.
The most effective ways for governments to encourage children to stay in school are conditional financial incentives like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia scheme, compulsory measures like raising the age children are allowed to leave school, and non-compulsory ones such as preschool programmes. Separating kids by academic ability, or having them repeat years, led to less equitable outcomes, the OECD found.
5. Diet and health
Health and nutrition have a huge impact on academic achievement. Saturated fat, sugar, caffeine, chemicals and sodium – all present in processed foods popular with children – can leave them tired, unfocused and more likely to get ill. A better diet has been shown to reduce behavioural issues and improve academic performance. While this may seem obvious, it has taken a while for schools providing deprived students with meals to take notice.
Thanks in no small part to campaigns by the likes of Jamie Oliver, better nutrition – especially for poorer pupils – is now a priority in state schools in the UK and the US. In the UK, official assessments now take note of a school’s food culture.
6. Access to tech
Covid-19 has brought into focus how important it is to have access to tech outside school. Remote teaching demands that pupils have a computer, reliable internet and a quiet place to work. A study by The Economist found that engagement and performance levels dropped by 50% for low-income pupils after the pandemic closed schools (while many of their more privileged classmates actually did better).
Before this year’s pandemic, McKinsey reported that pupils spending one to four hours on the internet after school did best in science tests. Their scores were up to 13% higher than pupils with no access, widening the gap between rich and poor. And children who accessed tech devices early – at age six rather than 13 – also achieved higher scores.
7. Language skills
The importance of language and literacy skills in educational attainment has been well documented. Studies found that pupils who speak a different language at home often do better in maths and reading than native speakers as long as they also speak the language of instruction.
That’s why countries with significant immigrant numbers have invested in programmes to teach children the language of instruction. Once they are fluent, they can quickly improve their participation and performance across the board, but children from low-income families find it harder to catch up.
8. Social capital
Social capital is about having strong networks and shared values: in other words, communities. Tapping your network for advice, experience and connections has always been an invaluable way to get ahead, and the more privileged you are, the further that network will get you. Kids who have support from friends and family members, and who mix with role models and potential contacts in a variety of fields, are likely to benefit from this.
For less advantaged pupils, family and community networks help them feel less marginalised. Pupils from ethnic minorities tend to do better in schools where they are well represented, and their parents are more likely to address issues holding back their children if they feel they are part of a community.
In the US, 60% of university graduates and 70% of high school valedictorians are women, and over half of master’s degrees and doctorates are awarded to women. The trend is the same in nearly all developed countries: women outnumber men in 90% of OECD nations when it comes to higher education.
But that doesn’t mean the gender equality battle is won. After all, it’s still men who tend to go on to earn more in their careers.