Education Apr 13 2010

The truth about A level pupils and free school meals

Link to original article in Education Guardian

A key claim in Conservatives campaigning on education issues, about which we will see more today as their manifesto is launched, is that fewer than 200 pupils eligible for free school meals get three A grades at A level. Actually the figures are vague. Sometimes it is 189, sometimes 179  or 79, or 164, depending on which politician you listen to or which paper you read, and the years fluctuate too. Was it 2007 or 2008? The fact that no one is sure is a symptom of the lax way statistics are used in political campaigning.

Nonetheless, on the face of it they appear to be a damning indictment of our schools and inevitable comparisons have followed. Apparently more students at Eton got three A’s at A level in one year.

Of course inequality is rife in our schools. But it is rife in society at large. If you go to Eton you will have been academically selected out of an already privileged pool, your parents will be able to afford £29,000 a year fees, plus extras, a sum which exceeds the average income of most British citizens.

You will benefit from a teaching ratio of 8:1 ( average in the state sector around 26:1). You will be able to play polo, enjoy boating lakes, recording studios and a fully equipped theatre. You will have representatives from Oxford and Cambridge on your governing body, you will wear a uniform which distinguishes you from your peers and play sports (like the Eton Wall Game) not played anywhere else in the world, confirming that you are indeed part of an exclusive elite.

With that start in life, three A grades should be the educational equivalent of falling off a log, and a markedly different prospect to growing up in an overcrowded home in a tough neighbourhood with parents on a low income, whose own experience of school may have been a negative one, although recent research showing that young people from poorer backgrounds are 50% more likely to get to university now than ten years ago suggests that the ground is starting to shift.

But several other important ‘facts’ should be remembered before these figures are taken at face value. Every political party now acknowledges the extent to which gaps open up in the first five years of a child’s life, and often stubbornly refuse to close, which is why the Labour government established an entitlement to nursery education, networks of children’s centres and early intervention from birth for some families.

All the students taking their A levels in 2007 would have spent their pre-school and early primary years under the last Conservative government so wouldn’t have benefitted from this investment, the long term rewards of which are yet to be reaped.

Meanwhile in spite of repeated requests for a correction from the Association of Colleges, Shadow Children’s Secretary Michael Gove refuses to acknowledge that the figures he uses only relate to pupils taking A levels in schools, when in fact 40% of 16-18 year olds take   A levels in sixth form or FE colleges, the latter often serving the most disadvantaged communities.

They are not eligible for free school meals but over 50 per cent receive the highest rate of Education Maintenance Allowance, for those on a household income of less than £21,000 a year, also introduced by this government  to encourage poorer pupils to stay on in school.  Over 6000 college students get three A grades but because of the way data is collected, it is impossible to make a direct link with those  in receipt of the maximum EMA..

No one could, or should, try and defend the status quo. Every child should be entitled to an education like David Cameron’s, but until we iron out inequalities in society more generally that is unlikely to happen. Over the next three weeks however we will have many opportunities to decide which party has the best policies to continue the slow eradication of this unacceptable scar on our school system.

In the meantime many facts and figures will be bandied around and it is always worth remembering that they may not always be quite what they seem.

One Response to “The truth about A level pupils and free school meals”

  1. Cassandra says:

    Actually, even if we put the very worst construction on the worst figures, it would not amount to “a damning indictment of our schools”. The educational discourse of the last 20 years has completely ignored the destructive effects of poverty and deprivation upon children’s ability to profit from schooling. When you look at the circumstances against which many of these children have to struggle, it is remarkable that any of them get A-levels at all, let alone three top grades.

Leave a Reply