UCL News


It's official: class matters

28 February 2006

A study by academics at UCL and Kings College London has given statistical backbone to the view that the overwhelming factor in how well children do is not what type of school they attend - but social class.

It appears to show what has often been said but never proved: that the current league tables measure not the best, but the most middle-class schools; and that even the government's 'value-added' tables fail to take account of the most crucial factor in educational outcomes - a pupil's address.

…This unprecedented project has revealed that a child's social background is the crucial factor in academic performance, and that a school's success is based not on its teachers, the way it is run, or what type of school it is, but, overwhelmingly, on the class background of its pupils.

"These are very important findings, which should change the way parents, pupils and politicians think about schools," says Professor Richard Webber [UCL Goegraphy]. "This is the first time we have been able to measure the precise impact of a child's social background on their educational performance, as well as the importance of a school's intake on its standing in the league tables." …

The study found that, whatever their background, children do better the more 'middle-class' the school they attend, and also that more than 50 per cent of a school's performance is accounted for by the social make-up of its pupils. …

"The results show that the position of a school in published league tables, the criterion typically used by parents to select successful schools, depends more on the social profile of its pupils than the quality of the teachers," says Professor Webber, who, along with Professor Tim Butler from Kings, has devised new school league tables from the data that take the social background of each pupil into account. …

"For schools the message is clear. Selecting children whose homes are in high-status neighbourhoods is one of the most effective ways of retaining a high position in the league table. For statisticians, meanwhile, it proves that the existing tables, which ignore the types of home from which a school draws its pupils, are necessarily an unfair and imprecise means of judging a school's achievements." …

Professors Webber and Butler warn that introducing further freedoms for schools, as the government is, may allow middle-class parents and schools to choose each other, leaving those from poorer backgrounds stranded in an increasingly segregated system.

"Given the chance, a school will do as well as it can, and, as this research shows, that means attracting as many middle class pupils as possible. Parents can see that their children will do better in the most middle-class schools, so they will strive to work the system to get in. So, by giving schools more independence and creating a market in education, you run the serious risk of polarising pupils along class lines," says Professor Webber.

Matthew Taylor, 'The Guardian', 28 February 2006