Is Britain’s pre-university education provision serving our children well?

Professor Paul W. Cooper, University of Leicester

Professor Paul Cooper University of LeicesterEducation is primarily concerned with value.  We like to believe that children and young people are required to undergo a formal educational process because it is good for them and good for our society.  Education and, in particular, schooling are considered to be desirable because they are associated with growth, development and improvement.  As children progress through the school system they are supposed to accumulate ever more sophisticated skills and knowledge on which their future social and economic well being, and, therefore, that of society depend.  So, to what extent can we be confident that these positive aspirations are being achieved?

There are two important ways of addressing this question.  The first requires us to ask questions about the observable outcomes of pre-university education.  The second question asks to what extent do these outcomes serve the interests of young people and the broader society?

What are the outcomes of pre-university education?

DfE figures for 2010 show that 53 of young people achieved 5 or more GCSEs at grade A*-C or the equivalent (including English and mathematics).  This represents an increase of 3.3% when compared to 2008/09 figures.  This means that 53% of 16 year olds have achieved the current government’s ‘gold standard’ in educational attainment.  However, On closer inspection the statistics reveal that whilst just over 7% of all young people failed to achieve at least 5 A-C passes (not including English and Maths), this figure was doubled to 14% for young people receiving free school meals.  Furthermore, 2008/9 figures reveal that 32% of ‘looked after children’ were either not entered for or achieved no grades at GCSE.  This compares to 1% of the general population.  Add to this recent evidence supplied by the Sutton Trust which reveals massive inequalities in relation to access to the UK’s most elite universities, which favour students from a handful of independent schools, and we are left with an alarming picture.

It is the case that the strong association between social class and educational attainment is one of the few truly dependable findings to come out of social scientific research time and time again over the past 100 years or so.  Disturbingly, however, the problem is getting worse rather than better.   Children who come from socially deprived backgrounds are at much greater risk of educational failure than children who come from privileged backgrounds.  In the USA, for example, one study found that in 1979 individuals from the top income quartile were four times more likely to successfully complete a four-year college degree programme than individuals from the bottom quartile.  Disturbingly, they found that by 1994 the disparity had increased from 4 times, to 10 times (ETS, 2005).  In the UK similar concerns have been noted by the DfES (2004).  There is a further association between educational failure and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (ibid), as well as an association between mental health problems and social disadvantage (Shneiders, et al, 2003).

Whether or not we accept the premise that exam results and success in higher education reflect the true quality of our education system, it is undoubtedly the case that formal educational success (and, therefore, the opportunities accompanying it) are unevenly distributed, and that the most vulnerable members of our society are being least well served.

Do these outcomes serve the interests of young people and the broader society?

StudentThe fact that the education system reproduces inequalities in such a crude and blatant manner has to be a source of concern.  This is because inequality is unjust, and because the acceptance and continuance of this injustice reinforces the belief that this kind of inequality is somehow inevitable.  This is not only bad for what is essentially the educational underclass, it is bad for us all.  As has been suggested, the traditional role of education as a route to upward social mobility is not working for increasing numbers of people.  Meanwhile the range of employment opportunities for people who have not had successful school careers are diminishing.  One consequence of this situation is the record proportion of young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs), which, in February of this year stood at 15.6% of all 16-24 year olds in England (Shepherd, 2011).

This represents a wastage of precious human potential which whilst being economically unproductive requires support from the public purse in the form of welfare benefits.  Moreover, people who find themselves in this position may contribute further to the cycle of disengagement through the influence that their example has on their own offspring.

What is the way forward?

Perhaps the greatest enemies of social progress are apathy and disengagement, and yet there are features of our education system which foster these negative qualities.  The increasing instrumentalism of educational policies and practice which reduce the educational enterprise to a competitive rat race for credentials, which are in turn seen as passports to economic advantage, is disaster for the young people who are forced into it as well as the rest of us.  In this process ‘education’ is valued less for its content, in the form of knowledge and skills, and far more for the apparent value of credential and certificates as units  of exchange.

When this is the case plagiarism and other forms of academic cheating make perfect sense since they offer opportunities to achieve the desired outcome with maximum economy of effort.  This instrumentalism isn’t restricted to students, teachers are too often trapped in the educational cul-de-sac of ‘teaching to the test’, which involves drilling and coaching in exam technique and the spoon feeding of pre-digested content.   Worse still, the league table culture which so dominates education in the UK, at all levels, often reduces students to the status of passive objects to be graded and arranged in order to present a positive image of the institution, and sometimes rejected on the grounds that they fall below some arbitrary quality threshold.  In these circumstances it is little wonder that we have rising tides of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties in our schools which manifest themselves in disaffected, sometimes anxious, sometimes defiant children who are disengaged from the educational process.

On the other hand, if we want our young people to develop the qualities and skills that our society so desperately needs for its long term sustainability, then we need to review and change the ways in which think about and facilitate learning in schools.  First of all we need to realise that perhaps the single most powerful learning experience that educational institutions provide to all their students resides in the social and emotional climate of the institution itself.  The ways in which people communicate with one another on a day to day basis; the ways in which status and other forms of differentiation are conceived, conferred and manipulated – these are vital indicators of the social and emotional health of an organization, and major influences on the self images and patterns of engagement of participants in the organization.

This blog was mostly written before the August 2011 riots in England.  And whilst it would be naïve and simplistic to blame schools for the breakdown in community that is reflected in these events, there is a likely relationship between an education system which consigns such a large proportion of students to the educational and occupational scrap heap, and these events.  Disrespect and humiliation often breed anger and reciprocal and/or retributive responses (Marsh et al, 1977).  The schools we have, of course, tend simply to reflect the iniquities and inequalities of the society they serve.  The wholesale changes needed will only occur when we replace an emphasis on acquisitive narcissism with a genuine commitment to promoting the wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Paul Cooper is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Education at the University of Leicester in its School of Education. He has authored and edited over 100 journal articles and 14 books. In 2001 a book Paul co-authored, Positive Alternatives to Exclusion‘, was awarded the TES/NASEN academic book award.


DfES (2004) Breaking the Cycle, London: DfES

ETS (2005) Towards Inequality: Disturbing Trends in Higher Education,

Marsh, Rosser and Harre, (1977) The Rules of Disorder, London: RKP

Shepherd, J  (2011) Record number of young people not in education, work or training, Guardian, 24/2/11) (

Schneiders, J, Drukker, M, van der Ende, J Verhulst, J, van Os, Jand Nicolson, N (2003) Neighbourhood socio-economic disadvantage and behavioural problems from late childhood into early adolescence,  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 57, 699-703


  1. Richard Hagan
    Posted 04/09/2011 at 08:13 | Permalink

    So bad has the situation become for children at the bottom of the heap, that one school in North London is trying to acquire a house so that students with chaotic families can live in a place conducive to education. Presumably, the school knows that the parents will agree. The parents know they cannot help their child and are willing to have someone else do it for them – either that or they do not care. This has become the social norm for a section of society at the top of the heap. Only lack of funds prevents those at the bottom from accepting the same social norm. As a nation, we have, in the past, created boarding schools for the socially deprived at risk of descending into crime. We could do so again if we had the will. It would only be acceptable if any child of parents with average means were free to send their children to state boarding schools. This would be necessary to prevent resentment but the opportunity would seem less attractive if the school regime was known to be highly disciplined.

    As Chris Williams said before, it is a matter of choice for our nation. It could be sold to both the left and the right politically. It just needs someone to do it. A pressure group with Jamie Oliver, Bob Geldorf, and Richard Branson on the governing body fronted by young popular musicians who rose from such circumstances. It is with money, fame and street credibility that now the world can be changed.


  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 25/08/2011 at 19:51 | Permalink

    Your penultimate paragraph lays out the challenge. The problem is how to achieve it. If you watched Gareth Mallone’s efforts to change the attitude of boys in a Harlow primary school you can see the depth of the change required. The teachers were almost entirely poorly spoken, poorly educated, poorly motivated and lacking imagination. Many of the parents, particularly the fathers did not motivate or discipline the boys and had little interest or made time for interest in their children’s education.

    These children were relatively lucky, they all spoke English to a standard that will make them employable in the future. In many parts of of our large cities children born in Britain to English speaking parents cannot speak anything other than Jamfake. Children have always had their own language and slang but were not permitted to use it in the house or at school. Now, no one corrects them in either place. Some, if you beat them with a stick, can also speak a local English dialect but many cannot. These children will be unemployable when they leave school. Their parents may not care but society should and enforce the use of standard English in school, albeit with a genuine local dialect.

    We don’t know how many schools Richard Dawkins had to research before he found one where the teachers were afraid to teach the blindingly self evident fact that the world is older than 6,000 years. The fact that he could find any should give us pause for thought. Other than being prepared to fire all but the very best teachers and paying salaries that will attract, intelligent, motivated people who are not afraid of their own shadow, I know not what to do. I suspect that few do. It is possible to train people to think and to be unafraid. With specialist teachers and one to one teaching almost any child can be educated to be a useful citizen. Most children will thrive in a class of 30 with a good teacher.

    Money is tight, but whilst we still have sufficient for pointless foreign wars it is clearly a matter of choice. Exercising choice is less easy if your country is not a functioning democracy. If only 33% of the votes cast have any effect in the average General Election and no one cares about that, what chance is there that they will care enough to improve our schools.


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