It’s official: money can buy you happiness. Well, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), that is.
But hold on: two years ago the evidence purported to show the opposite, confirming the pessimistic adage, while a quick internet scroll back a decade or two shows ostensibly secure data on this matter flipping backwards and forwards as often as it attracts media attention.
Do those who report these serially contradictory findings about the relationship between wealth and happiness pause to check today’s news against yesterday’s? Or ask whether interviewing a bored billionaire might be missing the point? Or consider instead the genuinely newsworthy but this time entirely consistent findings about poverty, and especially the damaging impact on health, education and wellbeing of childhood poverty?
In 2009, Kate Pickett co-authored the influential study The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone. This showed that the issue is not wealth as such but the extent of the gap between rich and poor, and the way that this most basic of inequalities correlates with a host of others, not least in children’s educational opportunities, experiences and outcomes. This was an argument that politicians of all parties were keen to be seen to embrace, and to which initiatives like New Labour’s Narrowing the Gap and the coalition government’s Pupil Premium bear witness.
Today CPRT publishes Mind the Gap, a new report specially commissioned from the same Kate Pickett, who with Laura Vanderbloemen revisits the evidence that unequal educational outcomes are closely associated with social inequality – and its converse, that more equal societies have narrower attainment gaps and higher average attainment levels (they also perform better on measures of wellbeing and happiness, as it happens). We urge you to download and read their report; and we hope that CPRT’s regional networks and alliance schools will give a lead in ensuring that it is disseminated and discussed. If you wish to cut straight to the conclusions there’s also a three-page briefing, though the evidence, tables and graphs in the main report deserve and repay attention.
So far, CPRT has published three research reviews in this series. There will eventually be twelve, and from now on the pace of publication increases, with all twelve reports due to be in print by March/April 2016. Their aim is to update and extend the considerable body of published evidence surveyed for the Cambridge Primary Review in 2007-9 and then revised and combined into a major research compendium in 2010.
‘The gap’ has always been a prominent theme for CPR/CPRT. As CPR said then, and as the new CPRT report reminds us now:
Britain remains a very unequal society. Child poverty persists in this, one of the world’s richest nations. Social disadvantage blights the early lives of a larger proportion of children in Britain than in many other rich nations, and this social and material divide maps with depressing exactness onto the gap in educational attainment … While recent concerns should be heeded about the pressures to which today’s children are subject, and the undesirable values, influences and experiences to which some are exposed, the main focus of policy should continue to be on narrowing the gaps in income, housing, health, care, risk, opportunity and educational attainment suffered by a significant minority of children, rather than on prescribing the character of the lives of the majority. (Children, their World, their Education , p 488).
It was the apparent intractability of this challenge, and politicians’ seeming imperviousness to the illogicality or perhaps hypocrisy of trumpeting their efforts to close the gap in educational attainment while pursuing policies that widen the contingent gaps in income, health and wellbeing, that led CPRT to nominate as its top priority the pursuit of equity. Of course, equity and equality are not synonymous. But if the level of income into which far too many of our children happen to be born so severely conditions their educational prospects and future lives, and if – as Pickett and Vanderbloemen remind us – children do better if their parents have higher incomes and higher levels of education, then this is hardly fair or just and equity and equality become inseparable.
The new report doesn’t just document the gaps. It also assesses efforts by policymakers to close them. One of these is the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), substantially part-funded by DfE to identify and evaluate promising school-based initiatives designed to narrow the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. One such EEF initiative is CPRT’s own project Classroom talk, social disadvantage and educational attainment, whose programme of intensive support for dialogic teaching begins its trial phase next week in schools in Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds.
Policy initiatives such as these can and do make a difference, as do the impressive efforts of politically independent charities like the Sutton Trust and the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts. But of course what has by far the greatest impact, for it does not depend on the vagaries of externally funded interventions and is sustained into the longer term, is the work of those thousands of teachers who simply by being there, and by combining skill with compassion and energy, are able day after day to refute the unbending determinism of the ‘cycle of disadvantage’.
So when Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen conclude that ‘reducing educational inequality will ultimately depend on reducing social and economic inequality’ they are neither yielding to that same determinism nor discounting the achievements of the many teachers who help their pupils to succeed against the odds. Rather, they are reminding us of the typically British folly of educational and economic policies which are unjoined-up to the point of being self-defeating, while encouraging politicians to meet the challenge of inequitable inequality holistically rather than piecemeal.
Download the new CPRT report ‘Mind the Gap: tackling social and educational inequality.’
Download a short briefing about this report.