material deprivation still affects educational achievement!
The A-level exam boards in England decided to smackdown the 2023 A-level results this year. They are now back to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.
For the top A and A* grades the trend looks like this:
So a slight, but not significant increase in top A-level grades in 2023 compared to 2019.
This clearly demonstrates that the 2020 and 2021 results were fantasy results. This is unsurprising given that they were awarded by teachers. The 2022 results, based on pre-release exams, were merely a half way step back to this years. Last years results now seem as ridiculous as the 2020 and 2021 results. Clearly this was an attempt to maintain credibility in the exam system by not bringing back down the results too suddenly.
None of this is the fault of the students, it’s the fault of the people running the education system. You might even argue the government and exam boards did the best they good faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic.
The problem now is that this year’s cohort are the real victims of this uncertainty and flawed responses. They are now the ones with the relatively worse grades. They now face huge competition to get into scarce university places. And they are the ones that had their schooling disrupted just as much as the previous three years of students.
What a mess!
One saving grace
The one saving grace of all this is that we can probably regard this years exam results as valid JUST FOR THIS COHORT.
What I mean by this is that individuals who achieved A grades this year are probably better at exams than those who achieved C grades.
What you can’t do is compare this years results with 2020-2022. So we have a reliability problem!
2019 A-levels measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ compared to previous years.
2020 and 2021 measured how far teachers were prepared to take the p*** and give their students inflated grades based on their theories of what the maximum they could possibly achieve.
2022 measured student’s ability to sit exams based on having pre-release knowledge of some the material they’d be assed on.
2023 exam results measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ having had significant disruption to their schooling during the pandemic.
NB please note that by ‘better at exams’ that’s all I mean. A student’s ability to get an A* doesn’t necessarily mean they are more intelligent or a better potential employee than someone who gets a B grade.
The main reason for this (IMO) is that some students are better trained for exams than others. And exam training is a very narrow skill, intelligence more generally is a much broader concept.
The attainment gap has increased
The education attainment gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic. 47.4% of A-level entries from private schools were awarded A or A* grades compared to just 22% from state schools.
To my mind this suggests privately educated students have been more shielded from the disruptive effects of the pandemic over the last three years compared to state school students.
This makes sense given the material advantages these wealthy students have. Such as:
smaller class sizes
better access to online learning
Some of these resources would have been put into exam training of course, a key part of ‘hothousing’ private school children.
The attainment gap by region has also increased
If we breakdown regions in quintiles by deprivation we find that 30.3% of A-levels in the least deprived regions were awarded A and above compared to only 22.2 in the most deprived regions.
This means parental wealth and income affects educational achievement more generally. Private schools just have a more extreme advantage at the very top end. (Private schools account for around 7% of pupils, so 1/3rd of the top quintile.)
All primary pupils in London schools are going to get Free School Meals from September 2023 according to an announcement from the Mayor of London on Monday.
This new policy will cost £130 million, save the average family £440 a year and benefit around 270 000 children.
In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme (20/02/2023) Henry Dimbleby, former head of the government’s national food strategy, explained the benefits of universal free school meals and the ideological barriers which have prevented this policy being enacted at a national level.
Trials had been done under the Labour government way back in 2013 in some local authorities including Newham, Durham and Islington which revealed that providing universal free school meals to all pupils significantly improved the academic performance of children who had previously been on free school meals, but the the performance of ALL children improved.
Those who had previously been on free school meals saw the most academic improvement, one theory for this change being that when ALL pupils can access free school meals it changes the culture of the school, removing the stigma of poverty at mealtimes and thus makes poorer students feel more included.
What about the rich kids who don’t need free school meals?
All children already benefit from free education which includes access a whole range of other material resources such as text books, so adding on free school meals isn’t that big a deal!
There is also evidence that all children benefit from this policy and it closes the inequality gap: A more recent study from Sweden showed that the introduction of universal free school meals improved the lifetime income of poorer students by 6% and the richest people’s only rose by 2%
The biggest drag on our economy is long term sickness, and the biggest cause of this is poor diet.
Why don’t we have free school meals in England?
According to Henry Dimbleby the current Tory government are ideologically opposed to universal benefits and this is the main reason we do not have free school meals for every child in England and Wales.
Both Nick Clegg and Michael Gove were in favour of universal free school meals when we had a coalition government, but since then neoliberal ideology means the government isn’t prepared to find the money to care for the poorest children in society.
This material is relevant to the compulsory education aspect of the AQA’s first year of A-level sociology.
It is especially relevant to the topic of social class differences and education, as universal free school meals seem to be one of the most effective policies which can reducing the effects of material deprivation on educational achievement.
It is also a reminder of the continued harms of neoliberal education policy.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that “families are classified as materially deprived if they feel they cannot afford a certain number of items or activities, with greater weight assigned to items that most families already have.”
According to the IFS, between 8-15% of households are suffering from material deprivation, depending on what threshold you use. (If you want to know how the thresholds are worked, out click on the link above!).
In order to figure out how many households are suffering material deprivation, households are asked whether they can afford a number of items, such as the ones below. The more items a family can’t afford, and the higher up the list they appear in the chart below, the more likely a family is to be classified as ‘materially deprived’.
You can see that there is a downward trend in material deprivation between 2010-11 (careful, the chart above is over a longer time scale!)
The above study focuses on the trends in material deprivation as well as trends in both absolute and relative poverty. All three indicators are different ways of measuring poverty.
*A fuller definition of material deprivation is provided by the The OECD which defines Material deprivation as ‘the inability for individuals or households to afford those consumption goods and activities that are typical in a society at a given point in time, irrespective of people’s preferences with respect to these items.’ It’s work noting at this point that this is a relative rather than an absolute measurement of poverty.
I wrote this back in 2015, it’s my old version that I didn’t want to delete! It shows you some different, historical definitions/ measurement of material deprivation
The government’s material deprivation rate measures the proportion of the population that cannot afford at least four of the following items:
To pay their rent, mortgage, utility bills or loan repayments,
To keep their home adequately warm,
To face unexpected financial expenses,
To eat meat or protein regularly,
To go on holiday for a week once a year,
A television set,
A washing machine,
As can be seen from the statistics below, the number of people suffering from ‘severe’ material deprivation has remained stable in recent years, but the numbers of people struggling to pay for holidays and meet emergency expenses has increased.
400, 000 children live in such extreme poverty that their parents are unable to afford to buy them their own bed. The 400, 000 figure is an estimate made by the charity Buttle UK.
The charity calculated the estimated figure of 400, 000 based on a sample of the 10 000 families it helped last year. Among those 10 000 families, 25% of children did not have a proper bed of their own to sleep in.
Estimation errors aside for the moment (see below on this), I was altered to this shocking indicator of child poverty by a short item on Radio Kent, and although it has filtered through to mainstream news, it doesn’t seem to be particularly high up the agenda.
The impacts of ‘bed poverty’
As Buttle UK points out… one of the main problems with bed poverty is that it has a negative impact on children’s physical and mental health. If they are failing to get a decent night’s sleep, then they are less likely to be able to concentrate in school.
Then there is the rather grim fact that mattresses or pillows used as a bed, which are stored on the floor, are more likely to be infested with bugs that a mattress on a ‘normal’ raised bed. This means poor children are more likely to be infested with bugs than children with proper beds.
What are the causes of bed poverty?
Well, I guess this is down to the existence of poverty in general in the UK. A bed is one of those relatively large expenditure items that you can live without if necessary, so if you’re one of the nearly 30% of children living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) I guess it makes sense for your parents to prioritize food and heating before a bed.
The ideological choice to cut welfare payments which are part of ongoing Tory policy also obviously help to exacerbate the number of children in poverty in general and in ‘bed poverty’ in particular.
NB – Be cautious about these stats
Although I accept the fact that tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of of children live in ‘bed poverty’, I’m not convinced that the figure is as high as 400, 000. My reasoning is that the charity probably works with the very poorest, and I think that figure possibly uses ‘softer measurements’ of poverty to beef up their claim. (NB this is only a possibility, they don’t actually say in the article which measure of poverty they use to derived the 400, 000 figure!)
Relevance to the A-level sociology syllabus
This is yet another indicator of child poverty, and also probably a new concept (‘bed poverty’) for most students. It’s also a good example of ‘hidden poverty’ – this is a good example of an aspect of poverty that most of us wouldn’t even notice, even though the consequences are severe.
It has obvious relevance to the sociology of education: as explained above, those missing out on a decent night’s sleep will not be able to learn effectively. It’s a classic example of how material deprivation can affect class differences in education.
Finally, although I haven’t discussed it any depth here, this is also a good reminder of the need to be skeptical about the use of statistics – there are different measurements of poverty (relative and absolute), and I’m not actually convinced that the 400, 000 figure is valid. This is a good example of a statistic that is socially constructed and a campaign that possible lacks objectivity, so this can even be tied in to debates surrounding value freedom!
One of the things you need to look at for the AS Education module is the extent to which material deprivation is responsible for educational underachievement. While statistics give you an overview of the extent of poverty, and a little bit of information of the kind of things poor people can’t afford, they don’t give you much a feeling of what it’s like to actually live in poverty.
To get a feeling for day to day challenges of living in poverty you need more qualitative sources, and ‘thankfully’ we are blessed with a number of recent documentaries which look at the experience of living with material deprivation in the UK.
Watch the documentary sources below and then answer the questions/ contribute to the discussions below. The videos have all been selected because they focus on material deprivation and education in some way.
This 2011 documentary from the BBC focuses mainly on the experience of younger children in the U.K.
Britain’s Hungry Children
(A Channel 4 Report, 2013)
Cites research drawn from 2500 food diaries kept by children in the UK – Some of whom live on less than half of the recommended calories. Also highlights the importance of lunch clubs to feed hungry children.
Finally watch this video – This shows you a case study of one girl from a poor background who actually made it into the best school in the area, against the odds. It’s a bit slow, but later on it gives an insight into the struggle her mum faces to raise enough cash to meet the ‘hidden costs’ of education (she has to resort to a ‘pay day loan’).
Questions/ tasks for discussion:
Q1: Draw an ‘ageline’ (like a timeline, I may have just invented the word) showing how material deprivation affects 3 year olds to 18 year olds in different ways.
Q2: From a broadly Marxist Perspective, the effects of material deprivation on children are structural, or objective if you like. Being brought up in poverty and having a poorer diet, and living in lower quality housing effectively cause poor children to do less well in education. This means that, all other (non material) things being equal (same school, same intelligence, same motivation etc) a poor kid will always do worse than a rich kid. Do you agree? Be prepared to explain your answer.
material deprivation means poor kids are more likely go hungry and get sick from living in cold houses which harms their education.
Material deprivation can be defined as the inability to afford basic resources and services such as sufficient food and heating. Material deprivation generally has a negative effect on educational achievement.
Material deprivation is very strongly correlated with low income and poverty. The lower the wealth and income of a household the more likely that household is to suffer from material deprivation.
Material Deprivation and Education
Gibson and Asthana (1999) pointed out that there is a correlation between low household income and poor educational performance. There are a number of ways in which poverty can negatively affect the educational performance of children. For example –
Children in poor homes are more likely to live in cold and even damp conditions which results in higher levels which in turn will mean more absence from school and falling behind with lessons. This is especially the case since the cost of living crisis and soaring energy bills.
Worse diets. They are more likely to skip meals, for example, which means they will be unable to concentrate in school.
Less able to afford ‘hidden costs’ of free state education: books and toys are not bought, and computers are not available in the home.
Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be living in smaller homes and having to share a bedroom with a brother or sister. This means they will lack a private study space and not to be able to homework free from distractions.
Tuition fees and loans would be a greater source of anxiety to those from poorer backgrounds.
Poorer parents are less likely to have access to pre-school or nursery facilities.
Young people from poorer families are more likely to have part-time jobs, such as paper rounds, baby sitting or shop work, creating a conflict between the competing demands of study and paid work.
Poorer parents will only be able to afford houses in poorer areas which tend to have higher rates of crime and other social problems. Schools in those areas will have to devote more of their resources to tackling these social problems rather than teaching children, so results will suffer.
Those households suffering from material deprivation in the United Kingdom today are likely to be in relative poverty rather than absolute poverty, but nonetheless some of the above factors can work together and combine to make the experience poverty worse.
For example low income can lead to debt which leads to lower income because of the interest payment on those debts.
Low income can lead to poor diet, which can lead to illness, which means time off work, which means lower income.
The flow chart below shows how multiple factors related to poverty can lead to reduced educational opportunities for children:
Material deprivation is not the only form of deprivation. In A-level sociology the term material deprivation refers to tangible, material things which can usually be bought with money, and is usually contrasted to cultural deprivation which refers to lack of appropriate norms and values. The two often work together.
Evidence for material deprivation
There are three classic pieces of sociological research which explored this issue:
Stephen Ball (2005) points out how the introduction of marketisation means that those who have more money have a greater choice of state schools because of selection by mortgage
Conner et al (2001) and Forsyth and Furlong (2003) both found that the introduction of tuition fees in HE puts working class children off going to university because of fear of debt
Leon Fenstein (2003) found that low income is related to low cognitive reasoning skills amongst children as young as two years old
There is also a lot of contemporary evidence from organizations such as the Sutton Trust which documents the continued impact of material deprivation on education….
Poor kids going hungry…
In 2019 the National Education Union conducted a survey of 8000 teachers and school leaders focusing on how poverty was affecting their children’s learning and achievement.
Among the findings were:
Over 75% reported their students had experienced hunger of fatigue and difficulty to concentrate on schoolwork due to poverty
Over 50% reported students had been ill and missed schoolwork due to poverty.
Over 30% reported their students had been bullied because of poverty.
Nearly all schools reported that the Pandemic harmed poor students more and that poor parents and parents relied on schools for support more during that time.
In general poverty has a negative affect on the mental health, well being and educational achievement of poor pupils.
There were 1.9 million pupils eligible for Free School Meals in 2022, but the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that there are an additional 800 000 pupils from working poor households who are going hungry but do not qualify for Free School Meals because their parents fall just above the threshold line and so do not qualify for them (1) . This situation has been accelerated with the Cost of Living Crisis.
Poor kids in cold houses
The Institute of Health Inequalities (3) estimated in 2022 that one in five households with children under five are in fuel poverty (see * below for a note on the definition), but projected that the numbers could easily treble into the winter of 2023.
Whatever way you look at it, there are increasing numbers of children living in households which are struggling to pay their gas and electric bills and thus struggling to keep their housing warm, which means more children living in cold and possibly damp houses.
The institute notes that 1.7 Million school days are lost in the EU due to illnesses related to damp and mold, and the UK has the highest rate of all member states, with a rate 80% above the average.
Living in a fuel poverty household can also mean it is more difficult for children to do homework as everyone is more likely to cram into one or two heated rooms (the ‘heat one room’ strategy).
Poverty and university students
The impacts of material deprivation are also felt by university students. According to a survey of 1000 students in January 2023 conducted by the Sutton Trust 33% of students from working class backgrounds reported skipping meals compared to only 24% of students from middle class backgrounds, and 10% (working class) compared to 4% (middle class) of students reported having moved back home with their parents to save money (5)
The Cost of Living Crisis
The recent rise in gas and electricity prices mean that many more households have been pushed into relative poverty in 2022 and 2023.
As a result hundreds of thousands, if not millions more children are experiencing some form of material deprivation, as families choose between heating or eating.
Evaluations of the role of material deprivation
To say that poverty causes poor educational performance is too deterministic as some students from poor backgrounds do well. Because of this, one must be cautious and rather than say there is a causal relationship between these two variables as the question suggests, it would be more accurate to say that poverty disadvantages working class students and makes it more difficult for them to succeed.
There are other differences between classes that may lead to working class underachievement. For example, those from working class backgrounds are not just materially deprived, they are also culturally deprived.
The Cultural Capital of the middle classes also advantages them in education.
In practise it is difficult to separate out material deprivation from these other factors.
Possible policy solutions
There are plenty of things governments can do to help those in poverty at the school level.
Most schools provide text books and basic education resources for free to students, and all schools have access to computers and schools staying open for longer in the evenings and homework clubs can help combat lack of computers at home and cold houses.
One thing being trialed in London now is Universal Free School Meals – the idea behind making them universal is that this removes the stigma behind claiming them.
Schools have also increasingly taken it upon themselves to combat child poverty through setting up foodbanks and breakfast clubs, for example, recognizing that hungry children don’t learn effectively.
The problem with all of the above is that these initiatives require money from central government, and funding has been cut in real terms by 14% since 2010 under the neoliberal Tories.
It is also unlikely that policies at the school level can do anything to combat the wider structural inequalities that ultimately result in poor kids doing worse than rich kids in state education. The government is not going to legislate to prevent ‘selection by mortgage’ for example, which gives a huge advantage to rich kids.