Stay the course

In an earlier blog I wrote about the frustration I feel when society looks at High school final year results and mistakenly interprets them as accurate reflections of ability and worth. This prompted a comment from RS. Here’s the bit I want to play around with today.

…I believe absolutely that students from low socio-economic backgrounds can succeed at high academic levels. I am from such a background. However what I particularly noticed was how part-time jobs were far more important to these 17 and 18 year-olds than in my previous school and how much time these jobs ate into study time. In talking to them, it seems that for maybe the first time they had disposable income and the lure of this income competed with their study time and ambition to a huge extent.

The reference to socioeconomic status (SES) is the area where I want to start because this is the real battleground of education. The idea of low SES proving a road block to fair and equitable education is key to virtually all the academic material I’ve read or heard in the last three years. Even education policy makers (read politicians) take this seriously because the one thing that all politicians universally value is a strong economy and the economic benefits of an educated, qualified, work ready society are obvious.

If this comes as a bit of a surprise to you I can tell you it certainly shocked me. I used to think the big challenges lay in curriculum development and levels of literacy. Should Mathematics be taught with calculators? Is it really necessary to learn another language? Is Shakespeare relevant in a modern English classroom? How do we integrate Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) into schools?

Actually, I still think these and other topics are vitally important, which is why I started this blog in the first place. The reality though is that all these considerations are secondary when you compare them to the following two facts that have been substantiated with a mountain of data.

1. Students who drop out before achieving a high school finishing qualification are, in all statistical probability, doomed to a lifetime of low income earning capacity in jobs with very little long term security.
2. There aren’t that many dropouts from high SES backgrounds.

Put those two together and a picture of systemic disadvantage and poverty that can span generations, starts to come into view. Not a pretty picture is it? Now I know I’m moving quickly here and perhaps just outlining the worst case scenario hasn’t done enough to convince you yet. Well sorry, it doesn’t really matter because one group that is convinced is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They see it as a global phenomenon and they certainly put an awful lot of energy into convincing governments worldwide.

Now back to the comment. What was observed here is that RS’s (low SES) students lost motivation for their studies as the allure of earning income from part time work took hold. What is implied is that they were unable to appreciate the long term benefits of a high academic achievement over short term financial gain and independance. RS was disappointed with their results but not because they are dumb or incapable. Their priorities were elsewhere.

Dare I say it, I suspect the great majority of families from a high SES background would not accept these priorities and challenge them strongly while lower SES family groups may not. I welcome people’s views on this. It’s a touchy subject but tremendously important.

While RS was disappointed with the marks the students achieved they nevertheless successfully completed highschool and will presumably move on to tertiary studies or employment. It sounds like next year’s class wont be allowed to be quite so complacent either. These are commendable outcomes and I congratulate RS and the students involved on staying the course.

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