Elvis Impersonators and the Disadvantage Gap

20 ft. high on Blackpool promenade
Fake royalty second hand sequin facade
Limited face paint and dyed black quiff
Overweight and out of date

Elvis Impersonator: Blackpool Pier, the Manic Street Preachers

I once read a letter to The Times which made me laugh so much that I carried it around in my wallet for many years afterwards. It made reference to a study about the rapid growth in Elvis impersonators across the world. The authors claimed (I presume with tongue in cheek) that at current rates of growth, by 2020 half the world’s population would be Elvis impersonators. If only that prediction had come to pass.

In a similar vein, the Education Policy Institute has this week published a damning report about progress towards closing the achievement gap for poorer pupils in England’s secondary schools. The report claims that the narrowing of this gap is ‘almost at a standstill’, and that, at the current rate, it will take 500 years to close the gap. The inference is that this is deeply unsatisfactory; that a world in which schools have eliminated the educational disadvantage caused by economic inequality is desirable and cannot come quickly enough. This assumption concerns me. A world in which schools have found the key to eliminating the impact of society’s inequality is no utopia.

It is 2069, and despite persistent gaps in income, wealth and living conditions across the nation, students from poor backgrounds finally achieve in line with their more privileged peers. 50 years of research, government policy, educational innovation and substantial bias in school funding towards schools in areas with high levels of deprivation have secured equality of outcome. The magic formula has been replicated across all schools. No longer, hail the politicians, will poverty hold back any child from leaving school with a profile of qualifications distinguishable from their peers.

Of the many things that concern me about this dystopian vision, the stubborn persistence to treat the symptoms rather than the disease is the most chilling. How many years will be spent berating schools for failing to close achievement gaps, how much money will be spent on initiatives that have diminishing returns on investment, and what will be the opportunity cost of this use of resources, before someone admits that the schools cannot undo the effects of poverty? “For the first time in several years, the gap between poorer pupils and their peers at GCSE has stopped closing,” says the report’s author, Jo Hutchinson. Perhaps this is because we are reaching the limits of what schools can do to counteract the negative effects of being born into a household with barely enough money to get by.

Schools will never close the achievement gap any more than we will one day live in a world half-full of Elvis impersonators. Like Blackpool’s finest, government policy in this area is overweight and out of date.


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