Is education the key to social mobility – or a hidden chain?

By Newman Burdett

Monday 17 February 2014

I read the recent press coverage of the OECD’s latest research on academic performance and poverty – suggesting the poorest students in high performing countries can outperform the richest in the UK and which featured a quote saying the report ‘debunks the myth that poverty is destiny’ – with interest that turned to concern.

On the surface, the data does seem to show hope that education can lead to greater equity and can improve social mobility. But as in all things, the truth is more complex than the headlines and there is a darker side to this story.

The drive to gain a good education in the countries cited as examples of how achievement and poverty are not linked (China, Korea, Singapore and Japan) is leading to financial burdens on the poorest families as they try and break the poverty trap through education.

These countries have huge ‘shadow education’ economies, where students pay to study outside the school system often in ‘crammers’, or after-school tutorials, or even through teachers charging parents to ensure their child is taught all the curriculum.  This is well known and is big business – according to an Asian Development Bank report, in 2010 Korean households spent a staggering US$ 17.3 billion on shadow education, Japanese households US$ 12 billion, Hong Kong US$ 255 million, and Singapore households (in 2008) spent US$ 680 million. Furthermore, this spending on education is outstripping rising income levels, which is having a number of negative impacts.

All this goes to suggest that the myth about the links between poverty and education is far from ‘debunked’. The success may not be an effect of the school system at all, the burdens on families and children are huge and cramming students until late every evening cannot count as good education. As we keep stressing, education is not just about short-term achievement, it is about engagement, long-term learning, and achieving the magic hat-trick of high attainment, high engagement and deep understanding. The research suggests that the countries which do well in PISA, and also have large shadow education sectors, do have high levels of attainment, but at the cost of engagement (in Japan and Korea students might be good at science and maths tests but they do not want to study those subjects any longer than they have to).

Even for those who want to focus only on results there are reasons to worry – some of the research suggests that these high-intensity tutoring systems are failing to equip their students with the underlying concepts (Huang 2004) and the associated deeper understanding required to be creative and innovative – a vital ingredient for success in modern economies.

Huang, Hsin Mei. 2004. “Effects of Cram Schools on Children’s Mathematics Learning,” in How Chinese Learn Mathematics: Perspectives from Insiders. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, pp.282–304.