A sample mistake

February 21, 1997

MARGARET O'BRIEN (THES, February 14) says that "it might have been wiser" to present her findings about the sociology of Barking and Dagenham to an academic audience before contacting the Panorama television programme, which instead touched on another problem: why do some children achieve badly in school?

This is an important question because young people in the United Kingdom still seem to underperform compared to other developed countries.

It would be useful to look at social reasons for poor achievement. Unfortunately, Professor O'Brien's work cannot advance our understanding of this. First, Barking and Dagenham on its own is not exactly a good case study. It is not typical of anywhere except the eastern Thamesside. The social, economic and educational peculiarities of the "Thames Gateway" are starting to emerge from research at the universities of Greenwich and East London, as my overview of education and training in the area, published next week, shows.

From an unrepresentative area, Professor O'Brien selects an unrepresentative sample. In her sample (215 out of 1,788 children, I believe), 22 per cent got no GCSEs. It seems (from a press release she issued) that roughly 33 per cent of boys and 11 per cent of girls had no passes. She then goes on to say that there are "significant'' differences between boys and girls, and for mothers' employment patterns (working full-time, part-time or not working). I do not know what test of significance she can be using on this sample. In 1996 only 11.5 per cent of children in Barking and Dagenham's comprehensive schools gained no GCSE passes: 12.6 per cent of boys and 10.4 per cent of girls. Figures for individual schools ranged between 2 and 20 per cent. As well as too many underachieving boys, her sample also has far too many high achieving pupils, particularly girls. Whether the work situations of the parents were representative we have no way of knowing.

Improving educational achievement is a priority for a regeneration area like the Thames Gateway, unless we are to repeat the London Docklands experience where most new jobs went to incomers. Let us try to raise the standard of research in the local universities, share our findings across institutions and disciplines, and avoid playing into the hands of the media.

Judith Watson

Senior research fellow, School of Post-Compulsory Education and Training University of Greenwich

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