Hart and Risley were cited during teacher training as part of a school session on literacy – the study quoted suggested that by the age of three a child of more affluent parents would have heard thirty million more words than a child of a similar age who came from a poorer family. The study was presented as evidence as to why children from poorer backgrounds performed less well in examinations: the thirty million word gap was seen as the foundation on which further inequalities of educational attainment were built.
It was a member of the academic staff from Marjon University who suggested to our cohort of students that the research of Hart and Risley was not necessarily applicable in our context. The study had been carried out in Kansas in the early 1990s and had included a sample of just forty-two families. No statistician would have attempted to extrapolate worldwide on the basis of such a small sample.
Given the academic’s justifiable questioning of the applicability of the study, it was a surprise to attend a teacher training day and hear a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education include the Hart and Risley research in his presentation.
“Any questions?” he asked at the conclusion of his fifty minute talk.
I raised my hand, “Hart and Risley. A generation ago. Kansas. Forty-two families. Do you have any evidence from a UK context?”
”There are comparable studies from British schools,” he asserted. However, he did not name any of the studies that were comparable, which seemed odd because if they were comparable it would be much more useful to cite them instead of the three and a half dozen Kansas families.
In the experience of any teacher there would be prima facie evidence of children from middle class families having a wider vocabulary, but it seems that it is sufficient to cite this as a truism without there being a perception that there should be empirical evidence of the extent of the gap.
Given the resources available to HMI and to Ofsted, it seem extraordinary that those responsible for the preparation of the inspector’s presentation should think it appropriate to continue to use a study questioned by British educationalists. Given the essential nature of literacy in allowing children to access education, it might have been reasonable to assume that a budget would have been made available to facilitate a definitive British study that could be used in presentations. To use its own categories, if Ofsted is not inadequate, it certainly requires improvement.