TORY LINE OF ATTACK
The Government has failed those on Free School Meals
Just 75 FSM boys achieved three A’s.
The Oppositions main line of attack on the Government is that since it has been in office there is little evidence that social mobility has improved , nor that the most disadvantaged have had greater educational opportunity or increased access to the best universities , despite Government attempts to engineer the HE admissions system.
One of the worst statistics being exploited is that while more than 23,000 pupils secured three As at A level, the basic passport to a top Russell group university , the number of boys eligible for free school meals countrywide who got three As at A level last year was just – 75. Those on Free School Meals constitute about 15 per cent of the school population. Eton, on the other hand had nearly three times that number of boys getting three As.
The Government can wax eloquent about getting pupils from disadvantaged communities into Higher Education but if they are failing their A levels or not getting the necessary grades or indeed taking the wrong A levels (see below) their educational opportunities will not self-evidently improve. But there is another problem.
While the top universities have a jaundiced view on the merits of a clutch of what they perceive as ‘soft A levels’ which they believe are not sufficiently rigorous for the demands of higher education more and more pupils from disadvantaged areas are now taking these so called soft options as schools feel under pressure from league tables. In short, many pupils are taking the wrong A levels for top universities. Every A-level is assumed to be of equal value when it comes to measuring school performance, or at least this is the line peddled by the Government ,but universities are explicit that they don’t consider every A-level to be equally rigorous. Cambridge, the LSE and others have warned prospective students that taking “softer” A-levels such as media studies and dance will count against applicants at admission time. Of course pupils on FSM have other options, including choosing good vocational routes and Apprenticeships but a key policy aim is to get more disadvantaged pupils into top universities, (not everyone agrees with this by the way) something that the Sutton Trust is promoting too, but this cant happen the way things currently are.
Gove pointed out in the Evening Standard this week that ‘When one school so comprehensively out-performs the poorest 15 per cent in our society then you know that opportunity remains blocked in Britain. And even these bleak figures don’t tell the whole story about talent squandered. The brightest children in poorer areas are also, increasingly, led to weaker exams, in softer subjects, which compromise their ability to get on the best courses.’ Why are pupils going for softer subjects? First because they are considered easier for both pupils to study and for teachers to teach. Second because every subject counts the same in school league tables, so weaker schools in poorer areas have an incentive to lead pupils to softer subjects in an effort to boost the school’s rankings. Gove points out that among pupils eligible for free school meals, four times as many take drama as physics and three times as many take media studies as chemistry. Indeed, there are two local authorities in England, Islington and Slough, where no comprehensive pupil sat a single GCSE in physics, chemistry or biology. And no student in the whole of Knowsley, or Hackney, got three good A levels that included maths and physics last year.
The Conservatives response would be to allow all schools to offer candidates the really prestigious exams, such as the International GCSE (which doesn’t count in league tables) and the newish Cambridge Pre-U, which are effectively mostly the preserve of the independent sector at the moment. There was talk of the Tories introducing the IB in state schools but there is no mention of this in Goves article in the Standard. It is worth noting that the IB is more expensive to teach.
But surely if these exams are harder than the so called soft subjects this move is hardly going to help pupils on free school meals, though it might well improve the opportunities for the brighter state pupils.
The other Tory approach may deliver better results for the most disadvantaged. The Tories are committed to improving the quality of teachers and classroom teaching by insisting that new entrants to the profession have better degrees than ever before, and they pledge to concentrate cash in the poorest areas, so the best graduates have an incentive to teach in the most challenging schools. But the Tories should also make it easier to get rid of bad teachers, should make pay and pension arrangement more flexible to allow for easier entry and exit to the profession and also incentivise the best to stay in the profession. The best teachers benefit pupils whatever their social background, as Professor Dylan Wiliam of the IOE has shown.
Schools autonomy is important too to the Tories and they approve of the Charter schools model in the States (though most Charter schools are allowed to make profits-which the Tories are against) .Charter schools operate in disadvantaged areas and are socially inclusive and the best insist on a rigorous academic curriculum for all with no excuses for under-achievement.
Gove wrote ‘We want to establish many more excellent schools following their model, schools that are socially comprehensive in intake but rigorously academic in ethos’ Good, as far as it goes, but as with the Swedish model let them make a profit too within a rigorous regulatory framework of course, so they can invest for the future and up-scale their involvement. After all many special schools in England educating some of the most challenging and vulnerable of our pupils are currently profit making.