Some limited progress but troubling regional variations remain
There is ,as we know, and are often reminded, a large gap in educational attainment between children from richer homes and those from poorer homes, as measured by eligibility for free school meals.(not always regarded, by the way, as the most reliable measure of deprivation). Significantly, narrowing this gap is seen as the Holy Grail in education and has largely defeated successive governments. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wishaw accepts too that this is a major challenge and that there are huge and unacceptable variations in the attainment gap between pupils in different local authorities. He said as much when he described our school system as “a tale of two nations.”He added that the system is “divided into lucky and unlucky children.” But the lot of disadvantaged children is not predetermined.
Although most acknowledge that teaching is now attracting some very bright graduates concerns remain over the quality of teaching overall but particularly the quality of teaching and teachers in disadvantaged areas.
A Sutton Trust report, in 2011, highlighted just how important the quality of teaching is in closing this gap. It stated:“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.” That shows the significance of raising teaching standards and ensuring that they stay high.
The government’s policy on raising attainment and closing this gap has several threads.
Firstly, the Pupil Premium, worth around £2.5 billion. The PP means a yearly uplift, for each disadvantaged young person who receives it, of £1,300 in primary education and £935 in secondary education In some schools, 80% or 90% of the young people are entitled to the pupil premium.
The government points out that the performance of disadvantaged pupils has improved across the country, since the coalition Government came to power in 2010, and it improved before that. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals who achieve the expected standard in maths at the end of primary school has risen from 66% to 74% since 2010, and the gap between those children and their peers has narrowed by 4 percentage points. The picture is similar at key stage 4. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals achieving at least five A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, has risen from 31% in 2010 to 38% in 2013. Disadvantaged young people in London are now more than 10 percentage points more likely to achieve five A* to C grades including English and maths than those in the next highest-performing region.(thanks largely, but not exclusively, to the London Challenge). The gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers is narrowest in London. However, there is a variable picture throughout England and something of a post code lottery. In 14 local authorities, the attainment of free school meal pupils, at key stage 4 is more than 10 percentage points below the national average for such pupils. In 12 local authorities, attainment at the end of key stage 4 for pupils eligible for free school meals was actually lower in 2013 than in 2010. And as the Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan, recently pointed out in a debate (25 February) in England last year, the GCSE attainment gap widened in 72 out of 152 local authority areas. In 66 areas, it was larger than it was two years previously. In England as a whole, the gap was 26.7% last year, up from 26.4% in 2011-12. So the challenge very much remains in place.
The government sees the Teach First programme as important in narrowing the attainment gap. Bright, motivated graduates are placed in schools after brief training and on-going mentorship , mainly in disadvantaged areas and the scheme is being extended. Indeed, the scheme is now one of the top graduate recruiters.
Ofsted is addressing regional under performance through its regional inspection arrangements, with focused inspections of local authorities and groups of schools. It is carrying out inspections, not only of schools, but of the school improvement function. Schools that are not narrowing the gap will in future not be able to achieve an‘ outstanding’ Ofsted rating. The chief inspector plans to ask challenging questions of local authorities and others about their contribution to school improvement although local authorities complain that much of their previous resource has been diverted to support the academies expansion. Wilshaw wants to to inspect chains of schools but so far this is being resisted by ministers, though it is clear that some chains are more effective than others at raising attainment.
David Laws, the schools Minister, is targeting schools and local authorities where the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is unacceptably low. He recently wrote to 214 schools—115 primary and 99 secondary—with the poorest value-added progress among disadvantaged pupils.Value added measures are thought to flush out coasting schools.
Teaching School Alliances are now seen as vital to drive improvement, along with peer support networks. Currently, 345 teaching schools cover around 4,800 other schools. In September, the Secretary of State announced an expansion to reach a total of 600 alliances by 2016.
And leadership is also seen as vital, although getting the best Heads and Deputies into the most disadvantaged areas can be a big challenge. (one distinct advantage that London has always had is that it is easier to attract good teachers and heads to the capital, than many other areas . Teachers’ partners and spouses of teachers are also more likely generally to find jobs in London than elsewhere, adding to its appeal ).
From September 2015, the talented leaders programme announced by the Deputy Prime Minister will start by matching 100 head teachers with underperforming schools in areas that struggle to attract and develop outstanding school leaders.
However, the challenge remains and the wide gap in performances between different local authorities in this area remains troubling.