The results of a critical report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty (SMCP) commission warns that many schools are failing tens of thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite students from similar backgrounds excelling in other more progressive schools. The report was one of a series investigating how social mobility can be improved in different areas of society, and investigated the GCSE results of secondary schools with similar proportions of students eligible for free school meals. The SMCP suggested that the report findings point to a worrying gap in performance based on expectations, highlighting the additional 50% of disadvantaged students achieving five good GCSEs in the best performing schools in comparison to the weakest.
The report questioned why some schools have had success where others have failed and suggested that the low expectations of some teachers may be a contributing factor. A poll of 1,100 teachers carried out as part of the commission found that 21% admitted that some colleagues expected lower levels of achievement from students of disadvantaged backgrounds.
However, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) argues that teachers can only go so far in counteracting the effects of poverty, and contends that extra support is needed from the government and other agencies in order to tackle the issue. Constant changes to the examination system are an additional problem, as are the difficulties many schools face when trying to recruit staff in the more challenging areas.
The SMCP made several suggestions as to how schools could improve the performance of disadvantaged students, citing a need for constant focus on the quality of teaching, developing strategies to engage parents in the learning process, and preparing students for life rather than solely for exams. Another recommendation was the better application of the pupil premium payments offered for poorer students. Research carried out since the implementation of the pupil premium in April 2011 could help in guiding the improvement of schools currently failing disadvantaged students.
The pupil premium is allocated to children who are either looked after by the local authority, have been eligible for free school meals at any point during the last six years, or have parents serving in the armed forces. So far evidence suggests that pupil premiums have had a positive influence. In July, Ofsted issued an update on the progress that schools had made in raising the level of educational attainment for disadvantaged pupils. Based on evidence from 151 inspections carried out between January and December 2013, reviews of 1,600 school inspection reports published between September 2013 and March 2014, and national performance data for 2013, it found that the pupil premium is making a clear difference in schools where the funding has been spent effectively. These schools were found to be closely targeting the attainment gap and using vigorous tracking systems to establish exactly where a difference was being made and why. Their governing bodies also have a greater active role in monitoring how the pupil premium funding is used, and ensure that the funding directly improves teaching and support for eligible students. Strong leadership and governance are therefore key areas in which progress could be made in other schools.
The necessity for improvement is evident. The SMCP report notes that gaps in cognitive development between better off and disadvantaged children begin to form by the age of three and continue to increase as children advance through education. By the time they begin school at age five, students from the poorest 20% of families are on average almost a year behind children from middle-income families in vocabulary tests. Without focused intervention, this gap has continued to widen by the time the student comes to sit their GCSEs, and the mastery of basic skills and achieving good exam scores have a profound impact on the level of success in the labour market as an adult.
Ofsted concluded that the right to receive a good education should not depend on a child’s postcode or economic situation. Although there are certainly improvements to be made in closing the attainment gap, it is encouraging that progress is being made, and that this progress is being monitored in a way that will allow proven methods to be shared across schools. The solution may not be simple, but if some schools are able to improve the achievement of disadvantages pupils, then there is hope that their techniques can be mirrored across the board. They are proof that childhood deprivation does not have to lead to deprivation in adult life.
Photo: Aoife Mac