Why are school under-performing?

There are times when I wonder whether the Tory announcements on grammar schools are merely a smokescreen to draw attention away from the fact that they haven’t been able to recruit enough teachers? Even if they genuinely believe that more selection will help some pupils do better, their responsibility as a government is to offer hope to the parents of all pupils and also to all pupils. The purpose of government is not to encourage any pupil to feel a failure. While Society accepts all cannot win prizes in competitions, education isn’t a competition, but rather an opportunity to draw out the best in everyone.

Rather than concentrating on what happens at eleven, when much of the damage is done, Mrs May might reflect on whether allowing local councils to axe Children’s and Sure Start centres was a good idea? My view is that the more we do to close the gap in the early years, the more that investment pays off later. The trouble is that the return isn’t a quick one, although narrowing the gap at the age when formal schooling starts might be helpful. The report last week of more children starting school not properly toilet trained, along with other reports of language and social skills gaps, shows the gulf we have allowed to develop in society between those with and those without. Hopelessness can breed extremism and all the risks history has shown us throughout the twentieth century that were associated with the consequences of allowing it to develop in a society. One wonder how far better education has helped create a situation where there are currently no wars in the Western hemisphere.

So, rather than concentrating on grammar schools and a way of finding an alternative to Free School Meals to measure deprivation, the Tories might want to look at the characteristics of children that fall behind expected rates of progress. Some have special needs, and these should be catered for. But, for others it may be attendance, where they sit in the class, the degree of encouragement from home or one of several other reasons that early years teachers can identify.

At present, the Pupil Premium helps one group of materially deprived children, but there may be others that are emotionally deprived, change school frequently and in mid-year, suffer from poor attendance or are caught by the digital divide, whether absolute or just governed by broadband speeds. These may not always be the same children. In this day and age we should know what works and help classroom teachers to identify and use the appropriate techniques, drawing on extra funding as appropriate. If, for instance the extra funding London schools receive over most of the rest of the country is shown to produce better results in a matched sample of pupils then we need to ask whether dealing with that issue should come ahead of creating more grammar schools.

What we need is a focus on quality assurance as a model and not quality control where those that pass the quality threshold go one way at eleven and those that don’t are sent down another path. Wherever that happens it is the wrong model.

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