Our lowest attainers; how can we support them?

17 Apr

(1)       The Wood and the Trees

If the overarching objective of a business is to generate profit, that of a school is to ensure that young people are well educated and take their places confidently in adult society.   In 1997, the late Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University proposed in A Cubic Curriculum a multi-dimension view of what it is to be “well educated” founded on four propositions.

(a)        First, education must incorporate a vision of the future.  If it doesn’t, we will be ill-serving the children in our care.   To cater for this, we have to take account of what will be affecting their lives, but not be wholly bound by it.   For instance, if they are living in the mountains, children need to learn the art of climbing and managing the heights. This does not mean that they may not at some time move down to the plains.

(b)        Second, they have to meet the increasing demands of citizens living in a shrinking world which continues to expand in population – currently standing at 7 billion people.  Employers require higher qualifications in a constantly changing environment.

(c)        Third, because of the increasing complexity in which we live, children need to be taught how to learn so that they can adapt to new developments.  How they learn is at least as important as what is learnt.

(d)        Finally, the curriculum has to be viewed as multi-faceted and not one-dimensional.   Yes, it has to incorporate subject matter but needs to go beyond that and include skills, attitudes, values, behaviour and beliefs.

Within their classrooms, good teachers teach the subjects – e.g. English and mathematics – in cross-curricular themes (such as developing young people’s thinking skills and imaginations, among other things) using a pedagogy that stimulates rather than stultifies the young – deploying a range of methods – such as telling, team-working, practising and imitating.

That’s the wood of which we may be losing sight because we have been obsessing with the trees – i.e. the stubborn fact that 25% of our youngsters leave schools without the basic proficiency – i.e. level 2 or GCSE at grade C – in English and mathematics.   In Sweden it is 14%, in Canada – 12% and in the USA – 11%.   Altogether, 4% of young people leave school without a single GCSE at even Grade G.

The challenge for us is to keep the overarching objectives for education (the wood) in mind while not neglecting the basics (i.e. the trees) that includes helping children develop a good command of literacy and numeracy.  If children are unable to read, write, add up and subtract, their lives are blighted. They will not be able to benefit from Ted Wragg’s vision and fail to live fulfilled and happy lives.

The statistics are stark: only 26% of white working class boys attain 5 good GCSEs at grades A* to C (including English and mathematics) against a national average of 59%.   Pupils of Chinese heritage are ahead of the rest of us with those of Indian origin not far behind.  In fact, Chinese pupils on free school meals do better than the national average – confounding the pundits who aver that deprivation spawns underachievement.

(2)       Poverty

Forests have been destroyed to make paper for writing about the link between poverty and underachievement.  The interesting finding, however, is that most children in the tail (of low attainment) are not poor.

We also know that there is strong connection between poor behaviour and crime with low attainment.  Altogether, 50% of our prison population has a literacy age below that of an average 11-year-old.  For numeracy, it is worse – at 65%.  Of the young people that rioted on the streets of the country’s leading cities in early August 2011, only 1% had five or more good GCSEs.

The underachievement of a stubborn tail has been the subject of a recently published book edited by Paul Marshall, Chair of the ARK (Absolute Return for Kids) Schools. In his introduction to  The Tail: How England’s schools fail one child in five and what can be done, Marshall mentions that if we can match the Finnish educational outcomes, we would be able to raise our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) £6 billion by 2030 and £56 billion by 2050.  Bringing the below-average to the national average would add another £14 billion by 2030 and £140 billion by 2050.    As the Yanks would say: “That’s a lot of bucks.”

(3)       Structure

It would be premature to make a judgement on whether freeing schools from the shackles of Local Authorities (LAs) by allowing them to convert to academies will address this problem.  However, the early indications are that while the best academies produce excellent results too many are still below the government’s minimum standards (according to the league tables).

The government’s answer has been to create more academies — state-funded schools that are independent of local authorities. The best academies – such as those run by ARK get excellent results and have improved more quickly than other schools. But too many academies are below the government’s minimum standards.  At any rate, despite the huge increase in academies, only 5% of state (comprehensive) schools had over 80% of their pupils attain over 80% of five good GCSEs. This means that in the vast majority, the lowest 20% (the tail) continues to languish in the attainment stakes.

The research in England (so far) has demonstrated that changing the structure of schools and giving them greater autonomy has had no impact on reducing the tail of underachievement.  In the USA, schools with chartered status have made some difference because the status comes with targets.  If a chartered school fails to meet the targets, it will lose its charter status.

Back at the ranch, another problem has raised its ugly head.  The determination of Secretary of State Michael Gove to force schools requiring improvement, with a notice to improve or in special measures to become academies, has caused headteachers and governors to take their eyes off the ball of raising standards.   Leyland Methodist Junior School in Preston, which was previously judged to be satisfactory, was recently placed in special measures.  The lead inspector wrote that a key reason for this was that too much of the headteacher’s time was distracted with the process of converting the school into an academy.  Woodhouse Primary School in Birmingham, which had been placed in special measures, was also censured by inspectors for time-wasting on the conversion (into academy) process – distracting the governors, headteacher and staff from improving the school.

(4)       Teacher quality

Rather than structures, the real focus needs to be on standards and more specifically on practical approaches to improving teaching and learning. The quality of teaching is the single biggest factor that affects results in schools. In the 27 January 2013 issue of The Sunday Times, Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton and the Education Endowment Trusts, referred to research at Harvard University which posited that if you leave a low-value-added teacher in a school for 10 years, rather than replacing him or her with an average teacher, an average class of 28 pupils would lose a total of about $2.5m (£1.5m) in lifetime income.

Measures are being taken at national level to raise the stakes for those entering the professions by requiring them to have a good honours degree before embarking on teacher training – if it is to be a PGCE.  Teach First has shown a way.  The charity recruits young graduates from our universities’ cream, training them and having them commit themselves to at least two years of teaching in the toughest inner city schools.

There are problems at both, the macro and micro levels, that need to be confronted. Good teachers tend to choose good schools where the tail is short or does not exist at all.   Is there a way, in the new era of performance reviews, of enticing these colleagues to serve in tough areas?  Can there be incentives for schools to collaborate effectively? We have seen the benefit of the London Challenge which has made some of the toughest schools in the capital high-performing.

At the micro (school) level, headteachers have the tendency of placing good teachers in classes to boost the performance of the best and those on the borderline, neglecting those who are bouncing along at the bottom without any hope of reaching the benchmarks.    The government has created league tables with perverse incentives, which has had unintended consequences.  What about the possibility of establishing a system where the progress of all the pupils at a school is measured and published in a different kind of league table?

Schools, also, need to grow good teachers with good inservice training.   Many already do that, so that the good teachers excel, sparkle and shine. In such a climate, the average transform into good and those who are struggling improve.   There are sufficient legal instruments already in place to persuade underperforming teachers to move out of the profession.  These must be used to good effect.

(5)       Culture

One of the most powerful influences on how well children do at school is how much value their families, neighbours and friends place on education.   I have mentioned above that poverty does have an influence, but that is only a small part of the story.   What chance did the six children who tragically died in the blaze caused by their father – Mick Philpott – have?  Philpott did not believe in education, was committed to the benefit system and presented as a model of depravity – living lavishly off tax-payers largesse.

A child from a comfortable background living in a poor area is as disadvantaged (or advantaged) as a poor child living in a well-heeled area.  The challenge for our schools is to raise the aspirations of the all families that send their children to them.  If it takes a whole village to raise a child.  Can we find a way of encouraging the village to raise their aspirations for that child?

The proportion of children who have English as another language in the tail of underachievement is no different to that of the general population.  By far, most pupils at the bottom of the league tables are working class white children – especially boys.

A Cabinet Office report stated that white boys from deprived communities at the age of 14 had the lowest educational aspirations of the eight groups it surveyed – which included those of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean origin.   UK immigrants have made the fastest improvements in educational attainment according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

(6)       Conclusion

Governors and headteachers have a responsibility for developing the school strategy. In doing so the overwhelming majority are concerned with making our institutions beacon schools.  However, because of a government that has developed an accountability system that has had serious negative consequences for the least able pupils in our schools, we neglect them piling up problems for their futures and the country as a whole.

Apart from blighting their own lives, these young people are a drain on the country’s resources – when it comes to dishing out benefits or, in extremis, if they end up in a life of crime and eventually in prison.

To transform the scene, we have to provide them with an education that will lift them out of the mire to live fully and not simply exist – whether or not they reach the government’s benchmarks.   Sadly, government incentives for raising standards for all seem to have passed them by.   At grass root levels, governors in schools can change the picture and make a difference by taking steps to see the wood (address education’s strategic issues) while not losing sight of the trees (ensuring that children learn the basic in literacy and numeracy).

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