Educational disadvantage costs us £6bn a year, £2.5bn through the pupil premium, and the rest through a device known as IDACI (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index). It is the most emotive issue in education, and, to many of our opponents, the most important single issue in politics, as they see inequality in education as the basis of unfairness in society.
In this context, the Select Committee’s report Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children is an important achievement. It deals with the full range of evidence surrounding the issue in an open, honest and dispassionate way, maintains a considered and reasonable tone throughout, and reaches conclusions that are constructive, realistic, and unanimous. It is, in short, the best piece of work I’ve ever seen from a select committee, and reflects great credit on all who contributed to it, not least the special advisers, Professors Alan Smithers and Steve Speed.
So, what does it say?
First, low achievement by white working-class children is not “a boy thing”. The girls underachieve in relation to other groups just as much, and do worse than boys in maths.
Next, the seventeen per cent of pupils who receive free school meals (fsm), the criterion for the pupil premium, do not constitute the “working class”. The government’s statistical estimate is at least double that figure, while just under 60 per cent of people see themselves as “working class”.
Third, there is good reason to think that much of the money intended to improve the achievement of working class pupils does not in fact reach them, particularly if they live in coastal and rural areas that do not -though the Committee is too polite to say so – vote Labour.
I heard David Blunkett acknowledge the unfairness of this system shortly after the 1997 election, swiftly followed by the point that any redistribution would mean losers, and no-one wanted to lose. We still hear this from the overpaid barons in Labour’s heartlands.
The Committee does not pronounce on every issue, but frequently presents the evidence in witnesses’ own words, leaving us to judge for ourselves. This approach requires very careful selection of quotations, and one of the best is from Vic Goddard, head of Passmores’ Academy, Harlow. Mr Goddard points out that children spend 18-19 per cent of their adolescence in school, and so four times as much time out of it.
“From that point of view,” he says, “where are you going to make the biggest impact quickest? It is great if you could tackle parenting quicker, but obviously that is not an easy fix, whereas throwing money at schools and making me responsible for it is.”
Except, of course, that this is not a fix, and, indeed, there may well be no such thing. The Committee recommends small, sensible steps, including encouraging heads to take on difficult schools, having schools work together, tracking the career paths of newly qualified teachers, making sure low-achieving schools get their share of good teachers, working with parents, early intervention – it endorses a new check for children aged two-and-a-half – and Sir Michael Wilshaw’s idea of sub-regional projects to target pockets of low achievement in rural and coastal areas.
Each idea, statistic and recommendation is, though, carefully assessed and qualified, including the emerging evidence from genetics, which may in itself limit what can be achieved, though we do not yet know this with any certainty. The report’s contribution is to give all of us involved in making decisions a picture of the current situation that is as complete and well-founded as it is possible to be.
Every councillor and school governor should read it.
Unalloyed optimism, to finish, from the Apps for Good show at the Barbican, the IT industry’s contribution to moving the curriculum from button-pushing to coding.
An initial entry of 17,000 pupils were slimmed down to three teams of finalists in each of six categories, each of whom brought their own angle, some highly practical (organise all of your cloud accounts in one place), some humorous (getting teenagers out of bed in the morning, getting boys to do their share of chores), several commercially viable (finding and promoting event venues) and all of them as exciting to judges and visitors as to the teams themselves, who came from all over the country, by which I mean of course the United Kingdom.
Full details, including how to get involved next year, here.