This article first ran on this site in October 2013. We re-run it in the wake of the author’s appointment yesterday as Education Secretary. He is MP for East Hampshire.
In his Conference speech last week, Michael Gove set out clearly the moral purpose of policy: not only to raise standards for all, but just as important, to narrow the yawning achievement gap between rich and poor. He described the Conservative mission to ensure “that every child has the opportunity to flourish”. Though progress has already been made, in 2012 there was a 26 percentage points gap at GCSE (5+C+ including English & Maths) between kids on free school meals and their more affluent peers.
But addressing this gap with teenagers is way too late. The performance gap appears very early and widens through the school years. In Seven Key Truths about Social Mobility, the all-party social mobility group identified that the point of greatest leverage to equalise opportunity is the very earliest years.
Of course kids from all backgrounds go on to do brilliant things. But overall and on average, the correlations have a smooth predictability to them. The better off your parents, the more likely you are to be ‘school ready’ at three, the wider your vocabulary at five and the less likely you are to have behavioural problems. The differences persist and widen. Among seven-year-olds in 2012, 24 per cent of free school meal recipients did not reach the expected level in reading, versus 10 per cent of their better off peers.
In a new report, Too Young to Fail, Save the Children pose the question: what can be done in primary school?
The Pupil Premium is a key structural reform introduced by this government and one we can be proud of. The money itself doesn’t achieve anything – it is what you do with it that counts. It is right for OfStEd to be looking at how Pupil Premium money is being used, alongside each school’s achievement in narrowing the gap.
The Education Endowment Foundation is a less well known government innovation, but no less important. Its toolkit presents actual evidence on what works in using Pupil Premium funds. It is not always the most obvious (or the most expensive) things that have the best effect; and smaller class sizes or more teaching assistants may not always deliver to expectation.
Save the Children are right to focus on the potential for catch-up and especially so on reading – clearly, if you can’t read, little else will work for you at school (today they launch Born to Read, a volunteer reading help scheme to help children who are falling behind in their reading at school). They are right, too, to call for more focus on ‘school readiness’ (an agreed definition would be a good start). But there is a debate to be had about future front-loading of primary school funding and their recommendation to focus future Pupil Premium additions on five- to seven-year-olds: there are many competing demands for such funding.
We do know that the early stages of school, and pre-school, need more attention. Future pre-school priorities should focus at least as much on quality of settings and workforce development as on the volume of places and hours on offer.
In truth, the opportunity gap challenge is enormous and requires work and innovation at every stage. As today’s report also reminds us: even the free school meal recipients who do reach the expected level at the end of primary school are over 20 per cent less likely to reach the key GCSE benchmark than their classmates.