For too long England has been divided into lucky and unlucky children – for some a good education is considered the norm, for others it is a privilege.
Last year almost 40 per cent of children left school without five good GCSEs including English and maths. This level of failure should appal us all, but these statistics mask even wider problems.
Only 38 per cent of children on free school meals (a common metric of income poverty) achieved this level, and for poor white British boys it was even lower (28 per cent), making these children the lowest attaining ethnic group in England.
Whilst this represents a divide cutting across rich and poor, our problem is not just one of income poverty. It runs even deeper – with educational divides cutting across our geography, meaning that a child’s future is too often shaped by where they’re born and where they go to school.
Whilst cities like London benefit from some of the most exceptional teaching in the world, other areas face much starker realities. In 22 local authorities more than 70 per cent of children on free school meals did not achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths. For children in Barnsley, the proportion to do manage it was just 22 per cent.
Educational reforms have been driven through at unprecedented speed. For example, we have seen the introduction of a Pupil Premium for disadvantaged children, the introduction of Free Schools and an expansion of the Academies programme. These reforms mean great headteachers have more freedom to innovate in their schools and do what they do best. However, many of these reforms have not reached those parts of the country where they are needed most.
We know that where schools are good, they can often overcome all the other disadvantages a child may face. We now need politicians to act so that the benefits can be felt in those parts of the country which have been left behind.
That is why we have called on the next Government to embark on a National Improvement Programme, tasked with getting talent where it’s needed. This package of reforms will:
- Encourage the best academy chains and federations to start working in parts of the country they have previously ignored. This includes offering the best chains incentives to replicate elsewhere, and trialling a payment-by-results scheme.
- Incentivise the headteachers who have experience of turning challenging schools around to move to schools facing particular difficulties, by offering them a two year ‘grace’ from formal inspection.
- Establish a National Teacher Service programme to deploy high-performing teachers to the schools that need them most. Evidence shows that the quality of teaching is the most important school factor shaping outcomes for disadvantaged children. We must therefore concentrate on getting our best teachers to the schools that depend on them.
These recommendations are part of a raft or measures we proposed yesterday in our new report, Closing the Divide. This also includes encouraging more charities to get involved in the Free Schools Programme. At the CSJ we are passionate about the role local charities can play in transforming communities. That is why we would like to see more charities set up Free Schools, through forming partnerships with businesses and other organisations.
Our plans also call for an expansion in the use of state boarding schools. There are some children whose home life is so challenging and dysfunctional that the standard school day is not enough to overcome all the barriers they face.
We spoke to numerous boarding schools who said that whilst they would love to take on these children, outdated views from some local authorities mean they are not referred in the first place. So we call on Government to radically expand the number of places available, to encourage more social workers to refer children before crisis point, and to explore the possibility of allowing some parents and long-term foster carers to self-refer their children. Boarding can offer a fantastic opportunity to the most vulnerable children and we should make much greater use of it.
Where it’s good, education is the most powerful tool we have to make sure all young people can fulfil their potential. Year after year businesses condemn the lack of work readiness amongst many school leavers. And so making sure every young person is able to leave school with the skills they need is not just a social justice issue – it’s an economic imperative.
Our ambitious proposals build on what works, and offer the next government the opportunity to change lives and transform communities.