For the past five years ideology has trumped children’s needs, says Sir Alan Steer, leaving poorer pupils behind. The priority of the next government must be to treasure the teachers
The next government ‘should prioritise policies to raise the quality of teaching’. Photograph: Alamy
The English school system is not underachieving. Among its 23,000 schools are examples of excellence to compare with any in the world – and standards today are incomparably higher than 40 years ago. A far wider section of society now benefits from a good education than would have been true in the immediate postwar period. As acknowledged in the 2014 report from the chief inspector of schools, there is much to applaud.
Unfortunately the success of the majority is not the complete picture. If most children succeed in realising their potential, some do not. If most schools continue to improve, a minority appear stuck in mediocrity. What is especially worrying is that the underperformance of children has a tendency to affect specific groups, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Explanations offered for this rarely survive close examination.
“Where”, asked Sir Michael Wilshaw in 2013, “do you think is the worst place in England to be a child from a poor family, in terms of educational opportunity? Is it inner London, Liverpool, Leeds or Manchester? Not at all. The evidence suggests that it’s west Berkshire.” Disadvantaged children in this lovely, affluent part of south-east England, he pointed out, last year had the worst attainment in the country at primary school; the second worst at secondary school and were in one of the bottom three local authorities for qualifications at age 19.
Such children, denied access to a good quality education, are often also being denied the opportunity to become fulfilled citizens. The link between educational standards and subsequent earning capacity is clear and well known, but the damage is not only to individuals. At a national level extreme inequality can affect economic growth. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development calculated that increasing income inequality since 1985 in the UK had reduced growth in the 1990s by 9%. Over a longer period it claims that British GDP would have grown by 7% had income inequality been at the same level as in France.
What can be done? Some commentators, from both ends of the political spectrum, believe that the performance gap between different social groups is beyond the power of a school to change. But children from specific ethnic groups or social backgrounds are not inherently programmed to underachieve. They may face greater challenges, but there are many examples of these being overcome.
International studies show the quality of teaching makes the most difference. The obvious often fails to be valued
In the 1970s, we worried about the aspirations and achievement levels of girls. As a young headteacher in east London in the 1980s I found a culture of low expectation for children of Bangladeshi origin. London at that time was seen as a centre of poor schools and underachieving children. Few thought then that things could be different.
Today such attitudes appear ridiculous and offensive. The rise in the achievement and aspirations of girls over the past 40 years has been one of the great triumphs of society and the education system. The local authority of Tower Hamlets, with its large Bangladeshi population, is now considered as a beacon of excellence across Europe. London leads the country in educational standards for all groups and is envied by other national capitals.
Change for the better is always possible. There is no reason why disadvantaged children in Peterborough, West Berkshire, Barnsley, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight should be condemned to starting life so much worse off than those living in Hackney. This postcode lottery of opportunity is unacceptable.
But ministers’ headline-grabbing schemes are often the wrong sort of change. Free schools are an example where politicians’ interests trump those of children. Often created in areas where there is no need and absorbing large amounts of public money, free schools fail to produce any sign that they will raise standards and help children. On the contrary. As society worries about religious intolerance, Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission, argues that the creation of free schools and the expansion of faith schools are increasing segregation between different ethnicities and classes.
Political interference in the curriculum and assessment of children is another example of the wrong kind of change. Central direction may be needed, but it should come from a credible professional source rather than from a “here today, gone tomorrow” secretary of state. Schools and teachers cannot concentrate on teaching if they are subject to constant change in the courses being taught.
Strategies for change should concentrate on what we know works. International studies over many years show that the quality of teaching makes the most difference. In September 2014 the Sutton Trust published a report, based on research carried out by Stanford University and the London School of Economics, which showed that if our education system raised the performance of the lowest functioning 10% of teachers, the boost to attainment levels would place the UK in the top five countries worldwide in a decade.
The report also confirms the impact of consistent good teaching on the progress of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The importance of good quality teaching may seem obvious, but the obvious often fails to be valued.
The quality of teachers entering the profession has risen steadily, thanks to specific initiatives and more attractive pay. But schools in challenging areas or less attractive locations struggle to attract teachers, particularly in certain secondary subjects. We should consider what inducements would make it easier for these schools to recruit, including imaginative professional development opportunities.
Recruitment is only the first step. Schools need to retain teachers and develop their skills. Too many leave within five years. Too many, including school leaders, receive no adequate training once they join a school.
The Department for Education should work more constructively with teacher training institutions than it has in the recent past to provide teachers with training throughout their careers. This is what happens in those countries with the highest standards of school achievement.
As society worries about about religious intolerance, we need integrated schools, rather than segregated free schools.
What else can make a difference to underachieving children? First, we need a stronger emphasis on the early years. Children from disadvantaged homes start school 19 months behind in their development compared with their peers. The proportion of disadvantaged children achieving level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics remains 19% below that of their more advantaged classmates.
Access to good nursery education is essential for children from disadvantaged homes. Much needs to be done to make this a reality. Nursery staff need higher levels of training and sufficient resources to work with families as well as children.
Second, we need to focus on the early years of secondary schooling. While primary schools are slowly narrowing the achievement gap, this is not true in secondary education, where too many children who are underachieving at 11 will still be doing so when they leave five years later. Their fate is often determined within 18 months of entering the school. Too often, secondary schools place insufficient importance on their younger year groups. The classes are often taught by the least experienced or least skilled staff. Knowledge of the child gleaned by the primary school is often lost or disregarded.
Improving the experience of younger secondary pupils may not require additional resources. It may just need new thinking. A child used to being taught by a primary class teacher may struggle six weeks later when confronted with 10 or 12 different teachers in a week. When there is no common practice among those teachers for assessing work, setting homework, or managing the class, the child who finds learning difficult may flounder. Where the child is left to guess what is required for homework, or what is needed to gain a higher grade, disengagement may swiftly follow.
Ofsted should place a higher priority during inspection on the 11-13 age group. The impact on the achievement level of all children would be considerable.
Finally, we need more supportive school structures. While school autonomy has generally been a force for good, simply making a school autonomous does not in itself effect improvement. “An autonomous school”, said Wilshaw in December 2014, “is not necessarily a good one. It takes more than a new nameplate on the gates to make a school outstanding.”
Most struggling schools would share those opinions. What they may lack are the support systems they need to improve. Sometimes sited in areas where education is little valued and expectations are low, they are subject to continuous exhortations, but may be offered little support. In some areas, local authority support teams no longer exist and an academy chain, if a school belongs to one, may not offer an adequate substitute.
Many schools are already working together effectively to raise standards and to learn from each other. The need is to ensure that all schools work in collaborative groups, accepting a responsibility not only to their own pupils, but to the children of the wider community. The slogan “Better together” is as appropriate to our education system as it is to our country.
Action for the next government
1. Prioritise policies to raise the quality of teaching. Establish high quality in-service training programmes.
2. Prioritise support for disadvantaged children in the early years (0-six).
3. Require Ofsted to place a greater focus when inspecting secondary schools on years seven to nine (ages 11-14).
4. Require all schools to be members of federations focusing on mutual support.
Sir Alan Steer is a retired secondary headteacher and ex government education adviser.
The group came in for a tongue-lashing from the former education secretary.
The article above is extracted from What’s Next for Education?, a pamphlet by the New Visions for Education Group. The group, formed more than 20 years ago, includes many of the country’s leading educational figures. Such people were dismissed by Michael Gove, the former education secretary, as “the Blob” and as “enemies of promise”.
Writing in the Daily Mail in 2013, Gove said that today’s children were being thwarted by “politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need”.
The New Visions Group is launching its ideas for the next government at a public meeting at the UCL Institute of Education, London, on 23 March, with speakers including the film director David Puttnam, former education secretary Estelle Morris, Helena Kennedy QC, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, and David Bell, former head of Ofsted, now vice-chancellor of Reading University.
Source: The Guardian