1. There is a causal link between poverty and educational underachievement. The fact that some children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds have remarkable achievements should not disguise this – it is so well researched and so well documented that it is completely beyond dispute.
2. The traditional response from the left is to attempt to create a level playing field and each decade has seen new initiatives for education which aim to spend more money on the education of the most disadvantaged. Statistics show us, however, that very little has changed and this is largely because the children who are brought up in families who value education have home and school working together and those who are brought up in families where schooling is not valued have home and school working in opposition. Traditionally the professionals who have educated the poor have either chosen to do so from a sense of social justice and service, a commitment to make a difference, or because they have not been terribly good educators or not terribly well qualified themselves and have “ended up in the worst schools”. Hence a culture often emerged in schools serving disadvantaged communities of “cuddle and muddle”, typified by the phrase “we are very good pastorally”, and very often by “our kind of children”. The resistance to the standards agenda comes very strongly from this culture.
3. Thankfully, over the last 20 years or so this traditional response from the left has been challenged and we have seen the standards agenda embraced by the Labour party and by the teaching profession. We saw the new response in the early academies agenda: spend more money on the education of the most disadvantaged, set committed professionals free from interference and set challenging targets. It was a ‘preferential option for the poor’ and frankly an exciting time. Leading one of those early academies was a great privilege. However, I quickly came to realise that far from regenerating the area I was working in I was doing no more than providing an escape tunnel out of it. The academy I lead demonstrably narrows the gap: from no children going to university to over 90 per cent of sixth formers doing so and from 9 per cent achieving a pass in both English and Maths at GCSE to 55 per cent, but poverty in the area is worsening. And of course not all the early academies were successful and the response to this has been less freedom, less money, more restriction.
4. Turning to the traditional response from the right to the underachievement of the poor we can see that until recently it was nowhere near their agenda. Apart from a strong attachment to grammar schools as a way of providing a ladder out of poverty for a few they had no response.
5. It was initially heartening to see the right taking a interest in the quality of schooling for poor children but, oh dear, what a mess. Challenging a culture of an under aspiration amongst teachers – a good thing, but the blame culture, the punitive approach, the failure to listen to committed experts in the field together with the savage cuts is a disaster. We are left with a serious crisis in teacher supply at a time when we have never had a more skilled and committed bunch of teachers, and with a system which actively penalises the best teachers and school leaders for working in the most challenging schools. Leading my academy precludes the possibility of being an outstanding leader, and all the expertise in the system at what works in raising standards is discounted with punitive targets driving inappropriate curriculum. The joy has been gradually sucked out of the system (if we succumb to it, of course, and many of us don’t).
6. Nothing typifies the current mess more than pupil premium. I lead an academy with 67 per cent pupil premium. This is pretty staggering for a secondary school; however I have less budget, not more. Pupil premium is not new money. It also comes with punitive targets around closing the gap. For us, pupil premium means desperately trying to continue addressing disadvantage with less money than we used to have, while justifying how we spend it.
It is a nonsense, but here is the bigger nonsense: we know there is a causal relationship between poverty and underachievement and the poor are getting poorer. Think of it like this – setting targets around healing a wound, giving the ‘wound-healer’ less money but making them justify that a portion of it is spent specifically on healing the wound, while giving the patient less food and increasing the bacteria in their whole environment. The national figures show pupil premium is apparently not closing the gap. Are we surprised?
7. So here’s my radical idea - if we are serious about creating the opportunities for equality (which is a much more sensible approach than talking about equal opportunities) how about addressing seriously the causes of disadvantage. Worklessness needs to be tackled and so does benefit culture and the under aspiration that results from it, but in so doing we have to take the children out of the culture of poverty – all I see happening at the moment is the situation being worsened. New thinking is required or once again we will only be tinkering at the edges and the cycle of disadvantage will continue.
Ros McMullen is executive principal of David Young Community Academy in Leeds and CEO of LEAF Academy Trust