A couple of stories this week have posed a challenge for those who want our very best schools to be in our most challenging communities. Firstly, we were reminded once again that our professions, as well as our creative and performing arts, are dominated by privately educated Oxbridge types. Secondly, a Durham University study suggests that independent schools perform better than state schools even when we account for students’ backgrounds.
It’s no surprise that taking kids from wealthier families who value school, and then putting these kids together in an academic climate where high standards are the norm, tends to yield success.
Most of us swirl around the eddies of opportunity in which we happen to find ourselves. The grim reality is that a middling student at a top private school can look forward to a much brighter future than a middling student at a state school on the wrong side of the tracks.
So what can we do about this?
We should continue to explore ways of increasing the social mix in our schools. State schools need to be able to convince aspirational, educated parents that their kids can thrive with us. Grammar streams within comprehensive schools aren’t to everyone’s taste but they might just help reassure ambitious parents that our state schools have the desire, the teachers and the resources to stretch and challenge able students. Less controversially, our academies should be clear about the deal that they offer, for example by listing the books that all students will read in their time at the school, alongside the places they’ll visit and the knowledge they’ll acquire.
Improving social mix would work in areas where rich and poor live in close proximity, but it’s less useful in areas where poverty is widespread. Such areas require a tsunami of support: massive regional investment in early years, food and nutrition, parenting, and evening classes. If I’m not mistaken, Teach First is doing some interesting work which involves integrated solutions (education, healthcare, social services) for our most challenging communities.
I’m absolutely convinced that you could educate a middle class kid (from an educated family whose parents value school) for a fraction of the price that it takes to educate a kid who’s been dealt a tougher hand. For this reason, I think the Pupil Premium is a beautiful thing. At its best, Pupil Premium funding is used to systematically remove the barriers that can hold back disadvantaged students. Where I see it used effectively, it’s spent on boosting attendance, working with parents, tackling illiteracy, 1:1 tutoring, ensuring fair access to trips and providing healthy food. But this recent DFE report tells us that, on average, schools spend their Pupil Premium funding on 18 separate interventions. I fear this indicates a lack of clarity and precision about the barriers our disadvantaged students face and how to remove them.
If only the difference between state schools and private schools was as simple as the quality of teaching, the facilities, or the after-school clubs. Peer effects are tougher to tackle, but exploring these peer effects, combined with a systematic and integrated approach to removing the barriers our poorer students face, might help us bridge the gap, or at least select the materials needed to build the bridge.