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Deprivation cannot be overcome by schools alone

You wouldn’t blame a doctor for lower life expectancy in poorer areas, so why are teachers in the same areas pilloried for their schools’ exam results, asks the Tes editor

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There are some shocking disparities in life expectancy in this country.

In Morecambe Bay, levels of social deprivation mean that many people die 15 years earlier than those just six miles away.

Down the coast in Blackpool, life expectancy for a male born there is 74.2, the lowest in the country (see pages 44-51).

The second lowest is over the other side of the country in Middlesbrough. When, not long ago, a TV news camera crew was dispatched to the town to investigate, they spoke to a local GP.

He was portrayed as a hero of his community and explained the many and varied socioeconomic headwinds the NHS battled in the area. At no point did anyone ask accusingly: “Why do so many of your patients die so young?”

And yet the deprivation the GP is battling is exactly the same deprivation that the headteachers in the area are battling.

But they don’t get the same treatment. Nowhere close. In fact, when Teesside comes near the bottom of the education league tables, fingers are pointed and the local regional schools commissioner targets schools deemed to be failing and forces them to become academies. Anyone who suggests that schools and teachers are operating in almost impossible circumstances will be accused of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

So why this disparity?

One reason is that the NHS is a much-cherished national institution and therefore virtually untouchable. And its doctors, bolstered by a strong professional body, have the confidence and sense of authority to dictate their narrative.

The other is that the entire accountability system is set up to damn schools in these areas. Even Progress 8, which was designed explicitly to overcome some of this, is flawed; in fact, it possibly makes things even worse.

That is not to say that we should not want the best from schools and students. There is nothing worse for teachers than being told, “What do you expect from children like these?” However, it is equally frustrating when chief inspector Amanda Spielman says she will make “no apology” for not giving schools in deprived areas “an easier judgement”. Her reasoning is that “the moment we allow for a different quality of education based on demographics is the moment we concede defeat in the battle for equality of opportunity”.

But many schools are giving their students equality of educational opportunity. What they cannot give them, though, is equality of opportunity in accessing food, health services and a stable, supportive home environment. Without these, how can we expect them to take advantage of their educational opportunity?

No doubt, the chief inspector would point out that all this is one of the main reasons for the planned reforms to school inspection this summer – nevertheless, history tells us to be cynical about whether inspectors will be able to decouple P8 scores and Ofsted outcomes.

Schools in disadvantaged areas work desperately hard to close the gap, “but it’s not a one-off gap,” as Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher of Morecambe Bay Primary School, pointed out recently. “It’s a daily gap that drags on for too many children and families. Preventing this gap from growing any bigger takes a Herculean effort.”

If we’re asking for that sort of effort, the least we could do from within the education sector is to acknowledge and support the people who are courageously battling the odds. They are our heroes. Only when we’ve done that can we expect others on the outside to do the same.


This article originally appeared in the 15 March 2019 issue under the headline “Some bumpy roads can’t be smoothed by a level playing field”