What strikes me – reading this humane, raw account of a week in the life of Pinder Street Primary – is the dedication the teachers have to the lives of their pupils. There is an evident and deep understanding of the clear link between children’s education prospects and their family circumstances.
The scale of deprivation that Pinder Street faces is certainly not isolated: one in 10 primaries in England has a majority of pupils eligible for free school meals. These schools are not limited to specific regions – they’re in urban areas, rural areas and coastal areas. Certainly, I recognise many of the Pinder Street situations from my three decades working in education in East London.
The question of how much these schools should be doing to support the communities and families they serve is complicated. While the primary objective of every school has to be to improve learning for all its pupils, doing so is so often linked to alleviating some of the side-effects of poverty. For the child unable to concentrate because they’ve come to school hungry, a breakfast club could make all the difference. For the pupil whose parents don’t have access to a washing machine, clean uniform could help.
But we know that school funding is only going to get tighter in the years ahead. At the same time, the expectation on schools to demonstrate continual improvement, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, is growing. It’s a familiar challenge in the public sector: how to do more with less.
Or, as Pinder Street head of school Helena Neville puts it: “We have to decide where our priorities lie.”
This is where evidence can help. We need to know what has worked in the past to decide what is most likely to work in the future – whether it’s behaviour management, parental engagement or catch-up classes for struggling pupils. We need more collaboration, too. While each school is unique, there are more similarities than there are differences.
The causes of the link between educational attainment and family income are complex, and finding solutions should certainly not be solely a teacher’s burden.
While schools like Pinder Street Primary have to deal with the many problems that economic disadvantage creates, I do believe that evidence-based education is our greatest hope of breaking the shameful cycle of intergenerational poverty.
Sir Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation