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Cutting the ties that hinder

UNDERACHIEVEMENT IN SCHOOLS. By Anne West and Hazel Pennell. RoutledgeFalmer pound;18.99.

Here's a thorough and scholarly analysis of a subject that still doesn't quite occupy our minds and actions as it should. It's too easy for schools and local authorities to encourage us to focus on the apparently inexorable rise in attainment scores in tests and exams and ignore the substantial number of pupils left increasingly adrift from the achievers we celebrate.

These youngsters are often concentrated in relatively few schools, and we ought to do better by them. This book will help us.

The authors painstakingly define and explore what we know about the impact of various factors on achievement levels. So there's a chapter on social background, another on gender and a third on ethnicity. Here, too, you will find evidence on the conundrum of the relative underachievement of the summer-born child, the impact of pupil mobility, of having special educational needs and of being a child in care. The authors also explore the impact of the peer group and the parents. Finally, they examine pupil and school-related factors such as truancy and permanent and fixed-term exclusions as well as wider geographical effects. So the book's treatment is comprehensive.

Data is used to illustrate and support argument, although always with a disciplined eye on the limitations of the evidence and the complicated interaction of the various factors that may cause disadvantage. One of the conclusions (drawn from fascinating case studies of schools achieving comparative and comparable success but by very different methods) is that real success comes from a focus on all pupils, not narrowly on those likely to achieve five or more A*-C GCSEs.

The authors make a timely plea, too, for changes in admission criteria and practices and in other government-induced distortions. The idea I found most appealing was a demand for focus on some minimum levels of competence in ICT, literacy and numeracy for all school leavers. But I liked many others, including the plea for differential secondary funding according to the entry level of pupils.

This is a book for all policy-makers, heads and teachers wanting to make a dent in the cycle of disadvantage.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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