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A feeble army with right on its side

I was struck by a recent headline in the Daily Telegraph: "Pupils in affluent state schools do better in exams." What a sensational discovery!

The article goes on to report that "children in comprehensives where less than 5 per cent of pupils are entitled to free school meals attained an average of eight grade Cs" at GCSE". By contrast, "those where more than 40 per cent qualify for free meals attained an average of seven grade Es". The statistics relating to schools where 60 per cent or more qualify for free meals (the situation in most of my own authority's schools) are not included.

Telegraph readers are apparently only now being presented with evidence that there is a relationship between poverty and low academic achievement. That there is such a link in all advanced economies is incontrovertible from the evidence. The link is, however, interpreted in very different ways. Let me identify and characterise (or, perhaps, caricature) four different interpretations.

The first is a thesis advanced powerfully by, among others, certain Conservative ministers over the past 15 years, some black activists, and the popular right-wing press. It goes something like this: "Low expectations have blighted the education of children from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds for the past 30 years. These children are just as capable as any others of high academic achievement if only they are exposed to rigorous traditional methods of teaching and discipline. It is the trendy "progressive" left-wing teachers who have let them down. Government policy should concentrate on putting these teachers under pressure by exposing the poor results they are achieving. "

The second interpretation is espoused by more old-fashioned Tories, unpolitical do-gooders, and (probably) the majority of the population over 50: "Of course children from poor families can't be expected to do as well as others. Their background is against them. We should pick out and back the odd high-flyer, and then do our best to make the education of the rest a happy experience and to support the public-spirited people who want to work in these schools. " The third interpretation is that favoured by some union activists and academic sociologists: "Social conditions are responsible for all differences in performance. Only by tackling social inequalities can educational inequalities be addressed. School by school comparisons of results are meaningless until this issue is addressed. " And the fourth interpretation is: "Social conditions are responsible for much of the difference in performance between schools. But the quality of teaching and the ethos of the school are also responsible for part of the difference. If we can identify and compare the achievements of schools where the social circumstances of the pupils are similar, we may be able to spread the good practice of the best to other comparable schools. "

Set out this way, it is interesting to observe that the first and last interpretations, advanced from opposing political positions, have far more in common with each other than with the other two.

I have to come clean - not that it will be any surprise to most readers - and say that I belong to this fourth school of interpretation, and here I join forces with a respectable bunch of academics, the international school effectiveness movement, and the local education authority associations. Alas! Compared to the forces marshalled behind each of the other three interpretations, this is a feeble army. What can we do to make this fourth (and, I am convinced, correct) interpretation a genuine consensus?

The performance of the Department for Education in this respect has been lamentable. While paying lip-service to the idea of developing "value-added" measures at some unspecified date in the future, the Department has given no convincing messages that this is anything other than a diplomatic sop. None of the important research into the relationship between academic performance and poverty has been commissioned or supported by the DFE. By comparison, the Home Office has researched extensively the relationship between crime and poverty - even though not all of this research has been acted on. Indeed the DFE appears to be blithely ignorant of much of the work that is being carried out in this field.

For instance, the Office for Standards in Education (quoted constantly by ministers as "the independent inspectorate") commissioned a research study on "Developing measures to put schools performance in context" from London University's Institute of Education.

This study, published in August 1994, has recommended a practical model which could be put into operation very quickly, using data which is already collected and available, to set results within their social context.

The research data has been widely available and discussed in education circles. over the past three months. Yet the DFE appears not even to know that this important study has taken place.

Why do I get so worked up about all of this? I know the accusation that will be levelled. (Well, Tower Hamlets is down near the bottom of the league tables, she has to defend their position, make all the excuses based on inner-city deprivation, etc, etc.) But that is not the situation. My authority, like many other inner-city authorities, is not interested in the culture of excuses. We fundamentally disagree with the proponents of both interpretation 2 and interpretation 3. Where the patronising traditionalists and the aggressive social determinists join hands, we protest. We do not take as given that most inner-city children will fail.

But we do need to keep faith with those teachers and schools that are succeeding against the odds, and we do need to help that group to grow. The proponents of interpretation 1 constantly put that aspiration in jeopardy.

One piece of research that has not been undertaken is into the effect of negative press coverage on the recruitment of teachers. But it is common sense to guess that teachers who want successful careers will try to avoid teaching in schools which run the risk of being called "dunces" in the local newspaper.

The OFSTED framework is intended to guard against such crude assessments by requiring inspectors to assess both absolute standards being achieved, and the achievements of the children in relation to their capabilities. But how on Earth, we must ask ourselves, can the latter be judged without far more data than is currently available?

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