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Poverty is an excuse

Schools doing badly in deprived areas only have themselves to blame, say ministers. After all, they point out, there are others facing 'similar'

challenges that do well. But are there? Karen Gold investigates

Give me a school full of Asian girls, and I too will give you the stars. So said one frustrated and disconsolate head in response to the Government's suggestion that his school was underperforming.

Its evidence? A similarly deprived school in another part of town was doing much better. If they can do it, goes the message, then so can you.

But was this comparing like with like? Does an intake of deprived Asian girls present the same challenges as an intake of, say, deprived white boys?

The Government's claim that there are dramatic differences in performance between schools facing similar levels of deprivation is often repeated - and with good reason. If it is true, then poverty cannot be an excuse for failure. All a school needs to do is emulate the methods of its more successful identical twins and it will get the same excellent results.

But is it true that the performance of deprived schools varies hugely? The Government seems unwilling to provide the evidence. Neither the Department for Education and Skills, nor Ofsted, will make public the relevant figures (see box, right). Researchers and opposition politicians have tried to persuade them to do so, largely without success.

So The TES decided to commission its own survey, comparing the performance (measured by GCSE grades) of deprived schools (with deprivation measured by free school meals).

If the Government's argument is right, schools with similar deprivation levels are performing variably. So if their performance were plotted on a graph, it would show a wide scattering of GCSE scores.

We produced that kind of graph for 44 schools selected from the 100 most deprived wards in the country. We concentrated on the schools with more than 45 per cent of pupils on free meals. Although that graph does show quite a gap between the best and worst performers, most are not scattered but clustered in the middle.

And a closer examination shows that schools doing well - those on the right of the graph - are not so similar to the others after all.

Our "best" performer, way out in front, is Notre Dame Catholic college in Liverpool an all-girls Catholic school, that admits on the basis of church attendance and religious commitment.

Of the next four top performers, one is another church school Sparkbrook Holy Trinity in Birmingham, and two select pupils, albeit in a banded intake to ensure a spread of ability (Bethnal Green technology college and George Green school, both in Tower Hamlets).

Aston Manor technology college in Birmingham, is the only high performer that does not either choose its children or have an unusual intake.

Of the next five high performers, three are religious, one selects in bands and one (the Grange, Oldham) has 98 per cent Asian pupils - mainly Bangladeshi. Nationally Bangladeshi students are fast-improving. Head Colin Bell praises the community's commitment to education and the quality of his teaching staff.

So the top-performing quarter of our deprived schools mostly have some special intake advantage. Below them are the "ordinary" comprehensives, whose performance does not vary much at all. Almost all see 15 to 25 per cent of pupils get five Cs or better at GCSEs. To do as well as the high-performers, they would have to change their intakes to start with the same raw materials.

And that does happen in some schools. When head Bill Jordan took over Dyke House in Hartlepool in 1993, the 1,100-pupil school was half-full, with poor GCSE results. Last year it was oversubscribed, with 38 per cent getting five good GCSEs. The hard work of teachers has driven improvement, says the head, but a change of "clientele" certainly helps. Although 39 per cent of pupils are still on free meals, there has been a change of atmosphere. "We got back the children who were going elsewhere," said Mr Jordan. With those children came more motivation, and better results.

At Aston Manor, our outstanding local-authority school, head David Walters has seen the GCSE score rise from 23 per cent in 1999 to 41 per cent last year. Mr Walters puts this down to dedicated teachers but acknowledges the help of extra cash that comes with specialist status: "We don't accept underperformance from any child. But the money does make a difference, and we've also had some luck."

He does not agree that schools can overcome all obstacles. "I am not prepared to go along with the Government's line of saying everyone can do what we do. I think sometimes circumstances can overcome a school."

That is not a view shared by all our high-performing schools. Walker technology college in Newcastle, where 43 per cent of pupils are on free meals, has seen the proportion getting five A*-C GCSEs jump from 19 to 42 per cent between 1999 and 2002. In 1990 the figure was just 1 per cent, which head Dr Tony Broady acknowledges was unacceptable. "At the end of the day the truth of the matter was that we were failing. I think the DfES is 100 per cent correct; I think we are all still underachieving," says Dr Broady.

But academics back the idea that intake limits what schools can achieve. Dr Ruth Lupton of the London School of Economics, analysed Ofsted inspection of teaching in similarly deprived schools, and concluded that the nature of the pupils was the key differentiating factor. To improve a school, she argued, pupils need to change rather than the teaching.

Dr Peter Robinson, of the Institute of Public Policy Research, directly contradicts the Government's key belief: where schools are genuinely identical, he says, they will not perform very differently:

"You probably end up with 10 per cent at the bottom, 10 per cent at the top and 80 per cent in the middle. The notion that it's straightforward to identify (a) a good school and a bad school, or (b) what it is about a good school that a bad school could copy to close the gap is a very simplistic approach to the issue."

Research by Rob Boyland


The TES investigated secondaries in the 100 most deprived electoral wards in England, a total of 44 schools.

We asked each for pupil numbers, status (local education authority, church aided, specialist etc), whether they were single sex, whether 11-16 or 11-18, and their intake policy (including any religious criteria). We looked at the percentages of pupils getting five Cs or better at GCSE in 2002, and the percentages eligible for free school meals.

Plotting free meals against GCSE results on a graph, we found that the vast majority of schools with high levels of free meals (above 45 per cent), and purely catchment-based intakes, have GCSE results clustered together. Once schools approach 50 per cent free meals, their performance appears to hit a floor, even those with 80 per cent free meals perform roughly as well.

GCSE scores only really start to rise once the proportion of free meals falls to 30-40 per cent. This is consistent with the "peer group effect" researchers have identified, which says that to improve, schools need a critical mass of less deprived students.

A few schools are performing worse than this cluster and a few are performing better. Church schools, where parents have to provide references etc, have higher GCSE results than those where they do not.

The research also suggests that church schools in very deprived wards may become "ghettos of affluence" (see story, opposite). There is a cluster of church schools in deprived wards with surprisingly few eligible for free meals.

Of the three best performers, one is a school dominated by English-speaking Asian pupils, another is a girls' faith school, and the third is a comprehensive technology college.

Specialist schools tend to have fewer pupils eligible for free meals. The presence of a sixth form seems unconnected with high or low performance.


"Poverty is no excuse for failure. We have many examples of teachers, pupils and schools who are succeeding against the odds in deprived rural and urban areas." - David Blunkett, 1997 "There are schools which have done particularly well in the most unpromising of circumstances and their example offers genuine hope to others" - chief inspector's annual report 20012, Feb 2003 "The evidence is clear...that schools serving similar types of pupils achieve dramatically different results" - David Miliband, school standards minister, Jan 2003


There is only one reliable way to test the claim that schools in identical circumstances perform differently. This is to look at the results of all schools with identical proportions receiving free meals.

The TES asked the Department for Education and Skills, and Ofsted to supply a list of schools with the highest free-meal percentages in the country.

Both refused. Ofsted said its report, "Improving city schools" (2000) picks out high-performers with a free-meal proportion of 35 per cent or more. But it treats schools at 36 per cent as identical to those at 85 per cent. It also does not identify the type of school.

Following a question in Parliament by Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis, which officials initially tried to rule unacceptable, the DfES admitted it had given the data to some researchers but still refused to put the figures before Parliament.

Mr Willis said:"How can anyone check the information needed to compare schools in similar circumstances, if this information is not made available? It is contained in individual Ofsted reports, so there can't be a defence of confidentiality. This is simply obfuscation." Last month he again asked the DfES for the figures. It has not yet replied.

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