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Raise the underclass

Roy Blatchford says schools are crucibles which can melt down underachievement if the political will is there.

The long tail of underachievement continues to wag. The question is: does it wag hard enough to change the parts of our schooling system which urgently need it?

Various commentators suggest that up to l00,000 of our young people reach 16 without attaining levels that one should expect of an 11-year-old. In one urban local authority last year 41 per cent of its 11-year-olds had a reading age below nine.

The Office for Standards in Education's commissioned report Worlds Apart? offers depressing international comparisons, most notably highlighting the great disparity between our high and low achievers. In league table terms England has a greater proportion of low achieving pupils than our major international competitors.

Recent GCSE statistics confirm that 15 per cent of our students at 16 do not achieve at least grade G in English, and 17 per cent in mathematics, while 21 per cent fail to achieve at least a grade G in English, mathematics and science as a combination.

Last year's figures reveal that more than 46,000 16-year-olds reached the end of compulsory education without a GCSE grade. What 1996's analysis produces we await: have, as headlines claim, weaker pupils been "sacrificed in grades chase"?

Whatever the final verdict, there is no concealing the sense of abject failure, disillusion and rejection that thousands of 16-year-olds experience year on year.

Away from the headlines, the reality behind these figures have - in their hundreds of thousands across the 5-16 age range - returned to classrooms this month. For these destined not to trouble the GCSE points scorer, are we serving them at all?

Take first the home background of many children. A tour of many urban housing estates quickly uncovers a rotting social fabric which the comfortable majority would prefer not to acknowledge. A more searching analysis reveals the number of satellite dishes on the outsides of houses in inverse proportion to the numbers of books read inside them - an arresting Orwellian image that begins to explain much early-language deprivation.

Poverty of aspirations is endemic, notably among young males. According to last year's Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, these are part of the bottom 10 per cent of the population whose incomes have dropped by 17 per cent in the past decade, while the top 10 per cent have increased by a staggering 61 per cent.

It was JK Galbraith who first defined the culture of contentment of the majority of America's citizens. This is a society which leaves 37 million Americans unable to afford private health care. What characterises the culture of the contented majority is threefold: its affirmation that it is receiving its just deserts; its highly selective view of the role of the state (what President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher winningly called "getting government off the backs of the people"); and its tolerance of big differences in income and achievement.

Similar divisions are being played out this side of the Atlantic. Significantly, amid pre-election jousting we see our politicians deftly side-stepping the functional underclass. The unemployed and economically inactive - a segment of the 303040 society - described by Will Hutton, author of The State We're In - don't vote and therefore don't count. So why bother with them?

What characterises many of our urban and city-edge spaces is a cultural numbness. Blockbuster Video stores outnumber bookshops and libraries by the score. I recently visited a Midlands town serving more than 2,500 children aged 5-16 where the nearest bookshop is a John Menzies 13 miles away.

In another local authority, the director of education informed me that 45 per cent of children in the authority's schools currently come from homes where no adult is in paid employment. A recent skills audit of an ex-mining community revealed that 70 per cent of males over 44 had not worked for five years and saw little prospect of ever doing again. What kind of future does this present to their daughters and sons?

Many attempts are being made to revive the areas laid waste during the 1980s. But there is no mistaking the casual violence of life, housing, health and education in too many of these settings. To be on the wrong side of the tracks in say, Portsmouth, Leeds, Brighton, Oxford, Newcastle, or Plymouth is to be a largely forgotten voter.

In the 1970s when I was teaching near the Oval in south London a councillor friend suggested to me that the only way to improve the lot of local children was to suspend the not inconsiderable Inner London Education Authority budget for a year or two and reinvest it in housing.

His argument has stayed with me. It is a powerful reminder that the influence of the home is paramount, that the die is cast young, that the role of parents in the education of their children continues to be undervalued by our Lottery society.

As youngsters return to their schools in these areas what does the system offer them? More than 20 years teaching in inner-city and shire comprehensives persuades me that schools can and do make a difference. Where the cocktail of effective leadership, adequate resources and exciting teaching flows, schools flourish.

But schools can only do so much. There are increasing minorities within them who never really become part of the mainstream. To take two cases I've encountered so far this term: what does a primary school do with the nine out of 28 entering reception class who do not meet the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's desirable outcomes that "they write their names with appropriate use of upper and lower case letters" and "they recognise and use number to l0"? Or the secondary school which has identified that 72 of its 180 new entrants have a reading age more than two years below their chronological one?

The situation in which many of our schools increasingly find themselves demands more than mischevious radical thinking - a radicalism which politicians of all hues sadly dare not utter. Votes lie in the comfort zones.

With party manifestos on the horizon let me single out just four strands against which we might judge future political thinking.

Let us squarely recognise that the seeds of educational disaffection at 14-plus are sown in the experiences of early years. National and local government social policy needs to be shaped around motivating parents to value learning in the home.

Inadequate resources are an inescapable issue in the primary sector. Let every child entering reception class for whom English is a second language count double in local management funding. Such a system has operated successfully in Holland for many years. Allied to this, let government urge Private Finance Initiatives to fund after-school study support centres in all urban primary schools, in which effective family literacy and parenting classes can take place.

For many of our children - and their non-specialist teachers - aspects of both key stage 1 and key stage 2 curriculum should be suspended to allow a focus on language and number. So-called desirable outcomes need to be a solid reality before children can access much of the primary curriculum. It is a vanity to plan otherwise.

From the start of secondary school the culture of mediocrity among pupils has to be robustly countered by teachers. The peer group pressure to under-achieve must not be allowed to set the prevailing tone. Those pupils who begin to sink need well-resourced additional support and a modified curriculum offer, thoughtfully timetabled. The fundamentals of key stage 3 are sound. Equally, let us take an honest look at what many pupils gain from, for example, a compulsory modern foreign language.

We can no longer pretend that the comprehensive enables all students to realise potential. Our European neighbours and the Asian tigers whom politicians engagingly cite have long recognised the need for alternative structures. Vocational colleges need to be introduced for upwards of 20 per cent of 14-plus students; these to include block release for paid employment. only that way will ambitions for general national vocational qualifications and national training and education targets be realised.

Hundreds of thousands of our pupils succeed. We should acknowledge and celebrate that, especially in the face of seasonal and hasty calls for root and branch change. Many do not. Current structures and curriculum serve only to reject them. Their future years in classrooms start today; their failing experience of schooling will shape society's values and achievements into the 21st century.

We are - in some urban contexts - just one beat ahead of social breakdown: take a glance at the wrong side of the tracks in Washington DC, Orlando or Milwaukee. Schools are vital crucibles which can make a difference, but only if the reforming political will to listen to the unspoken voice of the underclass is forthcoming.

Roy Blatchford is UK director of Reading Is Fundamental. He is a member of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

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