Efforts to help children on free school meals are being undermined by ministers' own reforms, according to the government’s pupil premium champion.
Sir John Dunford said policies including the downgrading of vocational qualifications, the English Baccalaureate accountability measure and counting only first exam entries in league tables were disproportionately affecting the most disadvantaged pupils.
Speaking at the Independent Academies Association’s autumn conference, Sir John said the pupil premium had provided a golden opportunity to close the gap between pupils on free school meals (FSM) and their more affluent peers.
The latest government figures show that 37.9 per cent of FSM pupils gained the equivalent of five or more A*-C GCSE grades, compared with 64.6 per cent of all other pupils.
But Sir John, the national pupil premium champion, said a number of changes were threatening to derail efforts to raise the achievement of FSM students.
“I do believe that there are some reforms that are making our task harder to raise achievement for disadvantaged youngsters and which will impact on our ability over the next couple of years to close the gap,” he said.
Among these were the downgrading of vocational qualifications, which were “so important for many of these youngsters", he said.
The emphasis on the EBac, which measures performance in selected academic subjects, also failed to recognise that the skills of some students may lie elsewhere, he added.
Sir John, a past general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, was particularly critical of the decision to count only the first exam entry in accountability measures.
Although he accepted that allowing multiple entries had been open to misuse, he said that effectively stopping them altogether had not been the best solution.
“I think that has been particularly damaging to the interests of disadvantaged kids, who did have some encouragement and some practice and some advice in taking the exam first and then again a second time,” he said. “If that is right for the children then you should be able to do it.”
The decoupling of AS and A-levels, which meant students had to look two years ahead instead of one, plus the abolition of the education maintenance allowance and cuts to the careers service, created a disincentive to stay on at 16 that was particularly acute for disadvantaged pupils, he added.
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