A 'once in a lifetime opportunity' for Wales
It is a perennial problem for educational policymakers: how to break the stubborn link between poverty and low academic attainment.
Since devolution, various strategies and extra funding have made little difference to the situation in Wales. But a major report by charity Save the Children says that the country has a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to tackle the issue.
Last week, the Welsh government announced details of how its pupil deprivation grant will be doled out to schools. A total of #163;97 million is to be distributed to the poorest pupils over the next three years. Widely seen as the Welsh equivalent of England's pupil premium, in 2012-13 it works out at an extra #163;450 for each pupil on free school meals, compared to #163;600 in England.
Save the Children said that the extra cash must have a "laser-like focus" on tackling the attainment gap. "This money provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to break the link between poverty and struggling at school and we need to grasp it," said James Pritchard, the charity's head in Wales.
Save the Children's report, by former government adviser David Egan, calls on ministers to provide clear guidance for schools on how best to use the funding and for Estyn and the Wales Audit Office on how to monitor the situation. It says schools should have strategic plans to show how they will use the money and evaluate its impact.
It also follows a renewed focus on social mobility by the Westminster government, with deputy prime minister Nick Clegg calling for schools to be held to account over how they spend pupil premium money.
Professor Egan said solutions could be found through approaches that unite schools, parents and communities. "Our most skilled teachers achieve miracles," he said. "We need to take the growing knowledge about what they are so accomplished at and bring that to the rest of the teaching profession.
"But they can't make the difference on their own. Parental and family engagement, particularly with the hardest to reach families, has to be a critical part."
Mr Pritchard said the task did not have to be onerous for schools. "It's a message that needs to be communicated as an opportunity rather than a threat," he said. "If you are a hard-working headteacher ... then piling on top of that lots of expectations of being this all-singing, all-dancing figure in the community can be a lot to ask, but it can make a difference."
Anna Brychan, director of heads' union NAHT Cymru, welcomed the report, but warned that the pupil deprivation grant would be put to best use only if there was limited interference from local government. "We want heads to be able to use their professional judgement in how best to achieve the goals in their schools. We don't want that clouded by different interpretations on a local authority level," she said.
Previous efforts to bridge the performance gap have made little difference. Between 2006 and 2009, the #163;40 million Raise programme targeted about 20,000 children living in poverty in Wales. But an evaluation of the project's first three years, published last month, found that although Raise had a number of positive effects, many schools chose to target underachievement rather than disadvantage. The attainment gap between free school meal pupils and their counterparts narrowed at key stages 1 and 2, but widened at key stages 3 and 4.
The Welsh government said that reducing the impact of poverty on attainment was a key priority and the pupil deprivation grant would provide "significant financial assistance" to help achieve this. "We will continue to encourage schools to work collaboratively to ensure this grant makes a real difference to the life chances of those who need extra support," a spokesperson said.
BREAKING THE LINK
A strong link between poverty and low achievement exists in Wales.
Research by Save the Children found that, by the age of 3, the achievement of children from disadvantaged backgrounds can already be up to a year behind that of their peers from more privileged families.
By the age of 15, children living in poverty are two and a half times less likely than children from relatively affluent homes to achieve a good GCSE outcome.