A tale of two boys barred by their poverty

25th January 2008 at 00:00
I love browsing in the logbook of Kingsbridge Grammar, which is what my school used to be called. The beautiful copperplate handwriting smells of a more leisured age, when heads had time to record and reflect. On January 25 1908, we learn that: "The drill lesson in Form 4 has been changed with composition as the field is not in a fit state for the children." Then in the same paragraph, with no more prominence: "Norman Ball, who has been ill for several days, died this morning from bronchitis."

On February 19 is this entry: "Two of my best and cleverest boys, Frank Elliott and Hartley Prowse, left today, being 14 years of age. Both boys are inmates of the workhouse and consequently are sent to farms to work. I have endeavoured to interest some of the wealthier people in Elliott, who is a particularly talented boy, but without success. It seems a pity that the child has no chance of taking a position for which his abilities fit him."

How do I feel on reading that? A sense of admiration for the compassionate headmaster who knew his boys and tried to do his best for them. And come on, admit it, a sense of smugness that we have much better social justice now: comprehensive schools open to all on an equal basis, schooling to 16 and soon to 18, and even education maintenance allowance payments to support those who might not otherwise be able to stay on.

But the smugness is shattered by the headline in The Times of December 13 last year: "Brightest poor children do worse than duller, wealthier classmates." A Sutton Trust report showed that social mobility has not increased during the past 30 years, and that, whereas half of young people from the highest-earning households took a degree in 2002, only 10 per cent of those with the least affluent parents did so.

An Ofsted report showed that in 2005, in the 10 per cent most deprived areas 28 per cent of children gained five A-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, whereas in the richest 10 per cent, the figure rose to 56 per cent. The percentage of children in care in Devon who achieved five good grades last year was just 13 per cent - against an overall figure for the county of 58 per cent.

Government knows there is a problem. Academies are the latest attempt to bring good, well-resourced schools to the toughest as well as the leafiest boroughs. The new progress measures - looking for two levels of improvement between key stages - also focus on all pupils rather than just those needed to hit percentage targets. Finally, a lot is at stake for the new diplomas in engaging and offering success to those turned off by GCSEs and A-levels.

Will it all work? If only politicians would stop being political and shout their educational principles out loud. I know of one academy that draws from 125 primary schools across the city. It supposedly recruits by a balanced profile of ability, and interviews children to help achieve this. We know what kind of parents have the gumption to put their child's name forward and succeed at interview, so why is an academy allowed to do this? It is cowardly of ministers to allow diplomas to live or die in competition with other qualifications if they are a key ingredient in tackling inequality. If they are important, say so and beat off the political flak; if they are not, say so now and save us all a lot of time.

After a century of massive investment in schools, a huge increase in understanding about learning and a grasping of the importance of education by politicians, would Frank Elliott and Hartley Prowse be any better off today? I'm not so sure.

Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon.

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