Editorial - When tradition is a potent force for progress

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Disadvantaged kids learn best in structured environments - the evidence is inescapable

Six years. That is the age at which poor, bright children are overtaken by less able but richer kids. At that age, the vocabulary and sentence construction of disadvantaged infants starts to fall behind that of their well-off peers. By the age of six, innate cleverness is trumped by wealth.

Faced with such a daunting disadvantage, what can schools in deprived areas do to redress the balance? The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in America has provided a series of simple answers - extend the school day, employ committed staff, impose calmness and discipline, test, drive home relentlessly the positive message that pupils can and will succeed (pages 24-25). As a result, although four-fifths of KIPP pupils are from low-income households and 90 per cent are from ethnic minorities, 85 per cent go to university compared with 20 per cent of low-income pupils nationally.

Set against the numbers of disadvantaged pupils at Oxford University winkled out of the Government by the Tories (page 5), that record looks particularly impressive. But KIPP's methods and the challenges it faces are not unknown to schools here.

This week a Sutton Trust report explored the gap in educational achievement between pupils from poor and middle-income families. It found that children from poor families without access to the internet, libraries or books are educational laggards (page 6). Unsurprisingly, they do particularly badly if their parents not only lack income but also the emotional resources to cope with life, let alone their kids. They perform a lot better if their parents do the things most well-off parents do - regular reading, trips to the library, set bed times, etc. Simple, effective parenting techniques.

In this country we debate endlessly and inconclusively what should or should not be in the curriculum: should it be narrowly academic or broadly stimulating; should pupils be rigorously tested or meander meaningfully; should teachers impart knowledge or skills? In reality there is plenty of overlap between ostensibly competing positions. Is putting on a play a demonstration of knowledge or a skill? If a child is inspired by dance or the workings of the internal combustion engine rather than Darwin or Descartes does it matter as long as their imagination is fired? Is Shakespeare any less valuable if he is taught with a nod to the street; if school, in KIPP's words, becomes cool?

What is often missing from these debates is a realisation that children who lack structure in their lives cannot learn. Consequently, the most successful schools in challenging areas rightly expend a lot of energy building that structure. They oblige pupils to stand when a teacher enters a class, enforce uniform policies, ban running in corridors, establish competitive house systems, internal league tables and setting. They use simple, practical steps to instil order and ambition that can be absent at home.

Some may find that draconian and a bit too traditional. But the results speak for themselves and the conclusion is inescapable: poor kids cannot afford a non-traditional education.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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