High achievement in school should not hinge on family background or a hefty bank balance

29th July 2011 at 01:00

Last year's Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report Going for Growth concluded that the UK has a lower level of social mobility than almost all other developed countries. Here, 50 per cent of the economic advantage of high-earning fathers is passed on to their sons. By contrast, that figure is less than 20 per cent in Australia, Canada and the Nordic countries.

This situation is immoral and inefficient. Immoral because there is a wealth of data that shows how educational disadvantage extends throughout a child's life not just in terms of lower earnings, but also poor health, crime and unhappiness. Low levels of social mobility compound this disadvantage into a vicious cycle of intergenerational underachievement. And that is inefficient: achieving an equivalent level of social mobility to Finland could add #163;6 billion to our annual GDP. Indeed, in looking at a similar situation in the United States, McKinsey claimed that socio-economic achievement gaps "impose ... the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

At Future Leaders, our mission is to close those achievement gaps so that a child's family background is no longer the main determinant of their success at school.

That mission will not be achieved by the sort of incremental improvements in GCSE results that we have seen in recent years. Education secretary Michael Gove is raising the bar with new floor targets, but a few percentage points will not raise the UK to the level of the best international performers or reduce our degree of social inequity.

And while progress measures can be useful in assessing a school's effectiveness in relation to its intake, they legitimise underperformance, rather than closing the gap. Indeed, the old contextual value added measure was based on an expectation that children from certain ethnic and socio-economic groups would make less progress during their time in school and therefore fall further behind.

We need a system that prepares all school leavers for the world of global competition they will face. We must set high, fixed standards that we expect all children to attain and then work back to determine what rate of progress will be needed to get them there. On average, a child whose parental earnings are in the bottom 20 per cent will enter primary school 15 months behind their more affluent peers. That child needs to make more progress each year to reach the same point.

Our key concepts, 'Every Child. High Expectations. No Excuses', are not ones with which anyone disagrees. The challenge is to live by them every day - never to condemn a child to failure because of their estate, siblings or situation. We must believe that every child can achieve the level of academic success required to open opportunities for further or higher education.

This is not as naive as it sounds: high expectations matter. Research by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, shows that academic self-concept has a significant and lasting impact on attainment. In short, a child's belief in their own success - and an awareness that that success is based on effort and learning from mistakes, rather than inherent ability - becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Of course, high expectations alone will not close the achievement gap. They are an essential prerequisite, but they must be supported by a huge amount of commitment and work on the part of teachers and parents. Ensuring that children with low prior attainment and significant barriers to learning make more progress than their peers is time-consuming and difficult. But it can be done.

Schools that close the achievement gap have these features in common:

- They are built on high expectations - both for academic success and behaviour that supports learning.

- They create a clear set of values and norms which every member of the school community must espouse and uphold.

- They maximise the use of teaching time. Valuable time can be reclaimed by cutting out the minutes that are wasted through low-level disruption and poor lesson transitions.

- They focus on the basics. Children need a firm foundation in literacy and numeracy in order to be able to access the wider curriculum.

- They achieve high levels of consistency: their pedagogy, classroom routines and behaviour policies are apparent throughout the school, maintained by all staff and supported by monitoring, performance management and staff development.

- They reward effort as well as achievement. Resilience is developed and celebrated.

- They systematically cultivate aspiration through the use of visits and role models so that all children are able to explore the possibilities available to them.

This is not rocket science and it is not just about resources. It is about the slog of consistent implementation and the relentless clarity of effective leadership backed by an unshakeable moral purpose.

What often looks from the outside like transformation is actually the moment when a school reaches what US journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell defines as the "tipping point" - a series of small, incremental improvements that add up to a seismic shift in culture.

We won't close the achievement gap overnight. But surely 100 per cent must be our aspiration? We must strive for a school system where no child is left behind.

In the 19th century, it was considered by many to be futile to educate girls. According to philosopher Friedrich Hegel, "their minds are not adapted to the higher science, philosophy, or certain of the arts". These sentiments are appalling in 2011.

I hope that future generations will be equally appalled when they look back on our current era where educational opportunity in the UK is rationed not by gender but by social class.

Heath Monk is chief executive of Future Leaders, a charity aimed at transforming outstanding current or former teachers into inspirational leaders for challenging schools. www.future-leaders.org.uk.

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