It's no time to give up on the underperformers

6th February 2009 at 00:00

Our country has been scarred for decades by a persistent link between poverty and educational attainment. On this, I agree with Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. She wrote in The TES a fortnight ago that schools in socially deprived areas face bigger challenges. And she is right: young people from the lowest-income families are half as likely to get five good GCSEs as those from the average family.

I am proud we've seen the biggest fall in child poverty of any European country in the past decade and that we are now passing a law to end child poverty by 2020. But there is still a long way to go.

I applaud the work done by many staff in some of the most deprived areas. They often face extra barriers to help children achieve: low aspirations, children arriving at school without having had a decent breakfast or a large proportion of pupils with special needs.

We should celebrate the success of many schools in our poorest communities. And I believe the new School Report Card will shine the spotlight on schools that do a great job in tough circumstances in a way that school league tables cannot.

But I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers and heads who reject the idea that poverty is an excuse for low attainment. Nothing is more frustrating than hearing people say: "What do you expect from kids round here? This is the best they will ever do." Or, "University just isn't for people like them."

Yes, it's tough - but we should never give up on a child because of their background. Despite an uphill struggle, they believe that with the right support, these children can still get good qualifications and succeed. Most importantly, they refuse to make excuses for underperformance.

And they're right. Over the past 10 years, heads, teachers, parents and pupils have worked hard to narrow the gap between the least and most deprived communities. And the evidence shows it's working.

While results have been going up overall, it's great to see results among schools taking children from poorer families have been rising fastest of all.

Eight of the 20 local areas with the biggest rise in results over the past decade are also in the most deprived 10 per cent of local authorities. All but one of the most deprived local authorities have seen an above-average increase in their attainment.

Since 1999, schools with the highest levels of pupils receiving free school meals have seen the biggest rise in the proportion of pupils achieving five top grades at GCSE.

Look at schools like Morpeth Secondary in Tower Hamlets, which has seen a huge jump in its results over the past 12 years. Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, but is also among those that have achieved the biggest increases in results in the past decade.

Part of this success is due to great school leadership and inspirational teaching. The extra investment we have put in over the past 10 years has helped pay for a big rise in the number of teachers and support staff.

I also believe our investment in Sure Start and early years is starting to work.

Our academies programme is helping to break the link between income and attainment. Based disproportionately in disadvantaged areas, and with a high intake of pupils from low-income families, academies are outperforming their predecessor schools and improving faster than the national average. They are also transforming life chances.

But too many young people are still not getting the fair chance they should to fulfil their potential. That is why we set our National Challenge objective and pledged to lift every school above our target of at least 30 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, including in the critical subjects of English and maths.

In 1997, more than half of our schools were below this benchmark - more than 1,600. Today, that number is down to just 440 - one in seven schools. And we want to get it down to zero by 2011.

We're putting in extra investment and making more support and advice available, and we won't be afraid to put in new leadership where it is needed. Heads in National Challenge schools that have good or outstanding leadership can now offer a Pounds 10,000 "golden handcuff" to recruit and retain the best teachers. And all National Challenge schools will be able to offer the new masters qualification for all newly qualified teachers from September this year.

I don't underestimate the challenges of teaching in a deprived community. But having met so many brilliant heads, teachers and young people in fast- improving schools over the past 18 months - including in National Challenge schools - I am more determined than ever to make sure we do whatever it takes to help all children achieve their potential.

I'm certainly not prepared to throw in the towel by giving up on any child.

Agree? Disagree? Send your response to:

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.

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