Learning gap begins in the home One

7th September 2007 at 01:00
One of the toughest challenges at the start of the school year is trying to memorise dozens of names and attach them to faces in the classroom. But one new name should be easy to remember this term: Ed Balls.

The Children, Schools and Families Secretary has already made a strong impression, and not just because he is a headline-writer's dream. This week he wrote a cheeky letter to headteachers telling them they must try harder. But has the new boy done his holiday reading?

Amid the papers on his desk should be a series of reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that provide a powerful insight into the gulf between the educational experiences of middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. Many of the findings may not surprise teachers. Middle-class pupils are usually supported by parents who make sure they do their homework and provide them with the privacy they need to work on their own. In contrast, many disadvantaged pupils struggle to find a quiet space away from the family TV.

Extended schools can help struggling families in many ways but will need greater resources and staffing if they are to offer the children of struggling families the facilities on offer in the average middle-class home. Ministers should also beware of the potentially negative effects that extending the school day can have on some children (see Donald Hirsch, right).

The Rowntree reports are a reminder to politicians that children spend only a fraction of their lives in schools. What teachers can achieve in the class is vastly affected for better or worse by family background and other social factors.

This is not an excuse for schools to give up or lower their sights; teachers have helped to transform the lives of pupils from the toughest of backgrounds. But politicians' expectations of schools need to be fair and grounded in reality.

The Rowntree conclusions may also seem obvious to teachers, if not ministers: schools need long-term solutions that address social differences, rather than endless volleys of unconnected, eye-grabbing initiatives that win publicity but are then quickly forgotten.

Mr Balls' admission to a lack of co-ordination in the past lends hope that the Children Plan that the Government is developing could be more than one of those gimmicks.

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