Mr Balls, throw away your big stick

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
He attacked the excuses culture, but it's not an excuse to say that schools in socially deprived areas face bigger challenges

It's the time of year again for the ritual, and public, humiliation of schools unfortunate enough to be sited in deprived areas. League tables demean these schools, everyone who works in them and, most shamingly, the pupils, who believe they belong at the bottom of the pile because their school is bottom of the table.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, last week attacked the "excuses culture" in education, claiming that any teacher who said deprivation was a reason for their schools' poor exam results was badly letting down their pupils. But league table positions are still little more than indicators of how many well-off children attend.

One of Mr Balls' predecessors, David Blunkett (who vies with John Patten as the worst-ever education secretary), preached that children in inner-city schools failed because their teachers had low expectations. If there was ever a case for a minister, particularly of education, to do his homework, that was it. The case is clear; the research has been done. Children in poor, inner-city areas do not fail because of the school they go to, but because of their social class.

By the age of three, poor children have heard 1 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts. By seven, bright, working-class children are performing at the same level as average middle-class pupils. By 11, they will have fallen behind, and will never catch up.

One salient fact has remained constant for the past 50 years. Social class has 10 times more effect on educational performance than any other factor, including race and gender.

Schools do what they can to counter the impact of deprivation and social exclusion. Staff wrestle daily with the problems poverty brings. They care for children scarred by family breakdown, poor parenting, material and emotional poverty and neglect.

In addition to the enormous pressures all school staff face, those working in deprived areas double up as social workers, counsellors and child advocates. This is their everyday reality, and it is exhausting.

These staff need performance league tables like they need a good ear-bashing (if they haven't already had one from the army of advisers and inspectors who turn up, destroy their confidence and morale, tell them to do things differently, and then disappear, leaving them bruised and battered to carry on teaching).

Regrettably, this Government speaks with a forked tongue. It exhorts schools to work in partnership and encourages small schools to federate so that they can share resources and provide a broad and balanced curriculum for their pupils. Schools are asked to co-operate within their local area to provide a full range of extended services to help and support all families, particularly those who are vulnerable, and partnerships are formed to deliver 14-19 diplomas.

Schools want to collaborate and work in partnership, but behind the goodwill and collaboration remains the spectre of competition. Schools fear that if they federate with a school in a poorer part of town, or become part of a consortium delivering diplomas with a school that has a challenging pupil intake, then their exam results will suffer and they will plummet in the performance tables.

And because funding depends on pupil numbers, and pupil numbers depend on results, too many schools find themselves playing at partnership, doing just enough to get funding for partnership initiatives, while remaining separate and protecting their league-table position.

I believe this Government cares deeply about all children. I believe it is absolutely sincere in its commitment to end child poverty by 2020. It has provided hugely increased funding to schools so that they have the resources to provide high standards of education. But its nerve has failed. The Government will not see that it needs to create the conditions for schools to become real partners.

It needs to do two things. First, it should radically change the accountability regime. Schools working in true partnership with each other and with further education colleges must be inspected and held accountable as a partnership. Single school inspections should have no place in partnerships.

Second, it should see that funding richly rewards proper partnership working. (I have yet to meet a school leader who would not like more cash for their school, so this would be a powerful incentive to good behaviour.)

If these two conditions were realised, performance tables would die a natural death, because it would be far too complex and difficult to create hierarchies of attainment where clusters of schools were jointly responsible for exam results, and would not allow easy ranking in any table of any sort.

The greatest reward would not simply be abolishing league tables - although it is time to end their Punch and Judy show. Real partnership working would bring poor pupils and their middle-class peers into the same classrooms. The class-based education apartheid which exists in so many areas of the country would become a thing of the past. The result would be higher standards for all - working and middle class alike.

That's the way to do it!

Mary Bousted, General secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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