The target-driven culture in schools is stopping struggling children from closing the attainment gap, according to research by Manchester University. The needs of children from poor working-class homes and different ethnic groups are overlooked as schools focus on securing good positions in exam league tables.
The report, published today, provides a damning verdict on some of the Government's highest-profile initiatives to create a more level playing field for all pupils. Academies, designed to turn around entrenched underachievement in traditionally working-class areas, come in for harsh criticism for failing to work with other schools.
Report co-author Alan Dyson, professor of education and co-director of the Centre for Equity in Education at Manchester University, says targets have made it difficult for schools to look at what is having an impact on children. He is calling for schools to work together and carry out detailed analysis of the problems their areas are facing. Targets can be used to identify issues, but are not solutions, he said.
"We have a lopsided view of equity issues in education because we assume they can be attributed to poor leadership and teaching in schools. But for schools in disadvantaged areas, the solutions lie beyond the school gates," he said.
"There are interactions between race, gender and class issues. You have to look at the whole picture and help partnerships analyse what's going on to have a real impact."
The report, Equity in Education: Responding to Context, was co-written by Mel Ainscow, who is in charge of the Greater Manchester Challenge - an extension of the London Challenge - which seeks to raise standards in poor schools.
The study looked at three deprived areas where race and class have a major influence: a former mill town with stark ethnic segregation; an almost exclusively white industrial town; and a multi-cultural inner-city area with refugee and asylum-seeker families. While government policy since 1997 has sought to raise attainment for all children, there is little evidence that it has delivered on its promises for children in these kinds of disadvantaged areas, the report says.
There is potential for improvement by forming local partnerships and integrating children's services, but the ability to generate solutions is "hamstrung by the perverse consequences of the Government's target-setting regime", the report says. School leaders recognise that pupils' difficulties come from outside school but are unable to tackle them.
"There is a moral panic at the moment about the underachievement of the white working class," Professor Dyson said. "There are some real issues, but simply saying their performance is lower than other groups does not tell you why or what to do about it. If white working-class boys are doing badly, the answer might be not to cram them to do better in another GCSE, but to work with their families or offer a wider curriculum. The same is true for different ethnic groups, or to close the gender gap."
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families insisted that targets for attainment and progress need not hinder the response to local issues. "The chief job of schools is to enable all pupils to achieve their full potential," he said.
The National Union of Teachers has launched a research project with the National College of School Leadership on how to improve the achievement of white working-class pupils. The amount of work dedicated to improving their education has been limited, compared with the number of initiatives aimed at ethnic minority pupils, they say.
"There is a dearth of research investigating characteristics which are necessary to successfully lead schools with a large group of white working-class pupils who are not reaching their potential," the project proposal says.
White children are the worst performing of any ethnic group receiving free school meals. John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said the problems of white working-class pupils had been "desperately" overlooked. "Effective leadership and putting schools at the heart of their communities are absolutely vital to improve the situation," he said.
Schools have a legal duty to produce documents on race, disability and gender that set out how they will promote equality for pupils, teachers and parents. But there is no requirement for them to produce any initiatives on how they will tackle the class divide. According to Professor Dyson, the lack of targets for this group, compared with others, means some schools have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the poorest children.