We can't let a cuts catastrophe fail all children

5th March 2010 at 00:00
The schools minister and former teacher believes tackling inequality must remain the top priority

In every part of the country and at every age, school standards have risen over the past decade. But I'm particularly proud that it's many of the most deprived areas of the country that have seen the biggest rises in results.

It's also the case that schools where more than half of children are eligible for free school meals have seen the sharpest increases in GCSE results. And the historic gap between children eligible for free school meals and the rest is finally starting to narrow.

Despite this progress, however, it is still the case that family income and social class are strongly associated with poorer performance, on average, at every key stage. This is not only morally unacceptable, it is damaging for social cohesion and bad for the economy. Most of all, it is just plain unfair, and that was one of the main reasons I became a teacher before entering politics. I loved working with young people and seeing them improve, especially those who had been branded "difficult".

Of course, it wasn't the children themselves that were difficult, it was the circumstances they faced. I taught a girl who was always late, always in trouble, always under-achieving. It turned out that her father was an alcoholic, her mother a drug addict, and she was caring for her siblings. We gave her emotional support - and a bit of latitude - and in the end she did fine. To me, that is the most powerful thing about education - that where we start out in life need not determine where we end up.

I am often struck by the "can do" - and "will do" - culture in schools I have visited that have narrowed or closed attainment gaps for disadvantaged children. They seem to have a number of common features: high expectations of teachers and pupils; staff who are passionate about the quality of the classroom experience; a commitment to the rigorous use of data; and capable and dedicated staff.

Many of these schools are in areas of real deprivation but they don't shut themselves away from the communities they serve. On the contrary - staff go out of their way to understand and respond to local concerns, values and aspirations. They bring in local heroes to demonstrate that "people from around here" can achieve as well as anyone else and they often work directly with families from local estates and in community outreach programmes.

They also look outward to the wider world, building pupils' repertoire of talking, writing and behaving so they can adapt successfully to formal and unfamiliar context, and providing extended services and cultural opportunities so that pupils get a taste of activities from which they might otherwise be excluded.

All of these approaches have been successfully adopted in the hundred or so schools in the Extra Mile programme - a bottom-up school-improvement strategy which is raising the aspirations and attainment of pupils in some of our most deprived communities. Schools identify pupils who will benefit most from Extra Mile activities and, over the course of an academic year, their progress is carefully monitored and their successes acknowledged and celebrated. Early results are very encouraging, with significant positive impacts emerging on pupils' attitude, progress, behaviour and aspirations.

It's also vital that children from low-income families get off to a good start if they are not to begin their formal schooling at a disadvantage. That's why we have invested over #163;25 billion in early years education since 1997 and introduced radical reforms such as free nursery education for three- and four-year-olds, and opened nearly 3,500 Sure Start Children's Centres across the country.

Once in school, disadvantaged children can benefit from more individual attention to prevent them from falling behind. For some time, schools have been moving towards a system of more personalised learning, backed up by regular assessment, which requires teachers to understand where each child is in their learning and the steps they need to take to make progress. We will now go further by guaranteeing extra support, including one-to-one tuition, for children falling behind in English and maths, so that they get the support they need to catch up and keep up.

I am also keen that our funding and accountability structure should raise the visibility of disadvantaged young people and ensure that support is focused where it is most needed. That's why, for the first time, local authorities are required to set targets at key stage 2 and key stage 4 for the attainment of children eligible for free school meals and I plan to highlight gap-narrowing activities on the face of the new School Report Card - which is currently out for consultation. And it's also why we want to see local authorities pass on all the funding we allocate for deprivation to schools on the basis of deprivation.

I know there is much more to do to continue raising the achievements and aspirations of children from low-income families as we break the historic link between poverty and low attainment. It means tackling all the barriers that children face, whether that's the income of their family or their special educational need.

But in the coming weeks, teachers and parents face a big choice. Do we keep funding to schools rising or do we cut it? Do we ensure every school leaver has a guaranteed place in education or training, or say that it's only suitable for some young people and not all? Do we keep investing in universal Sure Start and guarantee the one-to-one tuition or say we cannot afford it? And do we keep supporting schools to keep raising standards for the poorest children, or test out a free-market schools policy which can only be paid for by cuts to existing schools, and which when tried in Sweden led to falling standards and rising social inequality?

The stakes are high, but I am determined to do everything I can to build on the progress of the past decade so that every child, whatever their background, gets the very best start in life and the opportunities others take for granted.

www.tes.co.ukelection2010

Vernon Coaker, Schools minister.

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