Why simply tackling poverty is not enough

12th September 1997 at 01:00
My colleague in the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Ralph Tabberer, has this theory that the most important word in the dictionary of education reform is "and". It is a bizarre theory based on an experience he had with his lawn. Let me try to explain before someone in a white coat comes to cart him away.

Peter Robinson of the London School of Economics produced a report which - summarising ruthlessly - argued that if the Government really wanted to raise standards of education it should do something about poverty rather than embark on education reform.

Robinson appears to have forgotten that the Government announced only recently a cross-Whitehall initiative on social exclusion precisely because it recognises that attacking poverty is a fundamentally important issue. No one - certainly not the Government - would deny that being well-off benefits children in all sorts of ways including educationally. But to jump from this straightforward fact to the conclusion that therefore the education service can be left untouched, borders on the irresponsible.

For a start, it would mean writing off those children from disadvantaged backgrounds already in school. If we accepted Robinson's analysis we would be forced to conclude that there was not much we could do for them during the years it must inevitably take to tackle poverty. Surely no Secretary of State for Education could entertain that thought, least of all David Blunkett who is living proof of the capacity of individuals to succeed against the odds.

Second, it would mean ignoring 20 years' worth of research evidence which shows incontrovertibly that while, of course, social factors are important, school can and does make a difference. Robinson's report is a throwback to the sociology of the 1960s and 1970s when we were told that compared to social class the impact of school, however reformed, was negligible. School effectiveness researchers like Peter Mortimore, Pam Sammons and Sally Thomas have thankfully taught us differently. Not only have they demonstrated how much difference school makes (enough, in some cases, to be the deciding factor in relation to success and failure in future life) but also what the characteristics of the more successful schools are.

Their evidence, confirmed by inspection findings, points consistently to the importance of good leadership, purposeful classroom activity, good relations between home and school, high expectations and effective monitoring of progress. These researchers are now mining a new and rich seam. They are beginning to identify the defining characteristics of the effective department in a secondary school and of individual effective teachers.

The challenge for education policy is clear. Now we know what makes a good school, a good department and a good teacher, how do we create the conditions which will make it happen in every school and classroom in the country? For we know - and this is another flaw in the Robinson analysis - that at present there is huge variation in the performance of schools even after controlling for intake. It is the responsibility of education policy to bring the performance of all schools up towards the performance of the best.

This is precisely what the strategy set out in the recent White Paper Excellence in Schools is designed to do. It urges schools to set targets for their improvement. It suggests that all schools will receive high-quality data showing how well what they are doing compares to similar schools. It promises, through the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, a much better dissemination of proven best practice than we have ever achieved before. And it suggests interventions in schools where, for whatever reason, performance is not as good as it should be. This combination of actions will make a difference.

The example of literacy makes the point. The strategy we have put forward involving a literacy hour, the direct teaching of word, sentence and text level skills, and training for every primary teacher will, we know, make a difference - because schools currently adopting the best practice are doing dramatically better than the system as a whole. The evidence suggests a similar approach in numeracy will work too.

If we followed Robinson's advice we would give up on all this now. We would lean on the correlations of data sets from the 1960s and l970s which form the basis of his conclusions and write off tens of thousands of disadvantaged children currently at school, the very children who rely most of all on their education to unlock a better a future. Is there anyone out there who really wants to follow this counsel of despair?

For the damage it does goes far further than simply providing a distraction on the basis of data already a generation old. It feeds a powerlessness among teachers which lowers morale and can lead to cynicism. After all, if schools and teachers make no difference, what's the point in doing the job?

Fortunately, schools do matter. This means teachers taking responsibility for their influence over the next generation. Daunting though this is, it is what gives meaning to the role. Indeed it is what attracts talented, generous people into the profession. An ambitious profession determined to make a a difference and a government committed to working with them to do so will prove to be an unbeatable partnership and it will prove Robinson wrong. The current consultation on the White Paper is laying the foundations of that unshakeable bond.

Which is where Ralph Tabberer's "and" word comes in: because Peter Robinson is right about the need to do something about the deleterious effects of poverty on children. Why create a false dichotomy between either addressing poverty or reforming education when it is not only necessary but possible to address poverty and reform education simultaneously?

Ralph's lawn benefited from a similar analysis. He went for both better fertiliser and better aeration after conversations with two competing garden centres. I concreted mine over - but that's a different story.

* Professor Michael Barber is head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Employment

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