It is time for a confession: I don’t believe in “closing the gap” and I never have since it was first mooted more than 15 years ago as part of New Labour’s Excellence in Cities programme.
I was chief education officer in Birmingham back then, and had, for more than a decade, been using strong data sets to work with schools to address the alarmingly different outcomes for pupils from different ethnic groups. We then speculated together about how to diminish differences caused, we thought, by subliminal – and sometimes overt – racial and other prejudice.
Unaided by the Department for Education, which refused to provide us with national data, we made some modest progress. When we turned to “white working-class” boys, we were confronted by a number of factors including lack of aspiration, community dislocation and, of course, poverty. So I was an early advocate of pupil premium, though at secondary level I would have based it on prior attainment rather than poverty.
When it came to “closing the gap”, however, I was unhappy. “Minding the gap”? Yes, by raising the attainment of those achieving least in the system – but not at the expense of putting an upper limit on the achievements of those most able to do well.
Yet that is what government since 2010 has seemingly been aiming to do. Its advice to primary schools is not to allow pupils in Year 4, for example, to fast-track to Year 5 even though they are confidently working in maths or English at “mastery” level.
Besides causing teachers in village schools to scratch their heads after they have delighted in seeing all their pupils in mixed-age classes proceed at different paces, presumably ministers would shake their heads at a Birmingham primary I know which for 20 years has achieved success in GCSE maths for talented 11-year-olds.
And that’s before we even begin to look at grade progression in music.
At secondary level – there I go again with a heretical word – the extraordinary decision to discourage anyone taking GCSE until Year 11 will have a similar effect of slowing the pace of the whole convoy.
It has put paid to the excellent development in Years 9 to 11 of allowing youngsters, in mixed-age classes, to accumulate exam success over a three-year period, increasing the likelihood of good achievement for those most challenged in their learning. Of course, the change slows high academic achievers with a voracious appetite for learning.
The principle of taking an exam when ready seems to have been totally set aside. In the brave new world prescribed by the Morgan/Gibb Axis, in our nationalised schooling system, we shall see all proceed at the same pace, slowing the convoy down, in order that the laggards catch up. And, if anyone steps out of line, there is always an Ofsted gauleiter – sorry, regional director – to pull you back into line.
In a recent letter, one of these unfortunates warned his schools: “Overall the gap in achievement of this (disadvantaged) group of pupils and others remains too wide and is not closing rapidly enough.”
Reminding them that “gaps between the performance of disadvantaged pupils and others is a determining factor in the timing of an inspection”, he went on to declare it “my passion, which I am sure you share”. But just in case you don’t, he outlined his advice to inspection teams, including “to scrutinise in detail the impact of the leader’s actions on the matter”.
So there you have it. Despite all we know about different intelligences, despite all the international evidence, we are to be the first to close rather than mind the gap. Better, surely, to raise the level of those achieving least in the basics and find and cherish what they are good at while not limiting what others achieve.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London