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Urban schooling revisited

Chief inspector David Bell asks why achievement in deprived areas has not risen sufficiently in the past decade

When the Office for Standards in Education published its 1993 report, Access and Achievement in Urban Education, I was working in Newcastle. I remember thinking that it was a crucial piece of work because of its stark analysis of the life experiences of young people and the capacity of educational establishments in disadvantaged urban areas to improve achievement.

It painted a bleak picture of the quality of education received by many young people in the most deprived communities in England. A cycle of under-achievement in many schools was replicated at home and in the wider community, with a weak chain of educational provision across the age groups. The report concluded, in a memorable phrase, that "the rising tide of educational change is not lifting these boats".

A decade on, the evidence points to an improvement, but not enough.

Therefore we must look again, urgently, at how to close the gap in achievement between youngsters in deprived areas and elsewhere. Government policies are helping to tackle this issue.

Many schools in urban areas have benefited, like others, from the general strategies for improvement which have been introduced, including the regular inspection of schools from 1992. Nevertheless, as is widely appreciated, not least by the Government, the problem is not solved.

Progress in narrowing the gap in achievement of pupils in the most deprived areas has been slow.

It is impossible to highlight a single cause for this continued gap that has long bedevilled the education system. Equally, it would be wrong simply to wring our hands over schools serving the most deprived communities.

We know that they have a harder job than others when the proportion of pupils who are low-attaining on entry is high and when low attainment is compounded by other problems. So, it is important that we should judge the success of a school not just by test and examination results but by how well it develops its pupils and the value it adds.

Several factors appear to hold back the less successful urban schools: disconnection in terms of location and ideas, difficulty recruiting qualified and experienced staff, and high rates of pupil turnover. However, it is pleasing to note that for each school that finds it difficult to improve, there are more that can cope and are doing well.

Compared with schools nationally, inspection shows that the higher-attaining disadvantaged urban schools are better led and managed and more effective overall. It is particularly important that such schools have strong and effective leaders and enough good teachers and managers.

Essentially what makes the difference is the clarity, intensity and persistence of a school's work and the rigour with which it is pursued. At best, all the energy of the school serves the same end, raising standards.

Good leaders in these schools have vision and can apply it in practical ways. They are flexible, they spot opportunities and deal imaginatively with problems. They "grow their own" solutions.

Indeed, many successful schools that find it difficult to recruit the staff they need are growing their own. It is not uncommon to find teachers in such schools who started their careers as classroom assistants.

Their potential has been identified and they have been encouraged and supported to train as teachers.

Growing your own also applies to the intake of pupils. Waiting around in the hope that a better-equipped clientele will turn up is not the answer.

Nor is the answer a simple weeding out of the less desirable types, because these youngsters have to be educated somewhere. Rather, it is about improving attitudes, raising ambition and improving the achievement of the pupils you already have in the school.

Successful schools set about this task deliberately and systematically. I have no new magic recipe for what detailed action should focus on. Current government strategies and programmes cover much of the ground, with the right kind of emphasis on early interventions, improving teaching, and innovative curriculum planning and organisation better to meet individual needs.

There remain difficult questions that need to be addressed. For example, is there an additional cost in educating pupils in the most deprived circumstances? If so, should funding systems change and is government, any government, prepared to face down the charge that other schools are being treated unfairly?

Ten years on from Ofsted's original report, we know more about tackling urban disadvantage than ever before.

More schools are enabling children to gain pleasure and a sense of achievement from education, as well as potentially, power and control over their lives. The challenge of the next 10 years is to offer such opportunities to all young people.

David Bell is the chief inspector of schools. This article is based on a speech he gave to the Fabian Society yesterday

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