Gaps within gaps

Today sees the release of a report by the Commons Education Select Committee that shows poor white British students – both boys and, more unexpectedly, girls – are lagging behind their peers from other ethnicities. Just 32 per cent of disadvantaged white British children attain five GCSEs at A*-C, ten percentage points below the next lowest achieving major ethnic group (black Caribbean students).

A silver lining of the Committee’s report is the finding that students in receipt of free school meals (FSM) at schools rated ‘outstanding’ are twice as likely to attain the benchmark of 5 GCSEs at A*-C than those at schools rated ‘inadequate’ – and that ‘outstanding’ schools givemore of a boost to FSM than non-FSM students in this respect.

This chimes with Demos analysis from earlier this year which showed that, while the attainment gap between rich and poor students was increasing overall, many London schools were managing to narrow it; 17 of the 20 local authorities with the narrowest gaps were London boroughs.

Best practice is out there, from regional initiatives such as the London Challenge (which is widely credited with improving failing schools across the capital) to much more localised innovations by individual schools. Ofsted and the Department for Education should do all they can to help schools generate, share and use evidence on ‘what works’ to boost attainment for different groups. A valuable aid to this already exists in the Sutton Trust and EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

So evidence is necessary, but it is not sufficient. The fact that we’re seeing these ‘gaps within gaps’ – one ethnic group outperforming another, some schools improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged, while almost half have a wider gap now than four years ago – points to the existence of problems that demand wider solutions.

The Committee’s report recommends extending school opening hours to allow them to provide ‘wraparound’ care. It suggests that (among other things) this may make up for a lack of space and time at home which can be a barrier to completing homework. This may well prove effective in providing support to working parents, but without hearing from students themselves it is hard to judge whether more of the same will increase their engagement.

Alongside concrete evidence of ‘what works’ – amount of Pupil Premium money committed, hours of intervention put in, progress in average points scores – there is surely something to be gained by asking students what they think will work for them, and responding to their answers. The mere fact of being consulted may increase students’ engagement with school. This is an approach that we at Demos are piloting with students at risk of disengagement in four UK secondary schools.

The Committee finds that poor white British students are more likely to be absent from school, and less likely to complete homework. Previous Demos research indicates that many children arrive at school without the skills they need to learn – organisation, motivation, application (the ability to attend to a task), being able to learn from mistakes, and to regulate one’s own behaviour.

These are pre-requisites for learning in the classroom, but they aren’t learned in the classroom (not traditionally, anyway). We might think of these building blocks for learning as ‘character capabilities’ or ‘values’, but they’re a far cry from the ‘British values’ to which the Education Secretary has turned his attention in recent days. Indeed, if ‘Britishness’ comes into it at all, then we have to suggest that these character traits are precisely the values that today’s report shows are lacking in a large number of British children.

So there’s a clear need for evidence-based approaches targeted at specific groups, but equally important is openness to some much bigger questions about what schools are for – and even, as in our pilot, who they are for. What do students have to say about ‘what works’, and what do they stand to gain just by being asked that question?