Poverty alone doesn’t necessarily lead to poor exam results. We need to look at attitudes among families, communities and schools, says Sam Freedman.
The relationship between education and poverty is complex. Disadvantaged children, on average, get significantly worse results than more advantaged ones, but those averages hide huge variations across ethnic, gender and geographical lines.
At the extreme, 28 per cent of White British boys on free school meals achieve five good GCSEs with English and Maths, compared to 66 per cent of Indian girls on free school meals. And these variations are not static – scores for poorer Bangladeshi students, for example, have increased twice as fast as those from White British backgrounds over the past ten years. Perhaps the most notable change has been a geographical one: 15 years ago pupils in London did much worse than the national average. Now they do much better. In some London boroughs, young people on free school meals get better GCSE scores than the national average for all children and are significantly more likely to go to university than wealthier peers in other parts of the country. All this implies that worse results are not caused by financial deprivation per se, but by a subtle mix of attitudes and behaviours from families, communities and schools that are susceptible to change. And, of course, this change is crucial in lifting these communities out of poverty.
One recent study of London’s improvement has pointed to a range of policy interventions including the London Challenge – a programme that brokered relationships between strong and weak schools – the charity Teach First which addresses educational disadvantage, the sponsored academy programme and local authority activity. But lack of data makes it impossible to say for sure what the exact contribution of these initiatives was.
More important perhaps were the broader themes the authors identified through interviews with headteachers and other educational leaders: high expectations, a greater focus on data – perhaps the most important aspect of the London Challenge – and high-quality professional development. The report also highlights the importance of school leadership. One of the most striking statistics in it is that hiring headteachers has got harder in the last ten years in every region bar London. This theme is picked up in another report about the dramatic improvement in Tower Hamlets. Strong leadership from the local authority combined with a particularly impressive group of headteachers drove change. Significantly this went beyond schools and involved working closely with the Bangladeshi community in the area to create a high-expectations culture by, for instance, increasing attendance at parent evenings and reducing long trips overseas.
Studies of the most successful charter schools in the US have also identified the importance of leadership in creating a high-expectations culture through the use of repeatedly reinforced norms and beliefs that would be standard in wealthier or more aspirational communities. These include things like naming year groups by the date they’ll graduate from university, regular recitation of values and an explicit focus on character development. Many of the best schools in London – like Mossbourne, Burlington Danes and King Solomon’s Academy – also make use of these techniques, and they are now becoming more common in schools across England. They are not uncontroversial as they can seem to suggest children from poorer backgrounds require a more structured education than other. But they do seem to work – especially if parents and the local community are brought along on the journey.