Closing the attainment gaps for disadvantaged white pupils

SSAT Senior education lead Alex Galvin shares opinions on a recently published report about disadvantaged white pupils.

The Education Select Committee recently published a report focusing on the ongoing underachievement of disadvantaged white pupils. You can read it here.

There is clear evidence that disadvantaged white pupils are the lowest performing group in this country, as has been the case for some time. However, school leaders and teachers are acutely aware of this. No-one is more aware of the underperformance of pupils than the people who know the names, faces and stories behind the data.

The report makes a number of recommendations. We agree that well-resourced early years provision is essential. We also know from previous school improvement programmes that additional funding to enable schools to provide targeted support can make a real difference to pupil progress. A focus on supporting the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers to schools serving disadvantaged communities is also welcomed. However, it is essential to recognise that many of the issues identified in the report cannot be resolved by schools alone. Most urgently, steps need to be taken to address the shameful rates of child poverty in this country, regardless of the ethnicity or social group a child comes from.

Two of the headteachers in SSAT’s policy group share their thoughts on the report below. We would love to hear the thoughts of others in the network, please do get in touch.

I have seen the report but don’t really feel I can offer much insight from my own day-to-day experience. My own school is roughly 95% ‘minority ethnic’ – we have around 40 ethnicities/languages represented although the biggest groups by far are those of south Asian heritage. Our white British numbers are very low, as are our numbers of students currently on FSM, or disadvantaged FSM6. As a grammar school, there is no discernible difference between the performance of our white British students compared to the others – and our disadvantaged students nearly always make better progress than their peers according to P8 data.

So for my own school, the report has little alignment with my direct experience. However, I think the way in which the underachievement of White British pupils impacts us in Slough is the low proportion of Yr 6s from those backgrounds who are successful in gaining entry to the four grammar schools in the town. There will be a range of factors contributing to this, but the level of disadvantage is high in the town despite relatively low levels of unemployment. There are some entrenched areas of long-term disadvantage and embedded lack of aspiration, centred in particular on two large 1950s estates which housed families moved out of east London after WW2. Several years of investment in disadvantaged pupils through Pupil Premium has not really made the impact it should have done.

The report places quite an emphasis on the importance of early years. It is interesting that paragraph 15 of the conclusions specifically refers to maintained nursery schools; this resonates with us as Slough has four very successful and well-regarded nursery schools, but whose existence is under serious threat due to the funding issues. As a local Schools Forum (which I chair) we wrote to Gavin Williamson recently to raise the issue, and it has also been raised in Parliament by the Slough MP.

The report also refers to the EBacc and vocational education. Like so many headteachers, I regard the over-emphasis on the EBacc as damaging when it is used as a measure of accountability on which to judge schools’ apparent performance. For students in disadvantaged areas of Slough, basic literacy and numeracy is hugely important, as is a set of relevant qualifications which develop knowledge in some other curriculum areas, employability skills and, most importantly, confidence. However, I would suggest GCSE French is pretty much irrelevant…

I would leave further comment on the value of vocational qualifications – and many of these other issues – to colleagues better placed to do so from their contexts. However, I hope these brief thoughts from my perspective are helpful.

Presumably white disadvantaged students, if doing less well as a group, are not doing so evenly across the country? If this is the case then the broader analysis of ‘place’ seems highly relevant. No doubt the ‘levelling up’ agenda will in part address this but not for this and perhaps the next generation unless well resourced. If a thriving economic and social infrastructure is not present in a location then most other strategies are at best ‘sticking plasters’. Education has got to allow young people to go somewhere; if the somewhere can’t be seen in their home/locally i.e. parents in good jobs, or is too intangible, e.g. university, then what is the value in education?

The accountability system/Progress 8/ GCSE/EBacc have perhaps allowed some portions of society to disengage with education – white disadvantaged students may culturally be the group that is paying the price for these systems and structures compared to other groups.

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