It’s been a busy couple of weeks here in pleasantly autumnal Leeds. We are enjoying the familiar tropes of seasonal change: the trips to the local park, avoiding the litter and dog-mess please Year 4, to collect the ‘lovely, lively, golden leaves laughing like a sun’ (thank you Blue 1 for this flourish of figurative language); the celebration of the bounty of our local shops for harvest festival (nothing perishable, as the vermin infestation in church has finally outwitted the best laid plans of the men – and women – of the clergy team, so, this year, the homeless can eat only canned food), and the first explosive outbursts of randomly thrown fireworks, a daily herald of the onslaught of Bonfire Night itself.
And, alongside the expected events that shape the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ here in the inner city, there are some more singular ones to enjoy: the glory of our Year 6 school residential trip; a meeting of headteacher colleagues to discuss how research-based school practice might give our families and children a voice in developing the landscape of learning and opportunity across our highly diverse city; the publication of the latest Cambridge Primary Review Trust research report by Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen, Mind the Gap – Tackling Social and Educational Inequality. All these have provided occasion to reflect on the importance of creating rich learning experiences, so that all our children achieve their best potential and thrive in their school settings. To indulge in one more Keatsian metaphor (and this the end of them, I promise): to ensure that we ‘load and bless with fruit the vines’ – in this case the rich harvest of our primary-aged children.
It is, as they say, a no-brainer, that we would want the best for all our children and that we would aim for 100 per cent of them to be a blooming top crop. Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, in her speech to the Conservative Party conference earlier this month, clearly shares these principles:
The commitment to meritocracy means nothing if we don’t give every child the chance to succeed … For us social justice and One Nation are not just buzzwords. They explain all we’ve done and all we’re going to do to extend opportunity to every single child.
Hear, hear, I say: a noble ambition and clearly stated; bravo Ms Morgan. But, as I read further through the speech, I begin to feel a little nagging unease, that somehow Nicky and I are not quite on the same page about how we might achieve this. Ms Morgan believes that
(the) belief in equality of opportunity has been our guiding principle for five years …Look at what we have achieved. We’ve raised the bar on standards in schools with a rigour revolution:… a tough new national curriculum that fosters a love for literature, a grasp of arithmetic and an appreciation of our history. 120,000 more six year olds on track to become confident readers thanks to our focus on phonics and record numbers of 11 year olds mastering the 3Rs.
There’s talk of ‘grit and spark’ and ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ and there is a clarion cry for a new breed of teachers to shape the destiny of the next generation. Ms Morgan even name checks her own encouraging teacher ‘without whom I wouldn’t be standing here today – thank you Mrs Thynne’.
It is heart-warming stuff indeed and I feel even more churlish about my growing sense of misgiving. I want to agree, but I can’t. And not out of some misplaced political ideology, but because of the reality of another inner-city autumn; the return of the year 6 residential trip; the content of the headteacher meeting about creating an equal landscape for children’s voice and choice in Leeds, and the most recent CPRT report. Essentially, I can’t agree, because, as a teacher, I know that good learning and education are not merely about being relentless and focussed; they are about trying to create adaptive and creative outcomes so that each child can flourish in their learning, in spite of some of the daily challenges with which they have to contend beyond the school gate. Sadly, unlike Ms Morgan, I do not believe that what characterises the best schools ‘is that when you walk through the door the first thing that they talk about is where their students are going, not where they have come from’. Experience – and research – tell me that seeing children in their social context is critical if we are to attempt to close the gaps which will otherwise prejudice their future success. We need to realise the enormity of this task if we want our children to achieve their best potential in the warmth and love of a community of learning, in spite of the messiness of their own home backgrounds.
The CPRT report mentioned above – Mind the Gap – makes this point clearly. Among its conclusions it finds that:
- The most important influence on educational attainment, on how well a child develops in the early years, performs in school, in later education and in adulthood, is family background.
- Average levels of educational attainment and children’s engagement in education are better in more equal societies. [The report shows that the UK is among the most unequal of the OECD countries – p 7, fig 3]
- Targeted spending such as the Pupil Premium can certainly make a difference … yet targeted spending is not sufficient on its own to close the attainment gap and reduce educational inequalities.
- Reducing educational inequality will ultimately depend on reducing social and economic inequality.
As a headteacher, I can – and relentlessly do – set the aspirational tone for a ‘Bankside Best’ attitude to all that we do and learn at school. We expect the ‘best for and the best from’ every member of our learning community, thank you very much – ask anyone in the school, or indeed who has ever spent more than 10 minutes in conversation with me (one puzzled visitor, after my nth reference to ‘Bankside Best’ enquired if it was a brand of bitter I was about to offer him). As a leadership team, we can insist, as Ms Morgan urges, that we root out poor education ‘wherever it lurks’ and we do. We are proud of our learning community where children make exceptional progress because of this, from very low starting points to attainment in line with – and in many cases above – national average at KS2. A school where we actively create conditions for meta-cognitive understanding so that, once again, from the very beginning of school children understand the importance of being resilient learners (we are ‘have a go hippos’ even in nursery) and value how they learn, as well as what they learn. Holy Moly, we are wonderful here in LS8.
However, what we cannot do, even with the support of our excellent governing body, local authority and other multi-agency partners, is change the demographic we serve. We can spend Pupil Premium on taking our Year 6 children on school residentials (and indeed all our children on trips and outings as a matter of school routine) to enrich their learning experiences and widen their sense of self and ambition. We cannot, however, prevent the personal distress and upset that one of those children experienced on their return, to discover that her older brother’s remand arrangements had changed and that he might be returning to the area imminently. The turmoil and upset this created for this child and her family far outweighed the benefits of a trip away. And, with all deference to Ms Morgan’s faith in the social importance of 11 year olds mastering the 3Rs, appreciating history and grasping arithmetic to ensure a country that is ‘fair… wise… and great’, the older boy in question had flourished at school fuelled by our belief (shared with Ms Morgan) that ‘children only get one shot at education and we owe to them to give them the best one’. From well below age-related starting points he left Bankside with very good KS2 results, appreciating and grasping concepts and knowledge like a good ‘un. This may have been why he was able to shine so brightly within the local crime scene.
My point is this: high academic results alone, in contradiction to current educational ideology, cannot possibly close all the necessary gaps that will ensure the ‘security of our country’, as Ms Morgan’s comments suggested, whilst social inequality is so prevalent.
I will finish with a few thoughts about our headteachers’ meeting, looking at some of the very issues that underpin this blog. ‘Gaps’ to be closed in educational and social outcomes do not begin at the age of 3 or 4, when a child first arrives in school; they begin from the very start of life itself. The first 1001 days of a child’s life, from conception to the age of 2, are the most powerful determiners of a child’s long term success, both socially and in terms of educational outcomes. Our group was reading Building Great Britons, the report, published earlier this year, of the cross-party First 1001 Days All Parliamentary Group, where the first (of nine) recommendations is that
Achieving the very best experience for children in their first 1001 days should be a mainstream undertaking by all political parties … Recognising its influence on the nature of our future society, the priority given to the first 1001 days should be elevated to the same level as Defence of the Realm.
Stirring stuff – and all of it resonates more powerfully with me, as a leader of learning in a very deprived area of the country, than the call to create a ‘supercharged approach’ by Nicky Morgan – which appears to be another means to create a world of stand-alone academies and free schools, rather than address the key social causes of poor academic achievement.
We are very proud of the work that we do so passionately to close the gaps in learning at our school; we recognise that we need to do this as soon as possible. Over the last two years we have developed an extended early years team – to start working with our potential students from the very beginning of their life – in our mission to create learners from ‘Birth to Bankside’ (B2B – we love a good brand here). To this end we work, as the 1001 report recommends, in strong partnership with our local authority partners: public health, NHS, and colleagues in early years and children services. The need for a strong and committed public sector has never been more critical to achieve this (read the 1001 report and see for yourself). It worries me that if we focus solely on raising standards in stand-alone schools we will not be ‘the spark to light a fire’ to paraphrase Ms Morgan’s final thoughts at conference. Rather, without looking at the bigger, more complex and divisive social picture, we could be the fuse that ignites further inequality.
Since I have started typing this blog over 20 fireworks have screamed and blasted their way through the quietness of a post-school evening. I know for certain that these are thrown not by teenagers who have all been failed by education (many of them attended this school and ‘did well’) but by young people who do not have the advantages of coming from a home where, according to the CPRT report, they have a greater chance of life-long success. Homes where ‘parents have higher incomes and higher levels of education and … they have a place to study, where there are reference books and newspapers.’ Are we going to let the future of these children go up in ideological smoke, at the expense of really closing the gap, as we focus on outcomes and not on root causes? I sincerely hope not.
Sarah Rutty is Head Teacher of Bankside Primary School in Leeds, part-time Adviser for Leeds City Council Children’s Services, a member of CPRT’s Schools Alliance, and Co-ordinator of CPRT’s Leeds/West Yorkshire network. Read her previous blog here.
If you work in or near Leeds and wish to become involved in its CPRT network, contact email@example.com.