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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.


What do white working class boys (and girls) need to succeed?

Yet more food for thought on school funding, this time emerging from a huge longitudinal survey and a report for the Sutton Trust. While the educational fate of poor white boys has been known for decades, this latest report is worth a read because of its examination of factors which increase disadvantage for this group, and the value of Pupil Premium and other targeted funding.

Put in a nutshell, what the research team has discovered is that while poor white boys tend  to do worse educationally than everyone else, poor white boys in disadvantaged areas are even worse off. 

“Disadvantaged students of white UK heritage who lived in the poorest neighbourhoods were less likely to enter advanced level courses than disadvantaged students of UK heritage who lived in more affluent neighbourhoods. Only around 29 per cent of disadvantaged white UK boys living in the poorest neighbourhoods went onto advanced level study compared with around 46 per cent of disadvantaged white UK boys living in the most affluent neighbourhoods. Place poverty thus seems to compound family disadvantage for such boys,” says Background To Success. 

And let’s not forget “similar significant differences in the likelihood of taking advanced level courses” for disadvantaged white UK girls living in the poorest neighbourhoods too.

The students who lived in more deprived neighbourhoods, or/and who had attended a secondary school with a higher proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals were significantly less likely to enter any AS or A Levels, or to enter fewer, or get lower results if they did.

The report point out that there is no such thing as a level playing field, given these factors shaping educational outcomes, particularly for older teenagers at A and AS level. “Some young people are much less likely to progress onto advanced level studies than others… and this matters because… they are closely linked to future earning potential.”

The researchers say it is important for policymakers to recognised the way different influences combine to shape outcomes if they are to develop “the most appropriate policy responses to address the longstanding problems of educational inequity in life chances and outcomes.”

While recognising the historic trend to fund schools serving disadvantaged pupils more favourably, further emphasised by the Pupil Premium, it is, the report says, “of concern” that more favourable funding for local authorities serving more disadvantaged communes were reversed through austerity policies.

The researchers warn that the government should “be careful” as it moves to fair funding to not assume all pupil premium pupils have the same needs regardless of where they live, and to recognise the case for extra funding where there is what they call “double disadvantage” of being disadvantaged in a disadvantaged area. 

In an interesting series of recommendations, they say that pupil premium should continue to be paid for all disadvantaged pupils, without discriminating between low and high attainers, and should consider factors which may multiply the effects of poverty for eligible children, particularly levels of disadvantage around their homes and in their schools. 

Also recommended is that pupil premium money should fund enrichment such as reading for pleasure, educational trips and out-of-school study opportunities, which the researchers say boost later school attainment, and that schools should provide additional encouragement and support for groups such as white working class boys (especially in some communities) to study, complete homework and read.  In addition, they want funding reviews to recognise double-disadvantage, for all students to receive a guaranteed level of careers advice, and for targeted local programmes to drive up school standards, as with the London Challenge. 

So what to make of all this?

For a start, it reminds us that schools in some areas have a much harder job than others. Deeming that they’re failing/coasting, and turning them into academies isn’t of itself going to make a difference. And it’s not “making excuses” to recognise that pupils in disadvantaged areas - particularly UK white boys, and girls - have barriers to achievement before even arriving in the classroom. 

It makes the social stratification trend in schools even more worrying. Schools have changed as middle class parents read Ofsted reports - and head for institutions serving a demographic where they feel comfortable. Housing benefit cuts are quietly shifting large numbers of the poorest families out of diverse city areas and into the cheapest, poorest housing - often in those educationally troublesome coastal areas we hear so much about.

And it reminds us that the Pupil Premium should be about so much more than catch-up classes and cramming: that it can and should give the most disadvantaged children the experiences their middle-class peers take for granted. This is not, I suspect, a universal view among education policy opinion-formers, who take a more Gradgrindian view.

Coming on top of this week’s report that White British pupils are least likely to go to university, and the warning by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major (himself brought up in poverty in Brixton) of a “shocking” level of inequality in Britain and a need for government to focus on those failed by the system  - this really ought to inform the Spending Review and wider educational policies. It will be interesting to see whether it does. 

Susan Young is an education journalist

Background to Success’s authors are Professor Pam Sammons, Dr Katalin Toth and Professor Kathy Sylva from the University of Oxford

Susan Young


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Page published: 11/11/2015
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