“Too many of England’s poorest children continue to be let down by the education system” .*
(OFSTED June 2013.)
OFSTED is rightly focusing attention on schools’ ability to support the learning of all pupils and narrow the attainment gap between pupils of different backgrounds. Foremost amongst the difficulties associated with poverty is a slow start into literacy, leading to an ongoing and increasing lag in becoming literate and in accessing the learning curriculum.
If a child’s literacy difficulties are not addressed early on, then the challenge of raising achievement appears insurmountable. My colleague Amanda Ince and myself have just published an edited book that looks at the evidence and policy around early literacy intervention and the possibilities, if adequately supported, of long-term benefit for society (in terms of alleviating social and financial costs later on) and quality of life for those ‘let down’ individuals. (Reading Recovery and Every Child a Reader: History, policy and practice. London:IOE Press, 2013).
In wishing to highlight the needs of the more isolated and small groups of children in poverty to be found in more affluent areas, Sir Michael Wilshaw drew attention to the recent improvements in achievement in schools with associated high levels of poverty – in Inner London, Birmingham, greater Manchester, Liverpool, and Leicester. Interestingly, these areas were among the first to introduce the early literacy intervention Reading Recovery, which, initially with the support of the then Conservative government, was rolled out across their most needy schools. Then, with leadership support and the literacy expertise of their Reading Recovery teacher, many children across the primary years were helped to raise their literacy levels through the national scheme ‘Every Child a Reader’. Classroom practice was improved and interventions were matched in intensity and focus to the diagnosed needs of targeted groups across schools. The impact of having all children reading at age-appropriate levels was to raise achievement levels across the curriculum.
Sir Michael says that inspections will be tougher in the future on schools that are letting down their poor children. This will take the form of re-inspection. He also suggests sub-regional challenges to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children. A less punitive and more constructive suggestion is that teachers on funded schemes be directed to under-performing schools in less fashionable or more remote or challenging places. Our book provides insights and critique of what works in effectively turning around expectations and practice to bring about positive change in achievement, even in the most challenging contexts.
The current government introduced the, slowly increasing, pupil premium as an aid to enhancing the learning of children in poverty. However, its laissez-faire approach to directing the use of funding at school and district level means for many schools that insufficient funds are available to support the salary of those early literacy specialists that research has shown to have a proven track record in bringing about a sustained increase in achievement levels for the hardest to reach in particular. Sir Michael described the circumstances of many of these children as ‘labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching’. ‘Indifferent teaching’ benefits no child’s education; it is even more damaging for children whose progress is already delayed. Longitudinal data show that teachers know how to stop this, if adequate funding can be directed to achieving this goal.