High Performing Schools Failing Poorest Pupils

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This story was in the i of 23 April.

Schools Minister David Laws is bemoaning the poor performance of poor pupils in high performing schools in the richest areas of the country. He claims these schools are pocketing the Pupil Premium and that schools in areas of high deprivation do better with poor pupils.

He says, "To have 65 percent of poor youngsters in Buckinghamshire failing to get five good GCSEs is a disgrace".

Once again the perverse incentives of the market system are being revealed. A Buckinghamshire school in a leafy village will be locked into league table competition with similar local high performing schools. This really matters. Schools losing the league table battle will lose bright pupils and rapidly slide into trouble. Fewer bright pupils means more trouble with OfSTED. Schools have to target C grades so there will be the usual concentration of effort in getting Es and Ds up to C. However Gs and Fs have no chance so get less than their share of resources and attention. Pupils from deprived homes will feature disproportionately in the Gs and Fs. Why is this?

There are two main reasons:

1. Such pupils are more likely to have a lower mean cognitive ability. Francis Gilbert is wrong to describe this relationship as a 'myth'. Once again the truth is revealed by CATs data. There are clear postcode related patterns linking poor neighbourhoods with low mean CATs scores.
2. Primary schools in poor areas will therefore have trouble meeting floor KS2 targets, but instead of concentrating on raising the cognitive ability of their pupils by sound, developmental, Piaget/Vygotsky based interactive teaching methods, they will be forced to resort to behaviourist cramming. Their pupils therefore suffer a double whammy. Lower cognitive ability at age 5 remains unaddressed as a consequence of the high stakes necessity of scraping over the KS2 floor target hurdle. This requires resort to behaviourist cramming with no time for cognitively enriching activities. So the very pupils in most need of cognitively enhancing curriculum are the very ones that don't get it.

At KS4 such pupils are likely to find themselves barred from GCSE courses on the grounds that they are unlikely to get C+ grades. Except of course for English and maths, where highly developed techniques of syllabus sampling combined with plenty of revision, past papers and cramming can do the trick. No need to worry about the other three C grade GCSEs needed as a single 4 x C grade equivalent BTEC diploma, often in 'science' can do the trick. Needless to say this provides no cognitive stimulation or development whatever.

By these means most schools manage to clear the GCSE hurdle that David Laws is so worried about, regardless of how little the students understand from their studies.

Schools taking high proportions of high performing affluent pupils don't have to worry. Selecting the most able to follow academic GCSE courses and providing a target busting curriculum for the lower achievers can get the 'five good GCSEs' needed for league tables into the stratospheric 70-80 percent mark.

Except of course for the Gs and Fs, but then there are so few of them it doesn't matter.

So long as we have league tables and high stakes floor targets we will have such perverse incentives. If David Laws fiddles with the system and introduces new targets and threats the perverse incentives may change but new ones, just as damaging, will emerge.

So what should be the apporoach? It's simple. All children of all abilities are entitled to an inspirational, cognitively developmental curriculum undistorted by high stakes performance targets of any kind. Will this 'narrow the attainment gap'? No, but ALL pupils will get the maximum benefit from their schooling and all will be cleverer, wiser and better adjusted citizens as a result.
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