‘Stuck’ schools tend to be those with high proportion of white FSM pupils

Janet Downs's picture

Secondary schools which have been less than good for ten years or more tend to be those with a higher proportion of white British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) than the national average, Education Datalab reports.  

Datalab looked at 1400 secondary rated satisfactory or inadequate between September 2005 and August 2008.  At the end of 2017/18, 420 were less than good (134 being inadequate) and 116 had either closed or lost pupils following ‘a complex reorganisation’.

These ‘stuck’ schools also had a greater proportion of pupils with lower prior attainment than schools which subsequently became good.

They were also more likely to be in the East Midlands or Yorkshire and Humberside.

It can take a while before schools judged less than good become good, Datalab found.  This is ‘especially true with disadvantaged, low-attaining cohorts’.  It’s not as if such schools had been ignored – they are likely to have been subjected to various interventions.  This is particularly so in Knowsley, the go-to local authority (LA) when politicians want to damn an LA for its poor performance.  Datalab describes waves of initiatives washing over Knowsley since 1999.  But the most recent inspections show only one Knowsley secondary is good, four are less than good and one hasn’t been inspected since becoming an academy (the predecessor school required improvement).

Is there more still to be done to improve the Ofsted rating of these schools? asks Datalab.  This presumes Ofsted’s inspection criteria isn’t skewed against schools with more white FSM pupils with low prior achievement (as measured by SATs).   Such schools are more likely to be judged less than good.  

Datalab suggests this is a systemic problem.  It hopes the new inspection framework, due in September, ‘recognises the system-wide issue that some demographic groups of pupils do not achieve as well as others.’

Cognitive Aptitude Tests could show that pupils deemed 'low performing' are actually reaching their potential but league tables judge schools for the proportion reaching an arbitrary GCSE benchmark of 'good' GCSEs.  This data in turn influences inspection outcomes.

CAT tests aside, why do white FSM children do less well at school?   It’s tempting to blame poor parenting but while there are a tiny proportion of feckless parents (not just confined to parents of FSM children), a majority of parents want their children to do well at school.    Could the failure of this demographic group be more to do with how the English education system treats them?

The whole question of ‘social mobility’ is built on the presumption that children must ‘aspire’ to pathways requiring working class children to leave their roots.  But, as Diane Reay points out in Miseducation, this demeans working class parents and their children.  In ‘striving for success’ working class people who succeed become ‘somebody’.  But their families remain ‘nobodies’.  Reay asks: 

What is the point of striving for equality with more-privileged others if the process creates inequalities between you and the people you love’.


CORRECTION:  The article has been amended.  I originally said 'This presumes Ofsted's inspection criteria isn't skewed in favour of schools with fewer white FSM pupils with low prior achievement...' and such schools were more likely to be judged less than good.  This was wrong.  It should have been 'skewed against schools with more white FSM pupils...'   This has been corrected.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 15/01/2019 - 13:28


I don't know how many tightly argued and evidenced articles I have to write to dispel the 'attainment gap' fallacies.

Janet appears to be hinting at the existence of some sort of conspiracy of discrimation against white working class pupils, an explation favoured by the NUT and the 'sociological' left. This is down to a profound and miguided failure to accept the fact of significant mean IQ differences that exist between social and ethnic sub groups within UK societies.

We know this is true from cognitive ability test (CATs) data. GL Assessment let this out of the bag in this report. See page 10 for the facts which are analysed here in the light of SATs and CATs data collected from real schools by my colleague John Mountford.

Janet asks, "Could the failure of this demographic group be more to do with how the English education system treats them?"

The answer to this is 'yes', but not because of class-based discrimination. It is because of a failure to recognise that the root cause of the problem is that many poorly attaining regions of England are characterised by white working class monocultures featuring a lack of ethnic and cultural diversity combined with historic low educational attainment of parents. This results in low mean CATs scores that are either not measured, or ignored where they exist, in favour of inflated SATs scores that are used as a false measure of 'prior attainment as set out in the linked articles.

This is created by the high stakes preverse incentives imposed on schools by the demands of marketisation, fed by an OfSTED culture driven by flawed SATs based data in KS1 and KS2. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, has recognised this, but is unlikely to prevail against the marketisation ideologues in the DfE and within her own organisation.

If individual pupils, or groups of pupils have low CATs scores this indicates retarded cognitive development and/or specific cognitively diagnosable learning difficulties. The solution is well established teaching and learning methods focussed onto securing accelerated cognitive development, not cramming for KS1 and KS2 SATs, which only further retards the cognitive development that is needed.

This will never be possible while we retain league table based competition between schools, an inspection regime constucted to feed it and Academisation that hands public schooling over to Multi Academy Tusts focussed on the imposition of behaviourist training in place of cognitively developmental education (and paying the bosses eye watering amounts from the poublic purse).


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 16/01/2019 - 08:47

It's right that the English education system is harmed by emphasising test results over the kind of learning which has value over and above test scores, that is, methods that 'secure accelerated cognitive development'.   Our education system particularly harms those deemed 'working class' (a description which is not confined to those on FSM).  The reason, as Reay eloquently points out in her book, is that the working class as a whole is demeaned by such descriptions as 'chav', 'feckless', 'skivers', 'povs' (short for those in poverty) or as Toby Young once put it in relation to those working class children who went to Oxbridge, 'stains'.

When a system is judged by the proportion of young people going to university, especially highly-selective ones (see recent HEPI report), then the majority of children are ill-served.  This impacts most heavily on those deemed 'working class' bombarded with the message that only entering university will allow them to succeed - they must discard their background and enter the sunlit uplands of the middle class or they have 'failed'.  Is it any wonder that young people  in a test-driven education system which values academic over vocational and which also devalues their background don't flourish.  And the schools which predominatly cater for such pupils are doomed to 'fail'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 16/01/2019 - 13:13

As a Birmingham council estate child, I don't think we should be too precious about 'working class culture'.

For most of the post war history of the last century, the woking class voted Labour and 'better educated' classes voted Conservative. If you substitute 'Democrat' for Labour and 'Republican' for Conservative the same was true of the US. It is true no longer and there is no better example than Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US.

Even more alarming is the growth of 'populist' neo-nazi political movements much closer to home in France, Germany, Hungary and Poland, all rooted in 'working class' culture, as was Hitler's National Socialist movement in the 1930s, the remnants of which are stirring again in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine) as well as in some of the former 'Eastern Block' countries now in the EU. The growth of the 'Alternative for  Deutschland' movement in the former East Germany is expecially scary.

All of these movements have in common the expoitation of the prevalence of Kahneman's 'System 1' (Piaget's concrete operationa) and rarity of 'System 2' (Piaget's formal operational) in the traditional 'working classes'.

The marketised and Academised education system in England will only accelerate this tendency because the growing dominance of 'knowledge-based' learning, rather than 'developmental slow education' promoted by Academy MATs, my book and my articles.



Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/01/2019 - 08:49

Roger - I wasn't discussing working class 'culture' which, as you say, can have negative side effects (populism) as well as good (community responsibility - it's no coincidence that the NHS had its roots in working class initiatives in industrialised areas such as south Wales).   

I was discussing the label 'working class' slapped on people who work in particular jobs, possibly on low income, and who live in particular types of housing or areas.  This in turn leads to them looked down upon.  And it doesn't just affect those who might have low CAT scores.   It can affect even those with a particular accent.  Some accents are seen as inferior to others - remember the furore when a teacher in the Black Country banned the local accent.  An example of this is  the actress, Olivia Cooke, who recently played Becky Sharpe in the remake of Vanity Fair.  She was born in Oldham and retains her Lancashire accent (something my own father dropped when he became upwardly mobile).  She explains here the reaction:

'It’s such an identifiable factor. I come into a room, "Oh. She’s northern. She’s from the North West somewhere. She’s working class.”

'And when it comes to auditions? She mimics a casting director: “‘If she sounds like that, make her Maid Number Two".'

In a recent Times magazine article, she describes how others will continue associating her with her background despite her success by implying 'You can take the girl out of Oldham, but you can't take Oldham out of the girl'.  

If it weren't for her success in Hollywood, where her accent was just considered 'English', she would not have had success in the UK, such was the prejudice.

That's the kind of thing I'm talking about - where people are written off because of what is considered an 'inferior' background.




Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 17/01/2019 - 15:13

Sorry Janet, but I just don't recognise this 'writing off on the basis of regional accent'. I have certainly never worked in a school where that happened. Insofar as drama is concerned, actors with Geordie accents have probably long been over-represented, with 'scousers' not far behind, not to mention the Scots and the Welsh. We West-Midlanders may still be a little under-represented, but plenty of examples still come to mind.

The most important fact is that regardless of what we inherit from our parents through nature, nurture or both there is no limit to what can be achieved, but it does require more than just ambition and hard work. My favourite historical example is Michael Faraday, who started as a humble laboratory technician, but whose scientific contributions led directly to Maxell and Einstein. In modern politics it is hard not to admire Angela Rayner. What they both have in common is development through immersion in a culture of communication and debate, as described by Vygotsky. This works equally well regardless of social and class origins. The vital educational issue is pupil exposure to such developmental culture in our school system. 

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