Holding poorer children back holds our country back

6th October, 2014 7:47 pm

Nearly six out of ten disadvantaged children do not achieve a basic set of qualifications according to today’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report. Just think about what that statistic means. Most poorer children are leaving English schools with their options limited for what they can do next and that their talents are not being unlocked by our education system. It means that the majority of poorer children will struggle to find their full potential in Britain’s economy, holding them and our country back.

It is truly shameful that in this country in the 21st century, a child’s starting point in life remains a strong determinant of where they end up. Yet sadly under this Government, the trend is in the wrong direction. Child poverty is forecast to rise, not fall. Children’s centres that have helped children and families break the cycle of disadvantage are being closed or dismantled. After years of narrowing, the gap in attainment at GCSE between the poorest children and their wealthier peers is now widening. These developments will have a far-reaching and detrimental impact on the lives of thousands of children; limiting opportunities and holding our young people back from fulfilling their potential.

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The Government’s record on social mobility is lamentable and much more needs to be done to break down the link between a child’s background and attainment in education, but there is hope. The Commission is clear on the key role that schools have in achieving greater social justice in our society. The report lists examples of schools up and down the country that are already doing just that.  They all share certain unmistakeable qualities. At the heart of their approach to raising standards, is an incessant focus on ensuring there is high quality teaching across their school, alongside an inclusive culture based on high expectations for all pupils.

The evidence speaks for itself – placing high quality teaching at the centre of a school’s approach is the single most important way that a school can influence social mobility.

But this Government has chosen to ignore the evidence and instead has undermined the value of teaching in our schools. By allowing unqualified teachers to be employed by schools, they have removed the minimum standards for entry to teaching and created a damaging free for all in the profession, where teachers no longer need to receive knowledge and understanding of how to teach or be trained in how to manage and control a class; skills we know are crucial to teaching. There is nothing that risks high standards for all children more than this policy, and the longer it is allowed to continue, the more damage will be done to children’s schooling.

Whilst the Tories helped by the Lib Dems chose to downgrade and demoralise the teaching profession, Labour understands that the surest route to social justice will come from our teachers. First, we are committed to reversing the Government’s decision to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. There has been a 16 per cent increase in the number of unqualified teachers in schools in the last year. This would just be the starting point. Labour would put teaching in line with other high status professions, like law and medicine. As in other leading professions, teachers would be expected to train and continue to build their skills on an ongoing basis, updating their subject knowledge and learning new techniques in pedagogy and behaviour management. We’ll work with the profession to create new career pathways for teachers, with routes for specialism in subject knowledge and teaching skills that keep the best teachers in the classrooms. We are committed, not just to ensuring that disadvantaged students have their fair share of the best teachers’ time, but to ensuring that teaching is of a high enough quality across the board that schools don’t have to make the choice between which children get the best teachers. In a One Nation schools system, all children will have access to excellent teaching.

The Commission has given a blueprint for a school’s role in improving social mobility. It is a challenge, but placing high quality teaching at the forefront of improved schooling is an achievable goal. What the report does not argue, is that an obsessive focus on school structures – the unrelenting motivation of the current Government over the last four years – will raise standards. There is not one mention in the report that changing the name of a school will improve the outcomes of its poorer pupils. Schools that are achieving fantastic results for all pupils have not achieved this through a single “magic formula” of becoming an academy, or because they opened as a Free School. Yet the Government continues to act as though changes to school structures are the sole answer to the problems in our education system. The truth is that in their obsession with school types, they have lost sight of the most important consideration for driving standards forwards for poor children: the quality of teaching in classrooms of all schools. It will be Labour that puts that right and delivers an education system that truly works for all.

Kevin Brennan is Labour’s Shadow Schools Minister

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