Improving educational outcomes for children and young people has been put at the heart of the government’s levelling up strategy.
Ambitious achievement targets have been set - with at least 90 per cent of primary school pupils to be reaching expected levels in reading, writing and maths by 2030.
As an executive headteacher and deputy CEO of an academy trust overseeing eight schools across London and the South East, I am in full agreement that quality of education, high expectations and indeed achievement is fundamental to social mobility.
However, what policymakers don’t always seem to recognise are the many other factors that directly affect a child’s achievement at school – and the fact that in a society full of social inequalities, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can’t work.
To set out the context, many children in England are living in poverty – around nine in every class of 30. This is an exorbitant number and one that is only going to increase with the dramatic rise in living costs.
This means that every day, many children arrive at school hungry, tired and cold; factors not at all conducive to effective learning and which should not be happening in 2022.
For these children, school is a safe sanctuary providing the food, warmth and care they need; it is their consistent place. Education is about much more than teaching in a classroom and no child will flourish in their learning, or meet academic targets, if their basic needs are not being met – clearly demonstrated by Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Most of the schools in our own trust are special or alternative provision. We have significant numbers of vulnerable children – at least 88 per cent are disadvantaged in some settings.
They include looked-after children, those on child protection plans, whose families are living in poverty, young carers and others with significant mental health issues.
These children need multi-agency support from a system that is under immense pressure due to funding cuts over the last decade. For example, waiting lists for child mental health services and for the statutory assessment for an education, health and care plan are at an all-time high. There are too few education psychologists and speech and language therapists available to support children, their families and schools nationally.
Without this specialist support, many children cannot access education in an effective way – and by the time they reach one of our schools many have missed out on significant periods of education and hence have huge learning gaps.
Schools know their pupils best. We need the autonomy to implement this expertise in practical ways – being able to offer extra support and services like wraparound care, breakfast clubs and even uniform supplies – ensuring a child has what they need to learn, before even stepping foot in a classroom.
We need to be able to personalise our provision to individual children, as needs vary significantly. No two settings or cohorts are ever the same, but this isn’t always recognised by the many ‘blanket’ government policies and target-setting exercises.
The National Tutoring Programme has been a good example of this. While admirable in its intentions, it needed to be designed in partnership with schools who understand the need and challenges.
Children with special education needs and disabilities would struggle with unfamiliar tutors coming into classrooms or even online - yet this was one of two options proposed when the NTP was implemented in June 2020. These are the very pupils who missed out the most and needed to be prioritised within a national “catch up” drive.
It would have been far more effective for schools to have been given additional funding with the freedom to use it in a way that was right for their own pupils.
I am an advocate for high standards and achievement for all. But schools do not have the means to close the inequality gap by themselves.
Greater recognition of the systematic challenges that schools are facing is needed and this needs to be backed up financially. The announcement of performance tables this year exemplifies just this – what benefit will they bring to anyone?
We need a far greater emphasis on the many wider factors that affect school achievement and work together as a society if we are to meaningfully improve the outcomes for our children and young people.