How do we help ‘unseen’ children access achievement?

By Julie Nelson and Richard White

Thursday 20 June 2013

Today, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills issued a report: Unseen Children: access and achievement 20 years on. The report contains some positive messages, showing that the achievement of some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children is on the rise.

Sir Michael is clear that there is no room for complacency, however. There are stark regional variations in the achievement gap between poor and affluent children. In particular, disadvantaged children living in suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts (an ‘invisible minority’ in schools often rated as good or outstanding) are falling behind. In contrast, progress in London and many other large towns and cities is marked.

Our evidence helped to shape Sir Michael’s report. At NFER, we have been conducting research into the causes and effects of differential attainment, as well as into policy and practice-based solutions to narrow this gap, for many years.

While many of us here are not surprised by the findings of Sir Michael’s report and agree with the argument for many of his recommendations, there are some issues that we feel need further consideration, or which have been potentially overlooked:

Toughening of Ofsted focus on schools not doing well by their poor students

It is good to see that disadvantaged children are rising up the political agenda, and that schools will be held to account on their progress. In order for this to happen, however, there will need to be an even tighter focus on the use of Pupil Premium funding, and schools are likely to need guidance on how best to evaluate its impact. Many schools do not currently know the best evaluation strategies to use, or the best means of attributing results to funded interventions. Schools in affluent areas with small numbers of pupils eligible for funding will also have very limited budgets to work with, which will limit the range of interventions that they can potentially use.

Roll out of sub-regional challenges

NFER evidence suggests that it will be critical for this model to be non-bureaucratic (as Wilshaw has proposed) and based on a model of dynamic leadership – with school leaders driving the development and securing the buy-in of schools and teachers. The success of school-level interventions depends on the extent to which the drive to narrow the gap is embedded within schools’ ethos, visions and structures, the impetus for which must come from school leaders.

Appointment of National Leaders of Education and National Service teachers

There is a strong argument for enhancing professional practice around pupil achievement. Our research shows that good classroom-based strategies and interventions can make a difference, and that the quality of teaching and learning is critical. This must be underpinned by effective collection and analysis of appropriate data to track progress and to evaluate the impacts of specific programmes and activities.

Sir Michael’s report does not talk much about the use of targeted initiatives to (re)engage particular vulnerable or ‘at risk’ groups, but our research has shown that such approaches are often needed with vulnerable young people. They have been shown to repair damaged relationships between schools, young people and their families, prevent exclusions, raise aspirations and support academic progress.

Review of assessment in reception and key stage 1

If we are to narrow the gap in educational outcomes then we need to adopt a long-term approach, starting with early identification and intervention (often in the Early Years). However, Sir Michael’s recommendation for a review of assessment in reception and key stage 1 raises some critical questions.

While there may be some sympathy for assessing children before the end of Reception in terms of closing the achievement gap, the end of Reception marks the end of a phase of learning (as is the case with other end of key stage assessments).  We must also remember that schools and other early years providers are only just coming to terms with changes implemented in September 2012 following the Tickell Review of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Further changes to assessment in Reception classes may be seen as both confusing and burdensome by professionals and may be counterproductive to achieving the desired goal of closing the achievement gap.

Recommendations related to the FE and skills sector

Enabling and supporting young people (especially those most at risk of disengagement) to make smoother transitions from education to employment is critically important. This is why NFER is investing resources into a programme of research that seeks to identify young people most at risk of disengagement in key stage 4 and is investigating a range of interventions that support them to remain engaged. Much more needs to be done to keep young people engaged pre-16 (and, indeed, pre-14) in order that they remain engaged in learning post 16.

Finally, Sir Michael’s recommendations relate almost exclusively to the school and further education sectors – but of course, it is well known that disadvantaged children often have complex barriers to learning, which mean that they need the support of a wide range of other professionals.

Much of our research demonstrates that there is a need for a coordinated approach in meeting their needs. This approach must be between a range of agencies and service providers, and must include those with a family-focused remit. The effectiveness of such multi-agency, holistic approaches is influenced by the nature and effectiveness of the higher level local governance arrangements in which they operate.

Similarly, it is essential that there are clearly defined local plans for narrowing achievement gaps, appropriate frameworks for service delivery and the involvement of a wide range of local stakeholders and partners through approaches such as local authority strategies for whole area development and child poverty-reduction programmes. Will the reduced role of local authorities in educational provision and the increasing role of a ‘middle tier’ between schools and government present critical challenges in this respect in the future?

The fact that Ofsted and Sir Michael are showing leadership in this crucially important area is positive, but there is plenty more work to be done.