Press release

Too many of England's poorest let down by education system

Too many of England’s poorest children continue to be let down by the education system.

The Chief Inspector of Ofsted today put forward a series of radical and far-reaching recommendations to make a lasting difference to the prospects of thousands of ‘unseen children’ from low income backgrounds who are being let down by the education system.

The recommendations aimed at closing the attainment gap between England’s poorest children and those from better off backgrounds were contained in a lecture delivered by Sir Michael Wilshaw in central London.

The speech at Church House in Westminster and the accompanying report, entitled ‘Unseen children’, marked 20 years since Ofsted first published a report into the achievements of the poorest children in the education system and 10 years since a follow-up study in 2003.

Sir Michael set out the main conclusions of the report, which followed widespread deliberation by an expert panel of head teachers, academics and educational leaders. They are:

  • the distribution of underachievement has shifted. 20 or 30 years ago, the problems were in the big cities. Inner London schools were the best funded and worst achieving in the country. Now, schools in inner and outer London are the best performing, and performance in parts of Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester has also improved
  • the areas where the most disadvantaged children are being let down by the education system in 2013 are no longer deprived inner city areas, instead the focus has shifted to deprived coastal towns and rural, less populous regions of the country, particularly down the East and South-East of England. These are places that have felt little impact from national initiatives designed to drive up standards for the poorest children
  • a significant number of poorer children are also being failed by schools in areas of relative affluence, such as Kettering, Wokingham, Norwich and Newbury. It is in these areas, in coasting or sometimes sinking schools, that unseen disadvantaged children remain unsupported and unchallenged

Alongside the evidence report published by Ofsted, is a league table ranking local authorities based on how effectively schools in these areas are serving their most disadvantaged pupils.

Strikingly, this shows that the areas where poor children are doing worst in terms of educational opportunity are relatively prosperous parts of South East England, like West Berkshire. As a local authority area, West Berkshire:

  • has the worst attainment in the whole country at primary school
  • has the second worst attainment at secondary school
  • is in the bottom three local authorities for qualifications at 19

In his speech, Sir Michael set out 8 recommendations aimed at making a lasting difference in closing the attainment gap for the poorest children. These are:

  • Ofsted to be tougher in future with schools that are letting down their poor children. Schools previously judged outstanding, which are not doing well by their poorest children, will be re-inspected
  • the development and roll-out of sub-regional challenges aimed particularly at raising the achievement of disadvantaged children.
  • a more strategic approach should be taken to the appointment of National Leaders of Education to ensure that they are matched with schools in need of support
  • government should ensure that teachers on funded schemes are directed to underperforming schools in less fashionable or more remote or challenging places. The concept of a ‘National Service Teacher’ should be an urgent consideration for government.
  • government should review assessment in reception and key stage 1, with a view to publishing progress measures from the start of school to end of key stage 1
  • government should be prepared to dismantle inadequate colleges that have grown too large to assure quality across their different activities. Smaller specialist units, particularly University Technology Colleges, should be created with stronger links to business, commerce and industry
  • all recommendations in the Richard Review of apprenticeships should be implemented in full
  • all post-16 providers should report on the rate of progress and outcomes for all young people who had previously been eligible for free school meals

Sir Michael said:

The quality of education is the most important issue facing Britain today. In the long term, our success as a nation – our prosperity, our security, our society – depends on how well we raise and educate our young people across the social spectrum.

In the last 20 or 30 years, the performance of schools in inner London, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester has been transformed. The distribution in educational underachievement has shifted.

Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts. Often they are spread thinly, as an ‘invisible minority’ across areas that are relatively affluent. We need new policies and approaches to deal with underachievement in these areas.

Poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until – at the earliest opportunity – they sever their ties with it.

There are stark consequences for our nation if we do not act with sufficient urgency. We will continue to lose our place as a competitive nation and bear great economic costs of failure. By the time the next Access and Achievement report is published, I hope I can say that most, if not all, of the recommendations I have made today have been implemented and that our poorest children have continued to improve their educational performance.

Notes to editors

  1. The Access and Achievement Expert Panel was made up of:
  • Dame Yasmin Bevan, Executive Principal and Headteacher, Challney High School for Boys and Denbigh High School
  • Dr Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation
  • Dr Hilary Emery, Chief Executive, National Children’s Bureau
  • Professor Chris Husbands, Director, Institute of Education, University of London
  • Debbie Jones, Immediate Past President, Association of Directors of Children’s Services; and Executive Director, Children and Young Person’s Services, Lambeth
  • Sir Daniel Moynihan, Chief Executive Officer, Harris Foundation
  • Carol Norman, Headteacher, Welbeck Primary School, Nottingham and National Leader of Education
  • Mike Raleigh, Education Adviser
  • Dame Ruth Silver, Chair, Learning and Skills Improvement Service
  • Professor Robert Slavin, Professor, Institute for Effective Education, University of York and Director, Center for Research and Reform in Education, John Hopkins University
  • Professor David Woods CBE, Former Adviser, London Schools and The London Challenge; and Principal National Challenge Adviser for England
  1. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children’s social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

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Published 20 June 2013