As the new academic year begins, many schools will still be
basking in the glow of yet another crop of record GCSE and A-level
results. There are still huge problems with educational attainment
– well over 100,000 children move into secondary school each
year, for example, having failed to meet literacy and numeracy
targets – but the government can claim improvements too:
90,000 more children a year leaving primary school with the
expected level of English and record numbers going on from school
to higher education or further training.
This is the mountain summit of academic achievement, the one the
government likes to have depicted by the press, as it were seen
from far off glimmering in sunlight. Out of sight in the shadows
below there is a quite different story to be told about another
group of children who are not enjoying the success of their peers.
If the logic of transferring children’s social care to the
Department for Education and Skills is taken to its conclusion,
schools will at last begin to give these children the attention
they deserve. Unfortunately the omens are poor.
It should be the year when schools begin opening up to the wider
community, become full partners in the safeguarding of vulnerable
children, and link more closely with the integrated planning of
services in their local authority areas as the new children’s
departments come on stream.
So what was education secretary Ruth Kelly’s message to
local government leaders this week? She reasserted her view that
standards rule and schools which fail to meet them must shape up or
ship out. On the surface, her message was conciliatory. In the
past, she admitted, the DfES had been guilty of seeing local
government more as an obstacle to progress than a partner in
change. That would no longer be the case, she promised, elaborating
her plans for a schools white paper later this year on
children’s life chances and equality of opportunity.
But her remarks came as reports emerged showing that “truancy
sweeps” have been a waste of police resources and that permanent
exclusions have increased sharply, while elsewhere critics claimed
that the government’s new proposals to make it easier for
young offenders to return to school could have the opposite effect.
Yet in the same speech Kelly once again sang the praises of more
autonomous schools, such as the privately sponsored city academies
that she suggested would even more quickly replace schools deemed
to be failing. In other words, local authorities will have less
influence over schools, not more, and will have less impact on the
plight of the poorest performers academically, whether missing,
excluded or imprisoned.
There is no denying that the twin goals of achievement and
inclusion are difficult to achieve when taken together. The idea
that it’s possible to raise standards and offer parents more
choice, at the same time as using schools as a key weapon in the
fight against social exclusion, seems almost paradoxical. Kelly
would doubtless argue that, on the contrary, helping every child
achieve their full potential is the only way to wipe out exclusion,
particularly in breaking the intergenerational cycle. But, in order
to achieve that aim, each child has to be seen in an individual and
holistic way. This is where the values and skills of social care
come in, and where extended schools can help in ensuring vulnerable
and challenging children reach their full potential too.
It’s not the principle of striving to achieve high
standards that is at fault, then, but the way in which individual
attainment is aggregated into whole school measures. It turns a
method of encouraging individual achievement into a straightforward
disincentive for schools to reach out to children whose academic
potential is limited. If this systemic fault can be corrected, the
twin goals of excellence and inclusion will work to the benefit of