Let’s tackle the social reasons behind pupil under-achievement

Three new Every Child programmes have been announced in recent weeks aimed at tackling under-performance in reading, writing and maths in the UK’s primary schools.

The intensive catch-up programmes, Every Child a Writer, Every Child a Reader and Every Child Counts, have been designed to help 23,500 children in 135 schools initially. The schemes will not, however, be rolled out nationally until 2011.

Any extra funding to boost children’s performance in basic skills is welcome but we must ensure we do not end up just delivering more of the same in terms of curriculum, rather than tackling the real reasons for under-performance.

Successful teaching is all about encouraging students to become effective independent learners. The way in which this will be achieved will vary from learner to learner. A student with low self-esteem due to poor reading skills coming up to the end of the key stage 2 transfer point can develop resilience in other subject areas through skilled oral questioning. For those lacking confidence it is essential to allow time for praise and endorsement from a teacher with whom there is a strong positive relationship.

Low attention span

For pupils with a low attention span lessons can be structured through small timed increments in learning. To allow learning to take place in the way most suited to students will require more than the odd extra hour of maths or reading here or there, as an add-on to existing provision. What I have read so far about the proposed support sounds suspiciously like the latter.

A study from London University’s Institute of Education, Influences on Attainment in Primary School, shows once again that for children the most significant impact on achievement is the capability of students when they enter school (based on results of assessment scores on entry) and their date of birth. The study showed significant variations in performance between children within a particular school, rather than between schools, with those living in areas of high social deprivation performing less well than those living in “better off” areas.

Narrow focus on testing

This latest research shows that as well as targeting particular schools and particular children within them – those who are beginning to fall behind expected rates of progress – more must be done to reach families with pre-school age children so that help is given in how to ­support children in their learning through play as well as improving the provision of high-quality day care for the under-fives.

By the time they are coming up to the high school transfer point it is already too late for many children. They feel that school has nothing to offer them because they are not involved in the learning process, and, consequently, it has no real meaning to them.

Our education system, with its narrow focus on test results, is in danger of failing increasing numbers of children by treating them as receptacles of knowledge rather than skilled learners.

By addressing the social reasons behind under-achievement at the same time as delivering high-quality input in our schools to boost key skills, we may yet stop the rot and ensure that all our children have at least the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed in the modern workplace.

Dawn Forshaw is the head teacher at Wellfield Church Primary School, Burnley, Lancashire

This article is published in the 25 September edition of Community Care under the headline “Let’s tackle the social reasons behind under-achievement”

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