Closing the gap doesn’t mean lowering the bar

Adam Wainwright

adam-wainwright-researcher-480Earlier this month, Ofsted published a report on how well secondary schools are supporting their most able pupils.

The findings suggest that these pupils are not performing as well as they should, and that schools should do more to challenge them. One of the main conclusions was that disadvantaged most able pupils continue to perform worse than “their more affluent peers” in non-selective schools.

I can’t imagine many jaws dropping at this reveal. To me, it’s but another indication that being naturally ‘bright’ is no match for structural inequalities. But what should we do about this particular cohort? For Labour, the answer is to introduce a ‘gifted and talented’ fund. Followers of Laura McInerney might have seen the good points she then made about not neglecting the low-attaining disadvantaged, and there have also been parallel discussions about whether the introduction of progress 8 will favour high attainers.

I have a lot of sympathy for schools who might read the Ofsted report and think that this is just the latest cohort for in-depth progress tracking, until next month when we find that another cohort becomes more ‘fashionable’ to focus on. But I also think that a response from Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for schools, to a similar concern highlighted a point worth exploring:

I don’t think Sean’s point here is that schools should focus on the more able pupils on free school meals in order to win Ofsted points; I think the idea is that there’s crossover when we try to analyse underachieving cohorts. Trying to improve the performance of the most able disadvantaged pupils is helping disadvantaged pupils, as well as the most able.

But Sean’s tweet also prompted me to think about another reason to focus on the most able disadvantaged pupils.

Government research has shown that there’s still a shameful lack of diversity among those in leadership positions in our society. Politicians are the obvious demographic here, but they aren’t the only group: the media, business and even acting are all dominated by people of socio-economic advantage. The route to these jobs usually lies in the kind of success defined by rigorous, academic achievement: the more we support the most able disadvantaged pupils, the more we should see diversity making its way up the ladder.

It’s possible to imagine that the people with the best ideas of how to narrow the achievement gap are those who started out as disadvantaged pupils in the first place. The statistics suggest that they’re getting precious few chances to try to change things. I really hope that more happens as a result of this report. I don’t think it’s just about trying to measure more and more in-school gaps; it taps into a greater, and important, conversation about social mobility.

Further reading to help

Members of The Key for School Leaders can read up on guidance for challenging the most able pupils on our website. We also look at how governors can support more able pupils on The Key for School Governors.

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