Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Rich or poor, we all need an education in leadership

Good head teachers are more important than grandly entitled educational initiatives, says Chris Donnelly

The Coalition's Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has attracted much criticism across the water this summer following news of the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme and his railroading through of the Academies Bill at a frenzied pace.

His recent assertion that "rich, thick" kids do better at school and in life than "poor, clever ones" seems to have been based on research by the Institute of Education.

While the research conclusions are not particularly surprising, what is hard to understand is just how the rush to create semi-autonomous 'Free Schools' and 'Academies' is expected to reduce the attainment gap. One of the factors driving the establishment of Charter Schools in the USA, Free Schools in Sweden and the original Academies in England was a belief that the existing educational structures did not encourage the development of highly motivated schools to tackle underachievement and low attainment.

The most successful Charter Schools in the States are known for the vocational zeal of their pedagogic professionals under the firm direction of strong head teachers. There are certainly things to be learnt from these initiatives - not least the need to deal decisively with underachieving schools.

However, such an approach in our own selective education system must be tempered by an acknowledgement that the task facing our non-grammar sector is all the more daunting given that our system ensures their enrolment is dominated by the academically weakest and most disadvantaged. Indeed, the latest figures from the Department of Education indicate that, whereas 97% of grammar pupils achieve five or more GCSE passes (A*-C), the figure for non-grammar pupils is 54% - a marked increase from just 40% five years ago.

Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that eligibility for free school meals is strongly associated with low achievement and other indicators included unemployment rates, single-parent households and parents with low educational qualifications. But while these factors temper against an overly-optimistic assessment of the potential for schools to deliver a genuinely level playing field, schooling still represents the most direct opportunity for the state to impact positively on the life prospects of a child.

The capacity for schools to lift the horizons of pupils and develop a culture of high expectations cannot be underestimated. Nor should the fact that the challenge of so doing increases in direct proportion to the worsening socio-economic profile of the school's enrolment. But it is not impossible, and therein lays the challenge to education professionals and those dictating state policies.

Unfortunately, there is often a low expectation culture in our schools. Take a look at the examination performance of schools courtesy of the DENI website and you will find a shocking disparity of performance in schools with similar levels of socio-economic deprivation (as measured by free school meal entitlement of the pupils). The implementation of the Every School A Good School policy by the department, along with a more robust approach from the Education and Training Inspectorate to school inspections, suggests that underperforming schools are now more likely to be subject to a process of support to rectify problems.

While politicians will tamper with school systems and flirt with grandly-entitled initiatives, ultimately the answer to delivering is in improving the quality of leadership within a school. We should be grateful devolution has spared us the distraction of the Academies debate.

Chris Donnelly is a commentator and blogger

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