Blame poverty, not schools part 1

This is the first of a series of reports summarising key research, and based largely on official statistics. 


English schools are ‘held to account’ by a draconian system of bullying by numbers, reinforced by Ofsted. The constant targeting of less ‘effective’ schools helps deflect attention from poverty and its impact on young people’s learning. The claim that teachers are to blame for low achievement distracts people from economic realities.

Complex changes in the calculations and criteria are underway to keep teachers pre-occupied: baseline tests, coasting schools, removal of levels, new GCSE grades, coasting schools, Progress 8, and so on. This elaborate pretence that ‘accountability’ is an exact science serves as a cover-up for politicians hellbent on cutting benefits.

This narrative is sustained despite the abundant evidence in official statistics that poverty is undermining achievement and progress. The impact of poverty is the key issue, not variations in school ‘effectiveness’. Even though schools vary in how well they are able to reduce the impact of poverty, this can only be relative: the impact of poverty is moderated, not eliminated.

Though research reports differ on how much difference it makes to attend one school rather than another, almost all agree that while schools can make a difference, it is the minor influence or one that generally benefits only a minority of students. A major review of research by Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon (2007) commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, using government data, concludes

‘We find that only about 6 per cent of the net association between FSM and low achievement, other things being equal, is due to FSM students attending worse quality schools.’


A clear message from official data

Every year the Department for Education publishes analysis and tables of data known as ‘Statistical First Releases’ (SFR). This section pulls together some of that data.

Measuring disadvantaged pupils attainment gaps over time (SFR 40/2014)

This document compares GCSE candidates who have had a Free School Meal entitlement at any time in the last six years with the rest. states that the attainment gap averages more than a grade in every GCSE subject. The attainment gap, on average, is more than a grade in each GCSE they sit. In 2013 the former scored 4.1 (an average D grade) while the latter scored 5.2 (just above the average C grade).

GCSE and equivalent attainment by pupil characteristics (SFR 06/2015)

This shows that pupils eligible for Free School Meals have about half as much chance of achieving 5 A*-Cs (or equivalent) with English and Maths, compared with all other pupils. To be precise, 33.5% of FSM pupils do so, compared with 60.5% of the rest, a gap of 27.0 percentage points. The massive pressure placed on teachers over many years has failed to shift this.

For a variety of reasons, underachievement is less severe in some groups than others. Exam results are particularly low for black Caribbean boys on FSM (30.9%) and white British boys on FSM (23.8%).

Whichever way you look at the data, the poverty factor will not go away. The National and Local Authority tables attached to SFR 06/2015  show

  • big differences between FSM and non-FSM Special Needs pupils (table 2)
  • a 38 percentage point gap between schools with least and most disadvantaged pupils (table 5.18)
  • massive gaps based on IDACI geographical areas.

In the prosperous South East, 34% of pupils living in the most deprived neighbourhoods get 5 A*-Cs with English and Maths, compared with 75% in the least deprived. Despite the London Challenge, the gap between neighbourhoods in London is 55% to 81%.

(To be continued)

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