This week the Financial Times printed the results of a survey giving an ethnic breakdown of GCSE results. It painted a picture of extraordinary levels of achievement for Chinese children, including Chinese children on free school meals. The next feature to notice was high levels of achievement for children from an Indian background, something I regularly see in this constituency. But there is then a far more disturbing story of low educational achievement among low income black and white children, leading to fewer chances in life and fewer options for the future.
What lessons should we draw from this picture?
Firstly, that we should treat this with urgency. In a world where, more and more, opportunity in life is linked to education and skills, to tolerate low levels of achievement is to tolerate the denial of opportunity and Labour should always be the fighters for more opportunity, particularly for those whom this survey shows are doing least well at school.
Secondly, some of Labour’s initiatives worked and we should be pressing for more such reforms. For example, the FT survey shows a brighter picture in London where London Challenge combined resources with a heavy emphasis on leadership and change to lift standards. During our time in office the educational picture in the capital was changed radically from the one we inherited. And later on we took the London Challenge model, spreading it to Manchester and the Black Country. But the Government, which professes to be in favour of reform and intolerant of low standards, has just ended Black Country Challenge. Overall, despite Labour’s reforms the survey shows there is still a huge amount to do to lift standards among low income black and white children, especially outside the capital.
Thirdly, income alone cannot be used as an explanation. The survey shows that Chinese children on low incomes are outperforming almost everyone else, apart from the Chinese children not on low incomes. There is a huge issue of poverty of aspiration in some places which has come to accept low standards as the norm. This has got to be challenged.
Fourthly. To repeat an old Blairite cliché, our approach to reform has to be about levelling up, not levelling down. We cannot say to parents who want better that they have to put up with low standards because we are somehow worried about the effect this may have on others. To allow low standards to continue on this basis is a poor argument. We should be empowering and supporting the aspirational to show what can be done and lift standards not only in their own schools but right across the local area. This emphasis on support as well as empowerment is important. Our argument with the government should be less about school freedoms and more about how to make sure the benefits of those freedoms are felt in the areas where they are most needed.
The FT concludes that the Coalition Government’s proposed remedies don’t match up to the challenge and that the much vaunted pupil premium “is largely irrelevant”.
Labour should respond to this survey not with defensiveness but with passion and hunger for change. Our cause should be the widening of opportunity for the most children. Our inspiration should be the power of learning to transform lives. And our allies should be the ambitious teachers and parents who want the system to do better and believe that it can.
Posted on 18 April 2011.