Good news about education that is genuine, rather than the usual window dressing and ‘PR’, is, too often, thin on the ground. Three cheers, then, for the Ark Academy chain of schools and for what it has been achieving with its pupils. The organisation runs 31 academies across four areas – London, Portsmouth, Birmingham and Hastings. The latest GCSE results for these schools are above the national average; 58 per cent of its pupils achieved Grade C or above in five subjects including English and Maths. This was up from 54 per cent last year. The current national average is 52.6 per cent. – down 6 per cent on last year.
What is remarkable about the Ark academies is not so much the raw data; after all, many schools do better. What is remarkable is that the Ark schools are achieving their results with an unusually high percentage of children who are seriously disadvantaged. Two thirds of its pupils are eligible for free school meals compared with a national average of well under a third (26 per cent). In addition, a quarter of Ark pupils started secondary school at a level below the minimum standard expected and Ark schools have double the average number of children classified as having special educational needs.
Of significance, too, perhaps is the fact that, compared to the national average, three times as many Ark pupils speak English as an additional language. Many are from an immigrant background. However, this is from being the impediment to progress than might be expected. In my experience, our immigrant population is much more likely to place a high value on education, and to work hard, than many of our indigenous, welfare-dependent, white working class.
Very often, diligent immigrant children help schools create a work ethic that spurs on all their pupils. Very likely, this is true of the Ark schools, too. Certainly, we need to stop feeling too sorry for the poor immigrant child. We do well by them and they do well by us. They are a success story. Inner London, where native English speakers are now in a minority is, educationally out-performing many ‘affluent’ areas in other parts of the country.
Ark’s success, of course, is based on a lot more than having a comparatively high proportion of immigrant children bringing with them a great work ethic. It is succeeding in difficult circumstances where, in the past, other schools have failed. Its success is based on getting the ‘basics’ right. Alongside “high expectations”, “exemplary behaviour”, “knowing every child” and “more time for learning”, it is nailing down some sound teaching methods. In mathematics, for example, the Ark schools are deploying a curriculum inspired by the methods used so successfully in high-achieving Singapore. Similarly, in the teaching of reading, tried and tested phonics methods are central.
There is nothing miraculous about the success of the Ark academies. Far from it! They are doing the basic things right, teachers are responding and the pupils are benefitting. As a country we have a very long way to go if we are ever to match the best school systems around the world. The Ark schools are beginning to show us a way forward.