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If this is success, what does failure look like?


This year, 51 per cent of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, as against 70 per cent of their better-off peers, left England’s primary schools having attained the ‘expected level’ in English and maths. Should we be celebrating?

Sir Anthony Sheldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, is certain we should. He told the Daily Telegraph, without a hint of irony, that this was a ‘genuine cause for celebration’. The schools minister, Nick Gibb, was quick to add his enthusiastic support to Sir Anthony’s diagnosis of success. He regards the results as a verification of his belief that ‘every child, regardless of their background, deserves a high-quality education and opportunity to fulfil their potential’.

Given that the achievement gap separating disadvantaged pupils from the non-disadvantaged, on the government’s index, has decreased by 13 per cent since 2011, we certainly seem to be moving in the right direction. Some thanks, then, to Michael Gove and his restoration of a little more rigour into the curriculum.

It says much, though, about the state of schooling in our country that a failure rate of 49 per cent for disadvantaged children can be hailed as worth celebrating. It is not dissimilar to the government’s decision to classify the gaining of 21 per cent of the marks on last summer’s GCSE maths as officially a ‘good pass’ in the subject and part of a great leap forward in standards – a cause for more celebration.

A BBC analysis showed that at the current rate of progress it still will take 50 years for under-privileged pupils to close the attainment gap completely. But does this statistical merry-go-round mean much at all when we can have any pass rate we want by manipulating the grade boundaries?

And how far has an over-concentration on the English and maths SATs distorted and impoverished the broader curriculum? Science is certainly being squeezed, as is sport, and one of our few areas of excellence internationally, the arts, has been reduced to Cinderella status in many state schools. This is extraordinary, not least because art, music, drama, dance and so on contribute close to one hundred billion sterling to our economy and most of that is earned outside of the EU.

One cheer, then, for the latest improvement in primary school performance. But with over a third of all pupils still failing to reach the expected level, we need to retain a sense of perspective.

We should not forget that amongst the Asia-Pacific super-star education systems, the current attainment of our 11-year-olds would be regarded as a national catastrophe. In Shanghai, for example, the bottom 10 per cent socially – the children of street cleaners and janitors, for example – are ahead of our top 20 per cent – the social elite. In other words, pupils attending Eton, Wycombe Abbey, Westminster, St Paul’s and the like have some way to go if they are to catch up with the offspring of the guy cleaning ashtrays in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

If the latest SATs results represent ‘success’ and are worthy of celebration, one wonders how ‘failure’ is to be defined.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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