SATURDAY schooling is about to be launched at the Harris Federation of 49 academies. The focus will be on Year 6, the final year of primary schooling, and on pre-GCSE pupils in Year 11. This a sensible and welcome response to the loss of teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The programme is to be funded by a wealthy donor, Andy Headley of Veritas Asset Management. He once attended a comprehensive school in Harrogate. I don’t know if it was the one where I began my teaching career. I do, however, applaud his initiative and his generosity.
Many pupils in private education will never have known Saturday mornings without school. There follows, usually, an afternoon of competitive team sport against other independent schools. Added to this is often a requirement, during weekdays, to complete end-of-school-day supervised ‘prep’ or homework. Term lengths may be shorter in the private sector but, mostly, the demands placed on pupil time and commitment is greater than in most maintained schools.
Three cheers, then, for the Harris Federation and for its latest benefactor! It has woken up to a disparity in educational provision between state schools and those in in the private sector. The attainment gap between privileged and less-privileged pupils has widened during the school lockdown and not only in the UK.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the attainment gap in our schools has ever been defined, simply, by a private vs state school divide. This may be a comfortable opinion for Marxists to hold, but it is far from the truth. The real and most substantial division is between good schools and inadequate schools, as I pointed out in a debate at the Cambridge Union as long ago as 2015. My side was defeated in the debate but the current swing in Oxbridge admissions towards favouring the less privileged makes me wonder if I was too successful in my arguments!
The Harris Academy chain of schools fall, clearly, into the category of ‘good’. As a consequence of providing Saturday schooling they are about to become even better. Most grammar schools fall into the same category. There are also some first-rate comprehensive schools. One, Harrogate Grammar, a comprehensive, has even chosen to retain the appellation of ‘grammar’. It is situated in the posh part of town.
Selection to good schools by postcode is an insidious, much less transparent form of selection than basing entry on, for example, an 11-plus test of aptitude. It does determine, however, in an overwhelming way, the allocation of school places in most of the UK.
It is time government and education policy-makers faced up to some of the less palatable facts of schooling. The Times was right to call for more ‘catch-up’ schemes for our state schools in an editorial on Tuesday. It is pie-in-the-sky thinking, however, to imagine, as the writer of the article does, that there is an untapped reserve of retired teachers itching to get back into the classroom. One in three new teachers leaves the profession within five years and amongst older staff many cannot wait to get out of the door.
The sense of unreality conjured up by the Times leader is only added to by its justification of ‘catch-up’ lessons for Year 11 pupils. These pupils are, it declares, ‘staring down the barrel of their GCSEs’. Not so long ago the newspaper was pointing out on its front page that 15 per cent constituted a ‘pass’ in GCSE maths.
Being confronted by a such a low hurdle is hardly equivalent to ‘staring down the barrel’. True, though it is higher than the 13 per cent required at A-Level.