In public policy, relative priority matters – will new data from Save the Children mean we see a greater focus on primary schooling?

October 8, 2013

Save the Children have released a powerful and thought provoking report today which sets out clearly and for the first time the extent to which variation in children’s attainment in the primary phase of schooling impacts on GCSE results.

Their research – conducted by Becky Allen and John Jerrim at the Institute of Education – shows that when looking at literacy and numeracy together, 78% of the difference in attainment recorded in GCSEs at age 16 is already present at age 7 – and 89% at age 11. In other words, even the most effective and dedicated secondary school is fighting to maximise the impact on that remaining 11%.

The analysis further shows that for poorer children who fall behind age 7, they are the least likely to recover and achieve 5 good GCSEs. Of those children assessed as being ‘behind’ at age 7 (defined as one level below national expectations), only 16% will go on to achieve 5 good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with the (still too low) figure of 24% for their better off counterparts.

Save the Children rightly identify this as a vital issue for all political parties to address – from a social mobility standpoint as well as an economic standpoint. The question is how best to respond.

Debates around closing the gap in the UK have largely come down to the impact of a child’s home life versus the school effect. Some argue passionately that as the school effect is relatively small, the focus should be on wider societal changes needed. Others argue that schools can and should do more to close gaps, or that even this relatively small % impact in ‘real’ terms is still significant – for poor pupils, for example, Sutton Trust have shown that the difference between having a high quality teacher for a year against a poor quality one is an entire year’s worth of learning (1.5 years average gain with a highly effective teacher against 0.5 years with an ineffective one)

There is, of course, common ground – few in the UK education space would argue either that teacher and school quality is not important, or that wider societal programmes to support children and families are not worthwhile. But the reason why this debate is significant is the same reason as to why the knowledge vs skills debate is significant. It is because simply saying “it’s a false dichotomy, we should do both” is a wholly unsatisfactory conclusion. In public policy, emphasis – and relative priority –matters.  What makes the Save the Children report so interesting – quite apart from its new research conclusions – is that it can be seen as quite a significant pivot into the school space, and away from the position that it and some of the organisations in this area had prioritised hitherto.  For as well as wider analysis on the need to maintain living standards, the report argues convincingly for the need to improve literacy and emotional development amongst the most deprived in the early years sector, and a new focus specifically on primary schools to raise attainment for all – something with which Policy Exchange strongly agrees, and which will be a focus of our work in the forthcoming months

Given the recent arrival of Tristram Hunt, it will be interesting to see whether this Save the Children position – given the links of their key personnel into the Labour party and Ed Miliband’s advisers – is taken up by the Shadow Education team. It deserves to be.

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