As part of the Conservatives’ “one nation” approach, they are rightly committed to improving “coasting schools” – those not struggling, but without momentum to provide an outstanding education. Successive governments have transformed the chances of children in the poorest areas – areas historically with the worst schools – by introducing academies and free schools.
Now is the time to improve the life chances of children that go to schools that simply do “ok”.
In doing so, the Government must also help the most gifted children. Every classroom has children capable of attaining the highest grades and competing for places at top universities. While some are lucky enough to attend schools that really stretch their abilities, many brilliant pupils never fulfil their potential.
What can politicians do to make sure this potential is not lost? Recent education reforms are helping. Narrowing the subjects that count in league tables means that more schools are pushing pupils into the toughest subjects. Furthermore, pass rates are no longer rising year-on-year. Together, these reforms mean that schools are competing on a more serious playing field. Also, by freeing schools from local government control and a restrictive national curriculum, the Government is fostering excellence by unleashing teachers’ innovation and creativity.
The Government has developed something of an “evangelising and regulatory role” in education. They are explaining why a more challenging model is required and creating a regulatory structure designed to develop this approach. This new role should be applied in a more concentrated basis to help the most talented pupils in state schools.
Many within the education world are looking at how schools can develop pupils’ so-called “soft skills” and raise their sights. This includes building skills like confident public speaking and debating, accumulating more knowledge of arts and culture and generally helping pupils understand more about elite professions. Speakers for Schools – which provides high-profile speakers to attend schools across the country – is a good example. These initiatives are vital – the collective raising of sights is arguably the single most important thing for pupils and their families as they seek to achieve excellence.
However, it is not enough to show pupils that success is possible. Families need to understand what it is required to achieve success in the first place. Fundamentally, this comes down to being exposed to what the best and brightest are learning and achieving at Britain’s top schools. The reality is that most parents cannot adequately compare their children’s progress to others. There is no shame in this – it simply reflects that parents cannot know everything about education policy and national attainment levels.
The Government should provide information on what the best schools in the country expect from their pupils on an academic basis, and help parents to understand how they can access the resources necessary to give their talented children the ability to compete.
Part of this can be done through an evangelisation of the accumulation of knowledge – something that Michael Gove was fond of doing. But the Government should also consider the creation of an online platform that sets out exactly what the best schools demand from top performers – and how parents and pupils can emulate their success.
Setting up such a platform would not be without controversy. Social media will be awash with opposition to Government setting out its views on excellence and many will moan about content. Much of that can be managed relatively easily. However, more serious is ensuring parents on ordinary modest incomes can access the materials that will be deemed necessary to help pupils succeed.
For this reason, the focus of such a platform will have to be on providing extensive links to where to find the best free or cheap academic materials online. There is a vast array of extremely high quality content on the web – on youtube, on universities’ and academics’ own sites, as well as on blogs and specialist sites. The job of this platform would be try to help parents and pupils work out where to find the most appropriate and useful content, partly dependent on the age of the pupils looking for additional help. (There is a developing campaign for schools to be given free access to research journals online. There are clear cost implications for the Government but it would be worth seeing whether a financial deal with providers can be struck on this issue.)
However, clearly not all high quality academic content is available for free online. Books still matter. And with that in mind, this platform would also need to help parents and pupils locate the largest local libraries across the country.
In addition, the Government should see how it can encourage two things. Firstly, how to get larger public libraries to loan school libraries crucial texts for short periods through the year, and to ensure that old and useful stock can be offered to schools first before it is sold off. Secondly, universities should provide older pupils – those studying for their GCSEs and A Levels – the ability to use their libraries to read materials during specific periods. Some of this is already happening, of course.
Practically everything the Government does is open to ridicule and cynicism. The growth of social media makes this more visible then ever before. Encouraging excellence in this way would be a huge new target for those that prefer everything to stay the same. But Government is about doing good and sometimes the negative hit is worth the risk.
Helping enthusiastic parents to understand the performance of their child relative to others will provide a vital service that will be received gratefully by many.