Closing the poverty- attainment gap

Written by: HTU | Published:

The Future Leaders charity works to develop outstanding school leaders in challenging secondary schools. It is now expanding its work to the primary sector and is appealing for applicants. Heath Monk explains

The August “silly season” sees the usual hysterical press coverage of A level/GCSE results.

As a nation, we seem to be able to accept that world records are there to be broken at London 2012, but not that children can attain higher standards than they did in the 1950s. No-one has implied that the 800 metre is shorter than it used to be.

Whatever the outcomes, one thing is certain – the attainment gap between students from poor backgrounds and their more affluent peers will remain and much of that gap will have been evident before and during primary school.

Indeed, Britain’s social mobility has levelled off since the 1970s and, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world – 70 per cent of our High Court judges, 51 per cent of top medics and 32 per cent of MPs went to private school, compared to just seven per cent of our overall student population.

The All-Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility recently found that the best way to break the cycle of poverty is through education, and the most controllable factor is the quality of teaching. However, too many children are not getting the start they need to go on to success in later life.

Currently, students are expected to achieve at least Level 4 at the end of primary school. One in five children – more than 100,000 each year – fail to reach this benchmark each year and results have only marginally increased between 2005 and 2011.

Hitting targets in primary is no guarantee of a child’s success in secondary education – 45 per cent of those pupils who achieved Level 4 at 11 failed to go on to gain at least a C grade in GCSE exams last summer.

But for those that don’t get Level 4 – many of whom are from low-income families – that failure rate is even higher. In 909 schools, not one low-attaining pupil obtained five A* to C GCSEs.

At Future Leaders, our aim is to ensure every child reaches their full academic potential, regardless of family background or postcode. And so from this year, we will be expanding our remit to primary schools. In the last six years, we have learnt what makes great school leaders and how to develop them. Now, we are looking for talented assistant and deputy headteachers who aspire to lead challenging primary schools within the next three years.

We are starting off with a small pilot project for just 20 participants, but will provide them with coaching from an experienced headteacher, access to an online community, and enable them to join our network of more than 350 Future Leaders already making an impact in secondary schools.

Through our work in the secondary sector, we have seen that effective school leadership and outstanding teaching can narrow the gap – recent independent research found that schools with a Future Leader(s) working in them for two years or longer had an attainment gap of less than half the national average.

The challenge is to move beyond the improvement of individual schools to a system that prepares all school-leavers for the world of global competition they will face. We must set high, non-negotiable standards that we expect all children to attain and then work back to determine what rate of progress will be needed to get them there.

And that has to start as early as possible. On average, a child whose parental earnings are in the bottom 20 per cent will enter primary school 15 months behind their more affluent peers. That child needs to make more progress each year to reach the same point. Ensuring that children with low prior attainment and significant barriers to learning make more progress than their peers is time-consuming and difficult. But it can be done.

After the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, when Redgrave and Pinsent returned with Great Britain’s solitary gold medal, our performance at London 2012 would have been unthinkable. There has been investment. But, far more importantly, there has been vision, unshakeable belief and a determination to find every last marginal improvement possible.

• Heath Monk is CEO of Future Leaders, an independent charity working to break the link between low family income and poor attainment through outstanding school leadership. Visit

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