The results of The Sutton Trusts recent report come as no surprise.
The report shows that ‘even the most able’ students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be in the top 10% for attainment in English and maths at the end of primary school – the top 10% are referred to in this report as high attainers. Students from lower socio-economic groups are three times less likely to be in this high attainment group than their better off peers.
The impact is seen on grades too - 72% of non-disadvantaged high attainers achieve 5 A*-A grades or more at GCSE, while only 52% of disadvantaged high attainers do so.
There are few who would not argue that all young people are entitled to a quality education to enable them to thrive and fulfil their potential, but the Sutton Trust report adds to the mountain of evidence that our narrow, exam-grade focused curriculum is not delivering for many youngsters and particularly those who might benefit most.
All good teachers know that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to education, but the pressures of metrics, measurement and league tables are not always compatible with a creative approach to learning tailored to meet individual’s needs.
Reports such as ‘Potential for Success’ remind us that the barriers to education faced by disadvantaged students are very tangible. Being ‘bright’ is not enough. Having ‘aspirations’ is not enough. Our national curriculum is designed to meet the needs of pupils assumed to have some social capital, some learning opportunities at home and parents or carers who support ambitions.
Clearly schools cannot wholly compensate for the inequities of a society which leaves people economically vulnerable, but we can provide a rich learning environment that enables and encourages children to develop life skills, character traits and a thirst for knowledge and progression.
Of course subject knowledge is critical, but without the means and skills to apply it, even an A grade becomes meaningless. The curriculum we are using as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution belongs in the age of steam. The question is not ‘how can we get poor bright kids to get better exam results like better-off bright kids?’, but rather how can we give every child the key ingredients for success in life and work – confidence, social capital and a wide range of skills like team working and problem solving.