The first few days of a new job are always testing. Your colleagues are actually strangers so you feel an outsider and under scrutiny. You don’t know your way around or where anything is. People keep telling you stuff but there’s very little you’re actually absorbing just yet. The things people really do need to tell you they assume you know already. You keep getting names wrong and you’re mortifyingly prone to asking daft questions.
It’s a tricky time and you may well be having to break the mid-week drinking rule more often than is healthy just to cope. However, experience tells you that this will pass and in truth it’s not long at all before your equilibrium is restored and you’re feeling like part of the furniture again.
Contrast that narrative with the one written by a child who arrives at a new school with no expectation of ever feeling the sense of belonging that is essential to wellbeing because that simply hasn’t been the story so far. According to data published by the DfES in On the Move, the largest group of pupils who change school mid year are ‘informal’ excludees. The poor social and emotional skills which led to exclusion, exacerbated now by hightened anxiety, make this group of pupils extremely vulnerable and it takes a very special school, a genuinely inclusive one, to break the cycle of negativity and failure.
There are some schools that consistently succeed where others fail, of course. Extraordinary places, often unsung heros of the sector, where needs are met and pupils loved in all of their diversity. Maybe, just maybe, Ofsted will now begin to recognise the contribution such schools make to the public good through its focus on ‘off-rolling,’ flagged in the most recent update for inspectors.
When the ‘fresh start’ fails, unrealistic expectations can be part of the problem – a pupil expected to find the inner resources to maximise the advantages of a new beginning without adequate support to change established patterns of behaviour. Or a pupil expected to be on best behaviour through some notional honeymoon period when in fact high levels of stress, often masked by bravado, are driving survival behaviours. The transfer of information can be poor too, so the new school may have no understanding of what reasonable adjustments need to be made – even when the principle of reasonable adjustment is fully understood. Consequences are then applied, as per the policy, and another move precipitated.
School hopping is of course strongly associated with disadvantage. Over 60% of pupils who change schools mid year are eligible for pupil premium or have SEND. The scale of this problem rarely catches the headlines, but it is enormous. For every ten pupils who start secondary school in England, six will change schools. According to this report, which cites the National Pupil Database, that’s a staggering 300,000 pupils a year. These pupils perform worse than expected with outcomes further compromised by every move. Indeed, when there have been two secondary school transitions, the scale of under-achievement is roughly equivalent to that of children in the care system.
We will never close the gap, or even diminish the difference, until the policy context actively serves to strengthen schools as inclusive communities. A knowledge-rich curriculum, a robust testing regime underpinning it, the most dilerious of academy freedoms – none of these things will do anything to break the cycle of deprivation until the DfE develops some policy around every child mattering again. During the period that Nick Gibb has been urging us to embrace the transformative power of a knowledge-rich curriculum, most recently in Empowering Teachers to Deliver Equity, the achievement gap between rich and poor pupils, already a chasm in the UK, has widened.
It would be farcically naive to maintain that we haven’t yet transmitted enough knowledge for its transformative power to impact on our most disadvantaged pupils. Or that progressive methods or learning styles are somehow undermining the great project, as Gibb implies. There is essential work around social pedagogy, community building, how to create a sense of belonging, that must come first. Rhetoric around closing the gaps will remain no more than that for as long as there is no focus on the marginalised, or for as long as that focus is ideological rather than research-led. Before Hirsch there has to be Maslow and before cultural capital there has to be social.
The most inclusive school leaders know this and enact it by pulling pupils in from the margins, viewing all of them as assets. They are contributors to the sector and to society, of course – addressing their own issues, referring for EHC assessment when necessary, leading on Early Help, building relationships with hard to reach families, providing keyworker support, embracing diversity, investing in their communities – warts and all.
If we are serious about closing the gaps, we need a policy climate that promotes this practice rather than one that actively undermines it. Inclusive schools are rarely on top of the leader board in its current form. By admitting and keeping ‘poor quality’ pupils, to quote the now notorious researh from the Centre for High Performance, they are more likely to be propping up their exclusive neighbours than taking any plaudits themselves.
The off-rollers; the SEND-lite; the exclusive – too often these have been our ‘rapidly improving’ and Ofsted Outstanding establishments. However, Amanda Spielman has said that the inspectorate is to become a force for good and by asking inspectors to consider pupil mobility as a leadership and management issue, she has taken an important early step in the right direction.
If the DfE comes to understand that all of the answers are not in ED Hirsch and that actually a horse must be provided with water before it can drink it, then perhaps the real work towards closing the gaps can finally begin.