Time to fight for the education of bright children from all backgrounds

Time to fight for the education of bright children from all backgrounds

As a working-class boy whose academic success led me to where I am now, I’m truly saddened that thousands of this generation’s brightest children could be missing out.

Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has now raised his head above the parapet and said we are letting down the nation’s bright children – particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

And I applaud him for doing so. This is a subject I care passionately about.

Firstly, the dropping of tests for 14-year-olds was a huge mistake, as there is now no official measure of children’s progress through secondary school right up to GCSE.

That’s five long years in which children who are not reaching their potential are disappearing under the radar.

The government responded too hastily by withdrawing these tests and bowing down to the anti-test lobby.

It’s time to dispel the myth that testing is something to fear.

Testing is simply the natural process of teaching. Teachers constantly want to find out how their children are doing in class, and test informally by questioning verbally and setting exercises to check the children have understood each subject.

In fact, it is impossible to teach without engaging in this process. Making it official every now and then does not damage children’s progress or hurt them emotionally.

The only way we are going to ensure that bright children are reaching their potential and not slipping through the net is to regularly, and formally, monitor their progress.

We also need to take a long hard look at how the curriculum is being deployed.

Currently, the curriculum does not differentiate between talented students and students of average ability. There have been some attempts to identify gifted and talented children but these have never been sufficient.

And there’s a tendency in a busy and challenging environment for teachers to teach to the middle. This is particularly true in mixed ability classes.

In an attempt to be more egalitarian, the needs of the most able children have been increasingly ignored. This will not do them any favours and it certainly won’t do the country any favours.

Pupil Premium – the funding given to schools based on the number of students receiving free school meals – does not guarantee that children who need more attention will actually get it.

I appreciate that money can help but this money is given to the school and not necessarily targeted towards helping individual students.

In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the Pupil Premium has damaged some children’s chances.

Free school meals are not necessarily a fair measure of a child’s status in the system. There are plenty of children whose parents would never apply for free school meals and there are low earning parents who are just above the threshold.

Grammar schools – the venue where poor bright children could shine – are rarely recipients of this money, due to an uneven distribution of students who qualify for Pupil Premium.

Overall there has been a failure by successive governments to address the needs of brighter children.

In my opinion, helping the brightest children was more successfully addressed when the grammar school option was available across the country.

As this is now only available in certain areas, these schools have become the goal for aspirant parents, pushing up house prices in those areas – in turn putting grammar schools out of the reach of many less affluent bright children.

The same is happening in many leafy suburbs where the high performing comprehensives tend to serve the better off.

One way of solving this problem is to re-introduce grammar schools to take the heat out of the system. In other words, implement ‘a grammar school in every town’ policy.

This would not mean a full return to the grammar school system but it would provide more places for children of all backgrounds.

There is an in-built resistance in this country, from the educational establishment and among some of the political class, that refuses to recognise that some people are more able than others – but this is a fact of life.

Ability does not depend on a person’s background or class, so we must find ways of allowing people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to thrive in the system.

If we don’t identify the brightest then our society will suffer in the long run, as other countries and nations continue to carefully nurture their best talent.