The Romance of the Poor but Bright

Last year I attended the Evening Standard’s debate on the future of London Schools. I can’t remember much about the evening, but one phrase sticks in my mind. “The romance of the poor but bright”*.

Education is a marvellous sector. It is full of innovation and entrepreneurship: with schools, charities and social enterprises popping up all over. New solutions to old problems emerge almost like clockwork; but there is a worrying pattern. Our effort and resources, of schools but particularly of business and charitable enterprise, are directed disproportionately at students who are already high achieving – the poor but bright.

Huge effort is expended on access to the top universities, with great sums being spent to make marginal improvements to a small set of students at the top of the disadvantaged spectrum. They cite the gap in entry, often to Oxbridge, as a significant problem that blights our society.

But the gap in Oxbridge entry is the pretty face of the problem. The far uglier face is the gap in life outcomes for those who take least well to education. With rich parents they may go to a non-Russell Group university. With poor parents they go to prison or the job centre. It is this face of the problem we most urgently need to confront.

Popular discourse is easily caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. It’s such a great story – the brilliant child shackled by poverty, just waiting to be set free by a summer school or inspirational speech. This story has so captivated education that we end up ignoring the more pressing problem – of students for whom our efforts will determine whether or not they will ever have a job or contribute to society. We hear about the poor but bright all the time. When did you last here someone advocate for the poor but dim?**

Here is my attempt. The gap most damaging to society is in life outcomes for the children who perform least well at school. They are most at risk of not being able to engage with society – of not having the real or paper qualifications needed to enter meaningful employment. There would be a phenomenally positive impact on business, public services and communities if all those children who fall through school now were instead supported to exceed basic standards and find fulfilling futures.

For education to have a real impact on society and the economy we need to focus on the tail***, not just the top. I’d begin this by looking at three areas:

1. Alternative provision
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school have complex behavioural needs. Often these have been built up by a long period of underperformance, coupled with very challenging environments. Teachers lack the time and expertise to best support these students. They do their very best, and often make great headway, but they are not trained or equipped for dealing with complex psychological needs. This is why we have alternative provision. Unfortunately this sector operates as a shadow school system, largely unknown and wholly under appreciated. Developing a national network of high-quality alternative provision that works closely with schools to support students at risk of exclusion must be a priority if we are to close the gap at the bottom.

2. Consistency in SEN support
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school also have special educational needs. Once again schools are often ill equipped to cope with these, and often manage only because of the extraordinary effort of dedicated staff. The inconsistency in funding and support between local authorities is well known, and means that a student in a less generous (or more stretched) council area will receive far less support than they deserve.

3. Rigorous gateways in assessment
Too often underachievement is allowed to settle and persist because it can be dealt with later. This is incredibly dangerous – as knowledge accumulates in a compound way, falling behind early makes for an ever bigger gap. One way to help stop this attitude of putting off catching up is to have clearer assessments where basic skills act as a gateway. The present assessment regime, for example, allows students to achieve a Level 4 at KS2 by compensating for poor performance in the basics with higher performance on easier, less fundamental skills. Reforming assessment so that a student could not appear to be performing well unless they have mastered the basics would send a clearer message where gaps exist. Proficient use of each of the four operations, for example, could be a gateway for maths assessment, and clarify the importance of solidifying these foundational skills.

Any student failing to meet their potential is a dreadful thing, even worse when it happens due to factors totally outside of their control. This is not just the case for the poor but bright, the students with whom we so easily sympathise, and are so quick to support. It matters too for the student with incredibly challenging behaviour, but who is absolutely capable of achieving academically. It matters for the student with complex special needs, who is not a potential Oxbridge applicant but who does have a tremendous amount to offer society. Their successes have the power to change the British economy, far more so than those of their brighter peers.

Don’t just get caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. The other students need our investment too.

*I believe it was used by Lucy Heller.
**I do not believe in either bright or dim, only differences in epigenetic coding or accumulated lifetime practice, but that is a discussion for another day. Here I use dim as the logically necessary opposite to bright, as popularly used in discussions about education.
***This term is borrowed from the book Paul Marshall edited on outcomes for the bottom 20% of students.

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