'Invisible' poor children let down by schools, says Ofsted head


Sir Michael Wilshaw said a spotlight needed to be shone on local authorities that are failing children

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Many of the poor children being left behind in schools now are in suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts rather than big cities, England's chief inspector of schools has said.

In a speech, Sir Michael Wilshaw said such pupils were often an "invisible minority" in schools rated good or outstanding in quite affluent areas.

He wants a new team of "National Service Teachers" sent in to help.

Sir Michael has praised big improvements in London schools.

And he says other big cities, such as Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester, have also made great strides.

'Unseen children'

"Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts," he said in the speech in London.

"Often they are spread thinly, as an 'invisible minority' across areas that are relatively affluent.


  • 36% of pupils on free school meals (FSM) achieved five good GCSEs including maths and English in 2012
  • Among all pupils, 59% achieve this
  • Schools receive extra money for each pupil on FSM - known as the pupil premium
  • Pupil premium rises to £900 this September, from just over £600

"These poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching.

"They coast through education until, at the earliest opportunity, they sever their ties with it."

Sir Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that many of the 1.2 million children in England on free school meals (FSM) were not doing well and that "two-thirds of these are white British children".

"Where the problems now are, are in schools, good schools, outstanding schools, in county areas, with small proportions of poor children that are doing extremely badly."

Map showing how schools with high numbers of students receiving free school meals perform at GCSE *Low results represents schools where fewer than a fifth of pupils receiving free school meals gained five GCSEs at A* to C. Above average results represent schools where pupils receiving free school meals had GCSE results above the national average.

In a new report, he said there were 15 local authorities where only a quarter of children on FSM achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths last year and that those with the poorest record on this were West Berkshire, Peterborough, Barnsley and Herefordshire.

Nationally, the average for all children was that 59% reached that level, while for children on FSM it was 36%.

He made recommendations aimed at closing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

"National Service Teachers", he says, should be employed by central government to teach in "schools in parts of the country that are currently failing their most disadvantaged pupils".

And he is calling for smaller, "sub-regional" versions of the London Challenge, the initiative which ran in the capital in the 2000s and is credited with turning around many schools.

Under this Labour policy, schools were encouraged to help each other, with successful schools, heads and teachers working with those in less successful schools with similar intakes and circumstances.

The chief inspector also:

  • Confirmed that schools will not be rated as outstanding by inspectors if pupils on free school meals fall significantly behind others
  • Warned that schools will be inspected earlier than planned if poorer children there are not doing well
  • Called for data to be published on progress made in primary schools by children between reception and age seven
  • Recommended ways of closing the achievement gap in further education or on apprenticeships

In England, the government has committed itself to closing the achievement gap.


Bridging what is known as the achievement gap is something all recent governments have pledged to do.

There has been some progress, but with a million children on free school meals (FSM) and the danger that many might leave school without good qualifications and end up jobless, there is a drive to do more.

This report suggests some children on FSM do badly at school because they have not had the best start in life and begin school with poor language or social skills, "not ready to learn". Their parents might have "weak parenting skills", they might be out of work or in poor housing, it says.

Without blaming parents, Sir Michael said exceptional schools could "make up for parental weakness", by giving such children extra help as well as high expectations.

He and others suggest this happens when there are systematic improvement programmes, high accountability and high levels of support.

The coalition introduced an extra payment for schools - known as the pupil premium - for each pupil who receives free school meals.

This was about £600 and is rising to £900 in September.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Closing the unacceptable attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is at the heart of our reforms. That is why we introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5bn per year by 2015, to target additional funding for disadvantaged pupils.

"Ofsted itself has increased its focus on how schools use the pupil premium to narrow gaps in their inspections."

The spokesman added that other changes, to exams and the curriculum and the academies programme, would lift standards too.

Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, said his party's plans were to increase collaboration between schools to improve standards, as Sir Michael recommended, but those of the government encouraged schools to "go it alone".

"This gap narrowed under Labour and Michael Wilshaw is right to say that our policies, such as London Challenge in which successful schools helped struggling ones, were key to this," he said.

"Labour will ensure all schools work together to raise standards for every child."

'Isolated communities'

Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers: "[Rural] schools need extra help and extra interventions"

Mary Bousted, head of the teachers' union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the underachievement of poor rural children was not a new problem.

It had been highlighted in a 2008 report but had not been the focus of government attention "for too long", she told BBC's Breakfast programme.

One of the main factors was the isolation of schools and communities, particularly in coastal areas, where there were low wages, high worklessness, children not prepared for learning and children being moved in and out of schools, she said.

Such schools needed extra help and interventions, she added.

She also spoke of the "hidden" poor who were being taught in leafy suburbs among mostly children from affluent homes.

These schools often lacked the expertise or experience of inner-city schools of working with deprived children, she said.

Head teachers' association ASCL, said "parachuting teachers in to short-term placements" would be a "sticking plaster" and what was needed was a co-ordinated national strategy and the long-term support and assistance inner city schools had had.

'Regular testing'

Platanos College in Stockwell, south London, is one of the London schools to have turned itself around. Some 60% of pupils there receive free school meals.

Deputy head teacher Michael Rush said that in 2000, just 11% of pupils achieved five GCSEs at C grade or above.

Last year, 80% of all pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, with teenagers on free school meals only a few percentage points behind at 77% - way above the average for pupils on free school meals nationally.

Mr Rush said: "If you look at our intake, we don't have an option not to target the disadvantaged kids as they make up a high proportion of our students.

"We have had to look seriously at how to close the gap and raise the achievement of all children."

He said the school's strategies included having good information about children's abilities through regular testing and then targeting them with the right support.

Children are grouped by ability and there is an emphasis on getting the basics of English and maths right, plus extra classes at weekends and in the holidays - especially for the GCSE years.

Mr Rush said data was important - with the school educating children and parents about the various levels - and that all pupils were set "very challenging targets".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Parents are NOT teachers! If they are, what is the purpose of schools?

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    152. Do you and many other people not realise that teachers have to do what we are told? We do not choose what to teach, it is set by the curriculum and the exam boards who set the exam questions. We are then often restricted by badly behaved pupils who often destroy the lesson and we can do nothing about it because we are not allowed to, else risk losing your job. Problem is system, not teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    @307.Jaw dropping truth
    18 Minutes ago
    277: Give us a job then. Do you think the vast majority want to live on benefits?

    Sadly all the evidence points to the answer that yes they do. !!
    Of course it does! If you get all your evidence from the Daily Mail.


    The Daily Mail, bankers or climate change - resposible for all the problems of the world. Simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    More leftist propaganda.
    Thatcher partially deregulated the City in '85. This new system worked OK until '97, whereupon Labour tore down the entire regulatory regime and replaced with ineffective bodies. This failed catastrophically in '08, some 23 years after Thatcher's reforms and 11 years of Lab govt.

    It is thus ABSURD to blame Thatcher. The conceit and delusion of the Left is incredible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    If parents don't wish to accept parental responsibilities and/or are too 'poor' under their priority list to care for kids properly you have to ask whether they were sufficiently grown up & responsible enough to have children in the first place. Clever responsible parents usually have 1-2 bright kids. The others have too many less bright kids like them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Children shouldn't have to suffer because of ignorant or indifferent parenting, is it really that difficult for teachers, or those in power, to spot the infants that are well behind in their 3 R's etc, and actually care enough to ensure these unfortunate kids can catch up with the ones that are already up to par, the earlier the better is the key here, at least give poor kids a fighting chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    Could it be that the parents of the poor kids are too stupid to realise the value of education? Could this stupidity also be the reason why they are poor? Just a thought, but no doubt there will be a good few on here who would like to blame "the rich", but whatever you do, don't blame the education system. You can lead a horse to water...

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    @307.Jaw dropping truth
    18 Minutes ago
    277: Give us a job then. Do you think the vast majority want to live on benefits?

    Sadly all the evidence points to the answer that yes they do. !!
    Of course it does! If you get all your evidence from the Daily Mail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    Lol, The answer is staring you all in the face... MOVE TO THE CITY! !! !

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, sociologist, etc. looked at the same problem in the 1920s and concluded that boarding schools was the solution. I do not agree with him. Either you believe children should be fated to their parents' inadequacies or you believe it is in all our interests to help those children and not have undereducated, disaffected, wasted people in our society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    333. Nelly

    Sorry to tell you this, But there are a Phalanx of idle in this country who no matter how low the pegged the benefits to would not work!
    From the window of Socialist Towers this may not be evident but out there in the real world its is a fact Here another shock lots of breeders have kid for Benefits and Houses ! so they do not have to work shocking eh ?? bet that not in the S.W rag eh

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Teachers are now just like many other so called "professionals" in the public sector - they put themselves before the people they are supposed to be helping - in their case children. Schools and Teachers are judged against each other - the league tables are an example. That is why they have lost respect. Parents have to help children with supplementary learning if they are to make real progress.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    If schools are singling out poor children and not offering them a good education, then that's a big problem.

    However, if the schools are giving all their children the same opportunities, but the poorer children don't want to learn or their parents can't be bothered, how is that the school's fault? Schools can only do so much.

    I suspect it's the latter rather than the former.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    A local school, recently changed to an ACADEMY, has (by hook or by crook i/c bad senior management) got rid of MANY VERY experienced teachers and replaced them with young NQT's..... in a bid to spend less on staff salaries.
    The Head teacher responsible for all this mess ( been in post 2 yrs) has now RETIRED!
    Known for decades as the 'toughest school' in the area guess what is going to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    So ... outstanding is not outstanding any more. There is no point in an inspection system if you can't trust the results. Maybe Wilshaw should learn to keep his mouth shut before he talks himself out of a job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    CoachJeff on 318 is absolutely correct but the current regime continue to undermine teachers and the system. My children have received an adequate to good education at the local state school - committed and good teachers operating under difficult conditions - and now teaching professionals have the added pressure, constant undermining and destruction unleashed by the pair of Michaels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Yes teachers have a responsibility BUT it has to start with parents and involve the wider community including the media. Quick fix routes to stardom and fame are valued more than hard work; parental role models are found in soap operas; Governments continually place blame with schools and/or introduce more areas that need to be covered in order to address these issues in the eyes of the voters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    This is a problem.....

    A/. Started by New Lab by the methodology they introduced to rank schools in the league tables

    B/. Perpetuated by this dog of a Govt. who will not reform the way the tables are compiled

    C/. ALL our children have the breadth of their education damaged by the narrow focus on the curriculum to the exclusion of all else

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    Ah right, so because I don't formally report someone for posting a mildly abusive message on an internet discussion, this somehow equates lazy, indifferent parenthood...? Wow... amazing scenes.

    As it goes, I did take "remedial action"; I'd rather embarrass someone than silence them. As for my own (now grown up) children, rest assured I took a very proactive interest in them & their education

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Lets just Sterilise the rich and balance it out!


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