'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 433.

    425.phil johanson
    What country have you been living in?
    Blair & Brown happily privatised sections of the NHS while in office. Have you forgotten subcontracting operations & tendering out NHS services to private operators?
    And the education system, the use of private companies to run failing inner city schools or the companies running the city acadamies. Get rid of the rose tinted glasses!

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Stop looking for A reason - there are many:
    Good qualifications do NOT automatically make a good teacher. Move to more financially efficient schools = bigger schools = less personal attention. Many students have to spend more time travelling therefore less time for other things. Unless jobs are available locally there is little incentive to study (moving unaffordable for many). The list goes on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    Sorry but poor parents fall into two basic categories. There are those who seek to lift their children into a better life through education. They encourage and support them and enable social mobility. Then there are those who just do not really care and are selfish enough to accept their children can mimic them in a nanny state. A school cannot make up for the latter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    The manipulation of public opinion by politicians (and the press) is apalling. Teachers are well trained and on the whole dedicated and hard working. The constant undermining of teachers and the system to soften it up for political ideological interference is apalling. Sadly it is the teaching profession and children's education that is suffering as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Why don't the Thatcherites and Socialists clear off this board and look at the article which is about children that are failing and what can be done about it. I don't think education swat teams are really the answer but for LA's to still have influence as they know the local problems better than anyone else. Acadamies only flourish due to more money there needs to be a local focus on improvement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    420. Jaw dropping truth

    I find debate best served by people offering pertinent facts and cogent arguments.

    Then why do you not give any ?
    On HYS, that's pearls before swine. These days HYS is infested with bullying lefty-haters that have nothing constructive to bring to the table. On the contrary, they will have smashed the table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Sad but true that the apple never falls far from the tree. Thick parents have thick kids, regardless of where they live. We actually need people at the bottom as much as we need people at the top. It's just the way it is and will never change-call it Darwinism if you like.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    Simply blaming parents (and venting your prejudices) does nothing to solve the problem. It can be argued that teachers shouldn't have to take up the slack from lacklustre parents, but if they don't who will? And that doesn't help either these kids, nor us as a society.

    I maintain good teaching can turn these kids around. The system needs to let them do it though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    the point is after years of the BBC running negative stories about the NHS on a daily basis,therefore setting up public opinion ready for the privatisation of the NHS. they are now going to run a campaign of negative stories about state schools to ready the public for the privatisation of schools. and you sheep just swallow it all

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    The tax system is designed to encourage responsibility - so why doesn't the benefit system? Children should be encouraged to attend school, try their best, stay out of trouble, keep active etc etc. BUT, we have a weak and pathetic government that takes the easy route and has it's usual pop at the teachers who have had 20-years of meddling with no tangible improvement - it's the parents Mr Gove!

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    The biggest problem with this Country is that we have turned it into a Charity.

    And Charity should always start at Home!
    Just to decadent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    all this on the same day the figures come out that the government missed tens of millions of tax pounds , due to executives defering their bonus till after april 1st and the reduction in the top rate of tax . this government is truly evil .

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.


    "There are millions of public sector jobs dependent on rubbish parents"

    What jobs are those then?

    Librarians, the police, nurses/doctors. Exactly what jobs are you referring too? Might help if you actually had the correct socio-economic group before you commented.

  • Comment number 420.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    409. HaveAtYou
    Reading this I can't help but think rural education didn't work out for you either.

    Hey, nothing wrong with rural schools. Although thinking about it, was that visit to Crealy wildlife park to milk a cow a school trip or a cornerstone of the curriculum?

  • Comment number 418.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    you avoid tax? so you pay no tax duty? no council tax? no income tax? you pay no tax at all. but on top of all the tax you do pay,you even pay for private health care out of your wages! you're great son. the sort of sheep the tories love. well done you

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    In the primary school where I govern, our FSM children are doing well in comparison to... those who do not take school lunches. That hot midday meal makes a real difference, at least those at a financial disadvantage are able to have one.

    Parental support is key, & this has no real link to income. We are skint but support our daughter (who had FSM) well, she's off to college in Sept for A-level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    406 gOLLUM

    'When is this trend going to end and we start to make parents more responsible for their children's health, weight, behaviour and education once more?'

    There are millions of public sector jobs dependent on rubbish parents. The last thing those state employees want is for people to address their own inadequacies. These low aspiration people are being farmed for votes and jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    I think I would prefer Socialists values over Victorian Values any day..That's why we the NHS, (What's left of it).


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