Britain's lost talent

Jim KnightJim Knight on the need for rural and coastal areas to do more to improve the life chances of poorer children

Ofsted’s publication of its excellent report Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on is a welcome return by the HM Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, to a focus on outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. The first HMCI to do so was Lord Sutherland 20 years ago, followed by an update 10 years later by David Bell. This time Ofsted has found that under performance is no longer dominated by areas with concentrations of deprivation.

There is an explicit acknowledgement of the success of the last Labour government’s London Challenge, the subsequent Manchester Challenge and also the Black Country Challenge – which came under my stewardship during my time as Schools Minister. Each of these used data to shine a light on under performance and identify top performing leaders who could then support and challenge those schools which needed it. The report therefore points to the importance of collaboration between schools and governments taking a strategic approach to focus attention on where improvement is needed.

I particularly welcome the message that the rest of the country can learn from some of London’s boroughs. If Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets can raise results for free school meal (FSM) pupils by 20% over five years (and be 15-20% better than the national average), any area can. In that same period, my home county of Dorset only managed a 2% improvement for FSM children and remain 10% below the national average.

It is high time we shook schools in rural and coastal areas out of any complacency they have, and used data to expose those that are hiding the under achievement of those who need the benefits of a good education the most. Such schools are dominated by more advantaged pupils but have low expectations for the rest. They get away with it because they get through the crude targets for 5 A*-C at GCSE.

Ofsted have identified various ways in which to tackle this problem, but it begs a further question: if we solve these problems in school, would we then solve the problems of social mobility? 

Sadly, not - we need to do much more. We need to build the capability of all to deal with mistakes, communicate effectively, take risks and learn from failure – to have the traditional stiff upper lip but with empathy too! 

That resilience and character building is being developed strategically in some places, both at a community and individual level. In Newham for example, alongside ‘Every Child a Reader’ and ‘Every Child Counts’ there is an ‘Every Child a Musician’ programme and a huge council run volunteering programme for the elderly. Some of this may only be possible because of the additional funding the borough gets to tackle deprivation – but not all of it, and there is much that rural and coastal areas can learn from Newham’s great leader, Mayor Robin Wales.

But even then, one other great obstacle remains, the poverty trap.

I can’t see how children can get the support they need at home, working with schools, or a richness of aspiration when they are burdened by acute problems of poverty. Growing numbers of families, in Devon as much as Durham, are dependent on food banks to feed their families. The shortage of affordable housing to rent or own is common across rural and coastal areas, leading to overcrowding and very difficult study environments at home. Essential meals for FSM children are being cut. Rising debt is leading to relationship breakdown.

All of these features of poverty are getting worse. We need a welfare state that isn’t about managing poverty but is more about helping people get out of poverty. The Coalition government is making life very uncomfortable for those dependent on welfare but not offering any hope of work or support, and the poverty trap is deepening. Increased homelessness, criminality and child poverty is the natural consequence, and will in turn further damage social mobility. Until these trends are reversed, our country will continue to pay the price in a tragic waste of talent.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour's Rural Affairs spokesman in the House of the Lords and a former Schools Minster

Published 23 June 2013

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