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Matthew Taylor: Judge us by our shameful treatment of pinball kids

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As some of the more radical voices in the RSA will regretfully attest, I have become a wishy-washy moderate to my core.

I avoid ideological stances, insist on seeing both sides of an argument and try to avoid targeting people for blame when things go wrong. But the plight of the ‘pinball kids’, excluded from school, bounced between various public services and given no route back, has made me feel like the angry left-wing young man I, briefly, once was.

Despite the breast beating and promises of generations of politicians, as a society we do shamefully badly by our most disadvantaged children. Excluded children are twice as likely as other children to be in care, four times as likely to have grown up in poverty, and seven times as likely to have special educational needs.

This is the extreme end of the wider problem of educational failure. Of the first cohort of children required to be in full-time education up to the age of 18, almost a third left without reaching the national target for level two qualifications.

This is widely seen as the baseline for educational attainment, so many tens of thousands of young people had almost nothing academically to show for 13 years of schooling. Who then is to blame for those youngsters feeling education is irrelevant to their life chances?

As much as it may be understandable, it is deeply depressing that so many schools have systematically ‘off-rolled’ pupils to improve their exam results.

Of course, some exclusions are for genuine reasons of child welfare, but last year 810 secondary schools dumped five or more children from years 10 or 11. Even worse, thousands of children have simply gone missing from the system after being excluded.

In some parts of the country pupil referral units are full and there is effectively no alternative provision. It can hardly be surprising that these children are often recruits to, or victims of, criminal gangs.

For those who do get a place in an alternative setting, the educational offer made to children is generally poor. In some local authority areas all excluded pupils are in settings graded as inadequate.

Although there is good practice, like London East based in Tower Hamlets, teachers in pupil referral units are twice as likely to be temporary as mainstream teachers, and half as likely to have teaching qualification. Children often coping with chaos at home are denied continuity at school.

At core this problem is the predictable consequence of more than three decades of educational reform. Local education authorities were far from perfect and varied hugely in effectiveness, but they were at least responsible for the education of all the children in their area.

There was a time when they could force schools to justify exclusions and require other schools to take in pupils who had been excluded. Now, when a child is shoved out they can easily fall between the cracks in a system of schools focused on their own institutional interests, not the general welfare of local children.

Evidence suggests that school transparency and accountability does drive better exam performance. However, as even ministers are now conceding, the fear of failure and intervention also creates perverse incentives, of which off rolling low attainment children is one.

While the government is exploring ways to reduce such incentives, new assessment systems may make it even harder for schools in some disadvantaged areas – white working class for example – to succeed. School leaders will continue to use every tactic at their disposal to avoid special measures.

It is said that a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Shouldn’t we judge a school system by the outcomes achieved by its most disadvantaged children?

If so, we should hang our heads in shame. Just as there is now pretty much a consensus that New Public Management has failed to improve public services, it is time for a radical reassessment of the ‘tests, targets and takeovers’ approach to school policy.

The current government has neither the political muscle nor the policy capacity to lead system change, so those of us outside need to think afresh about how we should organise our school system and how to build support for reform.

In doing so we at the RSA, with a new project on what can be done for the pinball kids, will reverse the usual logic of reform and start by asking what kind of system would do the best by those with the greatest needs.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, the RSA

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