This week Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills launched Ofsted's 2012/2013 annual report. He claimed that "much needed to be done to address the persistent variations in performance that disproportionately affect some children in particular parts of the country." Sir Michael stressed that many low achievers come from white, low-income families, and described the situation as "a tale of two nations."
In contrast to popular belief Sir Michael's report claims that the worst performing schools are in relatively affluent areas of England, such as Nottinghamshire, Norfolk, and West Berkshire. Inner city areas such as Tower Hamlets in London have improved, an area where schools have traditionally failed. So how can we tackle the issue of providing a better educational standard for all? Pockets of deprivation are more likely to be missed in affluent areas, precisely because the overall perception of an area is good. All schools come with a reputation, whether that's good or bad. If a school is traditionally known as outstanding then parents are more likely to want their children to attend that school. It's simple, schools with a good reputation attract better teachers, and the school as a whole tends to perform well. But schools in disadvantaged areas are more likely to be stuck in a vicious cycle of deprivation - no one wants to be in a place where housing is shabby and education is substandard and this is reflected in bad behaviour. It's a zero sum game.
Recent statistics published by OFSTED this week stated that out of around 21,000 schools in England only 20% were rated 'outstanding'. The battle for excellent schools in Britain is a fierce one, and with so few outstanding schools to choose from equal access to high quality education seems almost impossible. So why is there such a shortage of outstanding schools in England, and why is the admissions criteria for state primary schools based purely on distance from school? Is it fair that where you live determines how well your child does in life?
Earlier this year The Nationwide Building Society conducted a special study into whether Ofsted reports influence a parents' decision to buy a new home and how high performing primary schools add value to property prices. The research showed that nearly a quarter of parents living in the UK with children aged between 5 and 16 were willing to pay around 2 - 10% more for their new house if it meant that they would be in the catchment area of a better school. This means that for a house worth £206,552 the premium that parents are willing to pay is £34,425. Richard Napier, Divisional Director for Nationwide commented "Choosing the right school for your child is possibly one of the most important decisions a parent will make and it appears league tables and Ofsted reports play a significant part in that decision." It's a difficult calculation to make, especially in the current economic climate, where purse strings are already tightened and many people are struggling to make ends meet. The choice is a stark one, pay extra for a house in a good catchment area, or face up to the reality that your child will end up in a mediocre school. Education has become a postcode lottery, and soon enough many parents will lose the will to play the game.
The answer seems like a straight-forward one to state but difficult to achieve, what we need is a multifaceted approach. Better teachers are not the only solution. We need a fairer system to judge the credibility of schools, and to help improve poorer areas as a whole. We can't change one part of the system and expect everything else to change. We need to consider the aspirations of families living in some of the poorest parts of the country. The possibility of a fair and equal society can only take place if we face up to the fact that success will only come if we tackle all aspects of deprivation.