SCHOOLS Minister Nick Gibb has warned there should be no reason for Yorkshire pupils to have the lowest literacy levels in the country and to be continually at the bottom of education league tables.
In an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post he called on the region’s schools to clamp down on truancy and poor behaviour in the classroom to drive up standards.
He also said that the Government’s new phonics testing of five and six-year-olds, being rolled out next term, would help teachers in Yorkshire to identify which pupils were struggling to read from an early age.
Mr Gibb was reacting to a Yorkshire Post investigation that reveals the extent to which the region’s schools lag behind the rest of the country in reading and writing tests at primary school and in the progress made in English throughout secondary school.
Yorkshire has both the nation’s worst results in reading tests sat by 11-year-olds and the lowest level of GCSE students achieving five good grades including English and maths.
Analysis of more than 300 secondary school results from the region also shows that pupils who struggle in primary school are more likely to miss out on five A* to C grades at GCSE in Yorkshire than they are in the rest of the country. The link between poverty and poor performance at GCSE is also stronger in Yorkshire than it is nationally.
Mr Gibb said that low expectations and pupils failing to learn to read from an early age could be contributing toward the region’s poor performance.
However he said there was no “intrinsic” reason why Yorkshire should expect to perform less well than the rest of the country in school league tables.
He believes the coalition’s education reforms such as testing pupils on their ability to decode words at the age of six and giving extra money to schools who teach poorer students through the pupil premium will make an impact on the region’s low literacy scores and help to break the link between poverty and poor attainment.
He said: “This is the Government’s main objective: to close attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and wealthier backgrounds. That is behind everything that we are trying to do. The correlation between poverty and low attainment is there in every region and it is there nationally.
“The reason we have put information about the performance of pupils who are eligible for free school meals into the league tables is not to keep making that point but to compare the results of schools and be able to find out why it is that schools like the Mossborne Academy in London, which had 50 per cent of its pupils on free school meals last year, was able to get 85 per cent of this year group to achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths?
“There are a whole host of reasons why Yorkshire is at the bottom of the tables. It can be because of low expectation in the schools, it can be about how they teach children to read. This is not something new, the Yorkshire region has been performing below the national average for a number of years. What we want to see is sustainable improvement, that is why we are pushing through our education reforms.”
Mr Gibb, a former Yorkshire school pupil himself – having attended Roundhay School in Leeds in his teens, said improving pupils’ ability to read was the key to raising attainment.
He added: “It is the reason we are so committed to the issue of phonics. It is the 25 per cent lowest achievers in the class in primary school which we worry about more than anything else. If pupils are struggling after three years in primary school then they will continue to struggle in secondary school. If we can get children to be able to decode words when they are six or seven then they can go on to develop a love of reading and start secondary school with a chance of being able to achieve.”
In the summer term a 40-word phonic check will be introduced which will include getting children to read 20 made up words to ensure they are able to decode how words are constructed rather than just remembering them. Pupils who are unable to decode words will then be given additional help.
Mr Gibb said: “Some children will be able to appear to read words they know because they have been able to remember them but then if they come across a word they have not seen before like ‘Gruffalo’ they are not able to decode them.”
School and regional results will not be published from the tests which will only be used internally to allow teachers to identify which pupils need the extra help.
Mr Gibb also highlighted the increasing number of schools becoming academies as another Government reform which he claimed would raise standards.
He cited Barnsley Academy where the level of pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths has risen from 14 per cent to 55 per cent in four years as an example of the impact academies can deliver.
Mr Gibb believes that Yorkshire schools also need to improve their attendance records.
He said: “One interesting statistic is pupil absence in Yorkshire. The level of pupils who were persistently absent in Yorkshire was 6.8 per cent, compared with a national average of 6.1 per cent.
“Tackling absenteeism is important for raising standards among pupils from deprived backgrounds, especially when you look at national figures which show that 12.9 per cent of pupils on free school meals were persistently absent for six weeks compared with less than five per cent of pupils being persistently absent among those who were not eligible for free school meals. We know the performance of pupils who are persistently absent – missing 15 per cent of school, that is around six weeks – suffers.”