Nick Gibb: We must close school gap between rich and poor

IN the mid 1970s, I spent three happy years at Roundhay School in Leeds. This was at the time of Jim Callaghan’s great education debate, initiated over concern about declining standards.

Today that concern is as strong as ever – parents are worried about poor behaviour in too many secondary schools; employers are critical of the poor literacy and maths abilities of school leavers; and universities complain about students lacking the academic grounding in the subjects they are studying.

As a Government, we are determined to tackle these issues and in particular to close the attainment gap between those from poorer and wealthier backgrounds.

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One in ten 11-year-old boys leaves primary school with a reading age at or below that of a seven-year-old. For boys who qualify for free school meals, this figure is one in five.

Nationally, 55 per cent achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C including English and Maths. But for children who qualify for free school meals this figure is only 31 per cent.

According to the OECD, 30 per cent of effective teaching time in schools is lost because of poor behaviour.

To tackle these problems, the Government is giving new powers to teachers to tackle poor behaviour in schools, shifting the balance of power away from the child and back to the teacher.

We have abolished the absurd law that requires teachers to give parents 24 hours written notice before issuing a detention. We are focusing on getting the basics of reading and arithmetic firmly embedded in those early years of primary school.

Reading is an essential skill that all children need to acquire early in their school career. All the evidence points to systematic synthetic phonics as the key to ensuring children acquire the ability early in their school career and we are helping schools with materials and training to ensure that all six and seven-year-olds become fluent readers.

And we are sweeping away the bureaucratic burdens that have been heaped upon the teaching profession by successive governments over the last two decades.

The Academies programme is part of that process. Academies are essentially state-funded schools but with all the autonomy and freedom that schools in the independent sector enjoy. We are giving teachers and head teachers professional independence to run their schools free from the control by the local council and free from many of the restrictions imposed by central government.

Academies are free to set the length of the school day and of school holidays, allowing them to help pupils who need extra classroom support, and can give more time to extra-curricular activities like sport and music. They are free to set the pay and conditions of staff, meaning they can attract the best teachers.

They are free to make decisions about the curriculum and how it should be taught.

Their schools are characterised by smaller class sizes. They have the power to tackle poor behaviour and impose strong discipline.

As of this month, 116 schools in Yorkshire will have become Academies. This picture is mirrored across the rest of England, where there are now more than 1500 Academies. These numbers are projected to grow significantly in the coming year.

The liberation that academy status brings has resulted in academic standards rising at twice the rate of schools as a whole. Academies such as Dixons Allerton Academy in Bradford have seen their GCSE grades rise from 27 per cent achieving five good GCSEs to 43 percent in just the last year. There are similar stories across the country.

The quid pro quo for this new freedom, however, is a strengthened accountability regime. More focused inspection that concentrates on academic standards and teaching quality. More and better information about how schools perform with academies directly accountable to parents.

As a government, we are determined to raise academic standards in our schools and to improve pupil behaviour.

Our goal is for every school to be a good school and our immediate focus is on tackling underperforming schools in the most challenging parts of our country – those that are letting down the most vulnerable sections of society.

Nick Gibb is the Schools Minister