Threats, threats and nothing but threats


The Department for Education's idea of effective leadership of schools is to issue threat, after threat, after threat. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw says it is time for our ministers to choose a more intelligent approach.

The aggressive language of politicians once again dominated the headlines this week as schools minister David Laws described the entire education system as a “mess”.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Laws attacked schools in leafy suburbs which he said are not doing enough for their disadvantaged students. He accused them of wasting the extra money that they receive for these students via the Pupil Premium.

The debate surrounds the fact that many of the richest local authorities have large attainment gaps between their Premium and non-Premium students, while the 10 authorities with the highest deprivation are recording good results for their Premium children.

Mr Laws says it is unacceptable that rich authorities are not matching the success of high-deprivation areas when it comes to the poorest children.

Overall, 42 per cent of the 1.8 million pupils who qualify for the Pupil Premium achieved the five A* to C GCSE benchmark in 2011/12 compared with 67 per cent from non-Premium families – a gap of 25 per cent.

Mr Laws said that Ofsted will now monitor this attainment gap in every school and will no longer award “outstanding” status if a school is failing to close its gap.

Indeed, from September, he says such schools could be classed as requires improvement, and ultimately, could be closed as he seeks to halve the 25 per cent national gap.

It is an important debate. This issue should be a key topic of conversation within education, but once again the government’s overly aggressive response is unhelpful and unnecessary.

The attainment gap has existed in education since the dawn of our modern school system, and schools have battled tirelessly to raise aspiration and achievement among disadvantaged pupils.

To start throwing around threats about closure because schools have not managed to solve this eternal problem with the extra £488 and then £600 per eligible child over the past two years is ridiculous.

The Pupil Premium is quickly turning into an excellent policy, but ministers would do well to remember that we are only two years in and schools are still finding the best ways to spend this ring-fenced funding. Also, while the policy is welcome, £900 per pupil (which is what the Premium rises to in year three) is still a very small amount in the grand scheme of things.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, issued the DfE with a stark warning this week in response to Mr Laws’ comments: “They should remember £900 by itself will not go a long way to correct the barriers raised by long term unemployment and low aspiration. 

“If the Pupil Premium becomes an excuse to pass the buck on to schools rather than a resource to help, they will find all sorts of perverse results emerging – including increased segregation.”

He, like many headteachers, is angry and frustrated at the entire education system so casually being labelled a “mess”. Mr Laws needs to choose his words more carefully, especially as it is politicians and not teachers who are responsible for causing so much chaos in schools with their glib remarks, unevidenced policies and threatening comments.

Mr Hobby added: “It feels like our current government has a single tool in its box – the threat. They will find this approach puts a cap on excellence as much as it puts a limit on failure.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Let’s give the Pupil Premium a bit of time – if you allow the profession to run with it, they will deliver. They usually do.

So once again I shall end a SecEd editorial column with the following sentence – perhaps it is time the DfE began working with, and listening to, the profession. 

We, after all, are the experts.


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