Pupils at Risk of Educational Disadvantage

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 6th May 2014.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 4:16 pm, 6th May 2014

I bet to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to create a pupil characteristic known as pupils at risk of educational disadvantage; to require schools to establish individual education plans for pupils so identified and to monitor the educational progress of such pupils during their school career; to require certain information about such pupils to be published at a national level and to be included in reports compiled by Ofsted; and for connected purposes.

I wish to cast the House’s mind back 15 years. In 1999, the social exclusion unit in No. 10 Downing street came up with a particular term, an acronym, to define a group of young people: those not in education, employment or training, otherwise known as NEETs. In creating such a term, the unit did not just create another piece of jargon. The term helped policy makers for the next 15 years to focus on solutions for a particular group of young people who desperately needed attention. Today, it is unthinkable that we would not judge a Government on their strategy to tackle the country’s NEET population. It is not the term itself that matters, but the conscious creation of a definition of a section of the population that has previously been without a voice. That in itself creates a question to which we, as policy makers, then need to search for answers. A lens has been formed through which we can view a landscape that has been previously obscured.

The only problem with defining NEETs as an at-risk group of young people who should be monitored—with public policy held accountable for a reduction in the NEET population, as the 2004 public service agreement target attempted to achieve—is that the focus is centred on the output, rather than on how the simple outcome of becoming a NEET could ever have happened in the first place. By the time young people are not in education, employment or training, attempting to find a solution to their desperate problems, while genuine and entirely correct, fails to understand the real question: why were they allowed to fall into that situation? How could the school they once attended have let this happen? What did that school do to prevent this from happening? If schools failed, why are we not holding up a mirror to them and saying clearly, “Do you think this is acceptable and why have you failed your pupils in this way?”

The truth, tragically, is that we know which pupils are at the greatest risk of becoming NEET from an early age—usually from 11, if not before. It is said that the strongest indicator of whether a young person will be a NEET is their GCSE results. Just a quarter of current NEETs have obtained the benchmark five good GCSEs. Those are today’s NEETs, but what about the NEETs of the future? For pupils born in this millennium—after 2000—who are due to choose their GCSE options this year, 120,000 are already at risk of becoming NEETs simply because they are already underperforming at key stage tests and not mastering the basics in the three R’s. Just 8% of pupils who fail to obtain level 4 at key stage 2 tests will go on to obtain five good GCSEs five years later. At level 3 key stage 2, just 13% of pupils will go on to obtain grade C in GCSE maths. More worryingly,

40% of pupils who obtained level 4 maths in key stage 2 do not go on to achieve a grade C five years later. Those two statistics indicate that we know that pupils have a problem from an early age, but it is a problem that we prefer to hide until the inevitable outcome of educational failure becomes horrendously real: a young person without the qualifications that he or she needs, and unable to find work.

I believe that we need a new characteristic that should be monitored in all schools, to which schools should be held accountable, and that schools should report data to the Department for Education so that we can better understand the scale of the challenge. Introducing a new category of pupils “at risk of educational disadvantage” that will apply from a much earlier age will help us to deal with the problem of at-risk groups who are not currently defined. Pupils’ progress through school must be charted far more accurately, and not merely for the purpose of understanding whether they have achieved their potential. For some pupils, the risk and the consequences of educational failure are simply too great to ignore. In education, accountability matters. Those who turn their backs on testing are, in truth, turning their backs on the importance of ensuring that the pupils who need help the most are given that help.

First, we must introduce a measure that will allow aspirations to be redefined and the bar to be raised. The present Government have recognised the value of creating new data sets and performance measures as means of raising standards in schools. The introduction of the English baccalaureate, or EBacc, is one example. I believe that the EBacc will, in time, be recognised as one of the most important education measures that the Government have introduced. The number of history GCSE entries is the highest it has been for 16 years, the number of modern languages entries has risen by 18%, the number of entries in the separate sciences is the highest it has been for 16 years, and the number of geography entries is the highest it has been for nine years.

Following the introduction of the pupil premium, targeted support has been available for an entire cohort who are deemed to be eligible for free school meals. I realise that many schools, if not the majority, will already be tracking and monitoring the progress of pupils who are recognised to be at risk of educational disadvantage. This is not unlike what happened in the case of the pupil premium. A research report by Hannah Carpenter, commissioned by the Department for Education and published in July 2013, showed that 90% of schools were already targeting pupils who were considered to be disadvantaged, but that did not mean that the introduction of the premium was wasted. Eighty per cent. of schools said that they had enhanced their existing support or introduced new levels of support, and more than three quarters of schools had encouraged families to register for free school meals. Those were welcome outcomes, achieved simply through the introduction of another lens.

The value of targeted support through the pupil premium is accepted, but that measure alone tends to place weight on economically based barriers to learning. I am thinking particularly of the bar that has been set for the definition of a “free school meals” pupil as one from a household whose income is less than £16,300 per annum, or which is receiving income support. We should recognise that free school meals status is no parallel indicator, or proxy, for educational disadvantage, although there is a close correlation. A great many economically deprived families remain outside the formal definition of the free school meals category. We need to think about what it means to be educationally disadvantaged. To put it simply, all pupils who are at risk of educational failure—failure to achieve the basics, or failure to achieve their potential—must in future be targeted, regardless of their economic status. Creating the category of “at risk of educational disadvantage” for pupils at an early age would help to raise their profile.

Given that “progress 8” measures are to be introduced in 2016, now is the ideal time to introduce the national benchmark that I propose, with new accountability measures to assess the progress made by pupils in eight subjects. Attainment at key stage 4 would be compared with what pupils were predicted to achieve when they left primary school aged 11. Under current proposals, pupils who score 29 points in their key stage 2 tests will be expected to achieve eight C grades at GCSE. Schools will be monitored for their ability to improve the level of progress that pupils will make in those eight subjects. That will become the new floor target for all schools, so if pupils make an average of half a grade less progress than expected in their eight subjects, their schools will be judged to be underperforming.

No doubt schools will also be expected to continue formally to monitor and record the performance of free school meals pupils. However, I hope that the formal introduction of a new category of pupils—those whom we know from key stage 2 to be at risk of educational disadvantage—will enable us to begin to create a renewed awareness of the causes and consequences of educational failure, and, above all, of the need for early intervention to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Skidmore, Mr Robert Buckland, Justin Tomlinson, Andrew Percy and Paul Uppal present the Bill.

Chris Skidmore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Thursday 16 May and to be printed (Bill 204).