The Smartest Kids in the Room

Excellent students in schools without a record of high attainment are getting a rough deal. We need to be more honest with children and parents about their prospects (or lack thereof) and who is responsible for them.

As a teacher on the Teach First programme, I have spent the past two years of teaching interacting with schools in challenging circumstances. It’s true that many of these schools are doing a good job at what they do best: making the most out of difficult circumstances. We already know about the strong links between deprivation and educational outcomes, and we know that many schools work with an intake of children with very low levels of literacy, outrageously high levels of neglect and abuse, attachment disorders, poor nutrition, poor exposure to spoken English, and all of the other factors that are outside of a school’s control.

It is understandable that schools in these circumstances prioritise the majority of their audience, and work hard at providing interventions to raise the chances of students achieving literacy, numeracy, and sufficient academic attainment to find some level of employment. That is good work, and should be praised.

Outside of that majority, there is a particular injustice done to the higher-attaining students who find themselves in such a school. Every such school will be able to point to their highest achieving pupils. Some of these will be heroic children, who have struggled against intense disadvantage to the top of the class. Others will have had less of a struggle, coming from families who are encouraging, secure, have high academic standards and expectations, and have the ability to expose their children to literature and frequent spoken English from a young age.

When these children achieve they are celebrated and praised as they should be, but very few of them are given the perspective to understand their competence in the wider world outside of the school bubble.

I noticed this by comparing students to students I had seen in two other situations: the school I attended as a child, and the school children I had met at schools debating tournaments while at university.

My own schooling was, by all accounts, fairly mediocre. I wasn’t the top of the class at the local comprehensive in Wales, which was not a high performing school. School league tables aren’t published in the same way in Wales as they are in England, but the government ranked the school I attended as “Amber: Requiring improvement.”

Yet I’m sure that some of the students celebrated as the very best in schools in challenging circumstances would not have made it into the top set at my own school if they displayed the same writing skills and subject knowledge. Granted, I was a child and my recollection might be flawed. However, I can also compare results in my local area from schools that have an intake high in measures of deprivation to schools that have a more mixed intake, which tells me that some schools have enough students achieving A*-B to fill a classroom, and others don’t.

The children I met through debating came mostly from independent and grammar schools. It is true that the subset of students who combine an interest in debating with every possible educational privilege being afforded to them are probably the nerdy elite that we can expect to be running the country at some point, but the bright students in schools in challenging circumstances will have no idea that such students exist or that they will be expected to compete against them.

It’s very easy to see why this is from the perspective of the students. Children often concern themselves with the fairness of a particular situation. They fully expect that we, the adults, will set things up to be fair: We will mark their tests objectively, we will set attainable goals, enforce the sanctity of the lunch queue, judge sports fairly, etc. They have a similar expectation of the systems that have been set up to train and assess them. They believe that if they score highest in every test, complete every piece of homework, read all of the assigned texts and receive a glowing review every parents evening then they will go on to be a great success.

They are not only constantly told that they are doing well, but also that they are the best. From their own perspective they really are the best. They are number one on the mark sheet, take home all of the awards and don’t ever meet somebody who can outcompete them.

It’s also easy to understand why their feedback is structured in this way. As a teacher who spends most of their time working with students for whom a grade C would be a great success, it is easy to see why the student achieving an A (but not an A*) appears to be doing absolutely fine, no intervention required. If you don’t give the A grade student a glowing review, who will you give it to?

It is also understandable why parents are oblivious to this trap. Schools, in particular academy and free schools, are responsible for their own marketing to attract students. Almost all of these schools adopt the language and branding of high expectations and academic excellence. There will almost certainly be a school in your area that is very good at pointing out that no child is left to fail, that it doesn’t settle for second best, and that its mission is to realise the dreams and potentials of the local student, even if that attitude is only skin deep.

Parents in such areas are less likely to have attended university themselves, and will have been receiving the same feedback from highly educated professionals for the past 7 years: Your child is top of the class, they are doing everything right, they are working hard, they are achieving.

Yet when it comes to results day and university admissions, many of these children will realise the truth: They were not the best after all. They will probably still do relatively well for themselves, and will have a high chance of securing a place at a university (if not an elite one) and establishing a career — but might they have done better if they were in a slightly different circumstance? This might sound like a less pressing concern than illiteracy and the inabiltiy to earn a wage, but it is still wrong that these students were given false information that stopped them from reaching the top.

Is it good enough that the same student may well have achieved a whole lot more if they were placed in a school with a different intake of students? Or even if they were pushed beyond “best in the class” to “best in the country”? I doubt that many people would say that it is good enough, and of course our primary concern should be raising standards in schools. That goes without saying, it is what we all work every single day to try and achieve in schools, the Department for Education, and in the charitable groups concerned with education.

Yet clearly it is an unsolved problem. Until then we need to be more honest with parents and students. They need to know that despite their potential, whether or not their local schools have a track record of pushing students with such potential to success. They need to know that their local school prioritises resources for the vast majority of students, for whom literacy and basic competency is the most pressing concern. They need to know how frequently a child who enters the local secondary school on a level 5a goes on to achieve A*s at A-Level, compared to schools in different circumstances.

They need to know how unfair the whole thing is, because that lets them take action. Firstly, by being extra vigilant about taking a wider perspective about their child’s achievement and what they still need to work on. Secondly, by getting angry.

Head of frontend engineering at Babylon Health. Formerly ThoughtWorks, Made Tech, school teacher.

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