They’re called ‘primary’ schools for a reason

If we are serious about raising school results, we’ll have to target resources towards early years and catch-up classes in primary schools. This will require the government to make tough decisions about spending on secondary education.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR

If we are serious about raising school results, we’ll have to target resources towards early years and catch-up classes in primary schools. This will require the government to make tough decisions about spending on secondary education.

On Thursday, Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw set out a series of recommendations for tackling the ‘long tail of underperformance’ in England’s schools – a problem that particularly affects children from poorer homes.

This is a big issue – IPPR has shown that around a fifth of pupils leave school without basic levels of literacy, a tail of low achievement that is twice as large as our competitor countries such as Canada.

The key to tackling this problem lies in intervening early. We know that children who fall behind in the early years of their life struggle to catch-up and become disengaged with learning. Over half the attainment gap that we witness at age 16 was already present when those children started secondary school aged 11.

If the problem of low achievement can be tackled before the end of primary school, it will make the job of secondary schools much easier.

Michael Wilshaw argued that we need more inspections in nursery settings and better external assessment for children in reception classes. But ultimately, there is only so much that inspection and testing can achieve – especially at such a young age.

What really drives up standards in early years is having highly trained staff. Countries such as Denmark and Finland invest heavily in the training of their staff. They also ensure that all children are given a place at nursery from a young age, so they can develop alongside each other.

When it comes to primary schools, the key to success is intensive catch-up tuition for children who fall behind. The previous government invested heavily in reading programmes for children aged six or seven who needed some extra help to bring them up to the expected level for their age range. Evaluations have shown these programmes had a lasting impact on children’s educational attainment.

So narrowing the attainment gap requires investing in early years and catch-up tuition in primary schools. At a time of tight public spending, the government must make these things strategic priorities. Sadly, its decision to protect spending in other areas of the education budget is preventing it from doing this.

IPPR has proposed two ways to address the problem.

First, the decision to ring fence school budgets means that when the Department for Education (DfE) is asked to make spending cuts it will have to target these cuts towards early years. Recent reports suggest that childcare could face a cut of £2bn as a result of this decision. The DfE should remove the ring-fence on school budgets, in order to prevent early years taking the brunt of cuts.

Second, the way the pupil premium is designed means that it is spread too thinly across all age groups. The government currently plans to provide an additional £1.25bn for the pupil premium over the next two years. IPPR has argued that this money should be focused on primary schools, in order to provide them with sufficient resources to provide high quality literacy support.

Both of these moves would involve a difficult trade-off with spending on secondary schools. But in a time of unprecedented austerity, it is necessary to focus resources where they will be most effective – and that is on early years and literacy programmes in primary schools.

One Response to “They’re called ‘primary’ schools for a reason”

  1. Fred

    Tumbleweed…. I guess Guido didn’t feature this on his site.

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