Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure.
Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove's U-turn on the EBacc is nothing less than a disaster for disadvantaged pupils in England's comprehensive schools. In central Oldham, where we are now applying to start the Phoenix Free School, less than 1% of all pupils reached EBacc standards in 2011. Last year, after the target was announced, this improved to around 4%: still pathetic, but a lot better than before.
We believe we can achieve 75% with children from the same families - and the evidence suggests that this is possible. In 2002, Leeds University reported:
“In the US, Catholic schools do not exacerbate inequality to the same degree as secular government-funded schools, apparently because they require a more rigorous academic program in lower-level sets and streams. Further research to explore this finding found two Catholic schools in which students in lower sets made as much progress as those in higher sets. This pattern was attributed to three features: the same teachers taught both high- and low-level classes; teachers held high expectations for low-achieving students, manifested in a refusal to relinquish or dilute the academic curriculum; and teachers made extra efforts to foster oral discourse with low-achieving students.”
Michael Gove knows this is true. On 5 February he delivered an impassioned yet well-argued speech for the EBacc. He cited dozens of schools in England which achieve outstanding results despite serving disadvantaged areas. He gave the lie to the myth that parents in council estates don't care about education: 96% of working-class mothers want their children to go to university. He knows that you can't teach 'critical thinking skills' to children who are ignorant of the most basic academic knowledge.
Two generations ago, the left understood that knowledge was power. In his recent speech Gove cited Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who argued that the workers needed a good academic education if they were to storm the citadels of privilege. Today, those citadels are manned by a rather different breed, but they are no less arrogant than the aristocrats and capitalists who preceded them. And sadly, it would appear that the educators who are now keeping the plebs in their places have managed to force Gove into a humiliating retreat on the EBacc.
I would not for a moment suggest that the Polly Toynbees and teaching union officials of this world are anything less than sincere in their belief that a traditional academic curriculum is not 'relevant' to disadvantaged pupils, but there is a self-serving element to their opposition to the EBacc. In effect, it threatens the special needs industry and the 'personalisation' of the curriculum - the two biggest growth areas for ambitious education professionals.
However, something good may yet come of this. Relatively few teachers in England are progressive ideologues, and almost all of them really do want the best for their pupils. Many of them know how badly their pupils are being short-changed by the system. Let us hope that they join us in our aim of getting 75% of our pupils up to EBacc standards.