A research study on tackling low achievement suggests that children with special educational needs form a large percentage of low achievers but more could be done to assist them through their schooling

Research undertaken for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concludes that pupils with SEN and looked-after children are not well served by current provision. These young people may or may not be capable of becoming high achievers, it says, but far fewer of them should end up with no or very limited qualifications. It claims that critical measures are needed: proper identification and support of the learners in question, resources to assist them, and training for teachers in recognising and coping with their conditions. It should not take years for children with special needs to have their needs recognised and supported properly. The authors argue that both SEN and looked-after children can lose out four times in the current set-up because:

  • many of them do not get the help they need for reading in primary school
  • they are quite likely to be sorted into less well-performing secondary schools as long as current forms of selection are practised, with a significant negative impact on their outcomes
  • once in school they may be relatively neglected as schools concentrate their best efforts on the child on the margin who can be converted from a D to a C – that is the meaning of ‘triage’
  • they can be denied the specific forms of support required because funding is absent, and the measures designed for them by government policy are not being carried out.

Support for reading difficulties is often missing

Poor reading and writing scores at primary school are strongly and significantly associated with later low achievement  (although when such problems arise from not speaking English at home they are only a short-lived problem for most students). If Every Child Matters is to be made a reality, then, at the very least, the most vulnerable students should receive the support they need. Children with particular reading difficulties need to be better identified; and the additional help they require, such as can be provided by Reading Recovery, is often missing and should be more readily available.

School quality makes a difference

Schools do make a difference to outcomes. While students’ social and economic circumstances are the most important factors explaining their educational results, about 14% of the incidence of low achievement is attributable to school quality. While the study is only able to account for a share of what it is about schools that makes for reductions in low achievement, expenditure on students and, to a lesser extent, the number of teachers per pupil do play a positive part. Resources matter particularly for low-achieving students. Other factors that could play a part but which the study was unable to measure include school ethos and leadership, and the effectiveness of teaching.

Incentives required to encourage the goal of personalised learning

Measures are also clearly required to reduce the variability among local authorities in the extent to which they provide support for SEN students. A move away from the target of five A*-C GCSEs is another important measure that will support these most vulnerable and difficult children and other children too. No child deserves a worse teacher for any reason, least of all because he or she may not help a school reach a target. The proposals in Making Good Progress (DfES, 2006) will also be valuable for helping to ensure better performance and less slipping back by pupils of all abilities. They give a particular meaning to ‘personalised learning’, that every learner should be monitored, encouraged and challenged to perform as well as he or she can. Schools should have incentives to pursue such a goal, and should not have other targets that conflict with it.

Some programmes are working

The study finds that progress is being made and that many government policies and initiatives are well founded and are having positive effects. Some programmes, such as Excellence in Cities and specialist schools, have helped to reduce low achievement. Other programmes, such as Aiming High, Working Together and other activities detailed in the report, have proved effective in helping teenagers who are not doing well in school. But some programmes are not being implemented as they should be, in particular those designed to help children with special educational needs and looked-after children; some are actually contributing to low achievement. Pre-school education, parenting help, income support and everything which improves the home learning environment have major parts to play in reducing later low achievement. All these measures are essential components of what needs doing. The study surveyed existing research and analysed national data for England. It finds that the great majority of low achievers – more than three-quarters – are white and British, with boys outnumbering girls by three to two. They come from mostly disadvantaged backgrounds but many from the same backgrounds do succeed. Factors associated with low achievement are eligibility for free school meals; the neighbourhood unemployment rate; the percentage of single parent households and the proportion of parents with low educational qualifications. However, some schools with high proportions of such disadvantaged pupils do better than others.

Tackling Low Educational Achievement, by Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon, is published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation