Gove attacks low expectations for England's poor children

Michael Gove

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Education Secretary Michael Gove has attacked an English culture that accepts poverty limits the achievements of poor children.

He told a conference of independent school heads that parentage dictates progress in England more than in any other country.

But there need be no difference in educational performance between pupils from poor and wealthier homes, he said.

Other countries were already closing the achievement gap, he added.

'Stubborn' achievement gap

Research suggests children from poor homes are already behind by the the time they start school, and that the achievement gap widens as they progress through their education.

At GCSE there remains a "stubborn and unchanging gap in achievement" between the number of disadvantaged pupils who achieve five good GCSEs - including English and maths - and the rest of the population.

Speaking at a conference at independent Brighton College, in East Sussex, Mr Gove said it did not need to be this way.

He cited evidence of other countries closing and even eradicating the attainment gap.

He said: "Deprived pupils in Hong Kong and Shanghai, who struggle with challenges far greater and more debilitating than any we know here, achieve as highly as their English peers from the most comfortable homes.

"Only 24% of disadvantaged students in the UK perform better than expected compared with 76% in Shanghai, 72% in Hong Kong and 46% in Finland.

"The OECD average is 31% - putting the UK well behind countries like Poland, Greece, Slovenia, Mexico and Chile when it comes to making opportunity more equal."

'Unwavering focus'

Mr Gove added: "Despite the evidence that other nations are closing the gap between rich and poor through great state schooling, some in this country still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors.

"They say that deprivation means destiny - that schools are essentially impotent in the face of overwhelming force of circumstance - and that we can't expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage."

Mr Gove said he did not accept this, adding that there were a growing number of schools "proving that deprivation need not be destiny - that with the right teaching and the right values they can outperform everyone's expectations".

Research has suggested there are more than 440 secondary schools where the average GCSE point score for children on free school meals - a key measure of poverty - is higher than the national average for all children.

Mr Gove said: "What they share is an unwavering, unapologetic focus on standards.

"Led by inspirational heads and teachers, every day these schools are proving the pessimists and fatalists wrong."

'Hard work'

He continued: "They show us all that there need be no difference in performance - none whatsoever - between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes.

"They show us that a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching."

Mr Gove said the government must stand for "aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence - for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed".

He said he knew the government was making progress when he heard opposition from what he described as vested interests in the trade unions and local government.

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: "Launching another attack on the teaching profession is not the way to close the gap between poorer and richer pupils.

"The truth is that the government's key measure - the pupil premium - is not being targeted at the poorest children because many schools are using it to plug holes in their budgets."

But general secretary of the NASUWT union Chris Keates said: "Coalition ministers are becoming more and more frantic as their flawed ideological policies, which are creating a lost generation of children and young people and plunging millions into poverty, are exposed."

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: "Michael Gove is right to highlight the fact that the UK has a 'profoundly unequal society'.

"It is a great shame that the Coalition government's policies will do nothing to alter this fact, and in many cases will make matters even worse.

"Cutting the Education Maintenance Allowance and raising the cost of university tuition fees has meant that for many poorer pupils further or higher education is not an option.

"This is a decision based not on their educational achievements but on their family's economic abilities to keep them in education."

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