'Invisible' poor children let down by schools, says Ofsted head


Sir Michael Wilshaw said a spotlight needed to be shone on local authorities that are failing children

Related Stories

Many of the poor children being left behind in schools now are in suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts rather than big cities, England's chief inspector of schools has said.

In a speech, Sir Michael Wilshaw said such pupils were often an "invisible minority" in schools rated good or outstanding in quite affluent areas.

He wants a new team of "National Service Teachers" sent in to help.

Sir Michael has praised big improvements in London schools.

And he says other big cities, such as Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester, have also made great strides.

'Unseen children'

"Today, many of the disadvantaged children performing least well in school can be found in leafy suburbs, market towns or seaside resorts," he said in the speech in London.

"Often they are spread thinly, as an 'invisible minority' across areas that are relatively affluent.


  • 36% of pupils on free school meals (FSM) achieved five good GCSEs including maths and English in 2012
  • Among all pupils, 59% achieve this
  • Schools receive extra money for each pupil on FSM - known as the pupil premium
  • Pupil premium rises to £900 this September, from just over £600

"These poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching.

"They coast through education until, at the earliest opportunity, they sever their ties with it."

Sir Michael told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that many of the 1.2 million children in England on free school meals (FSM) were not doing well and that "two-thirds of these are white British children".

"Where the problems now are, are in schools, good schools, outstanding schools, in county areas, with small proportions of poor children that are doing extremely badly."

Map showing how schools with high numbers of students receiving free school meals perform at GCSE *Low results represents schools where fewer than a fifth of pupils receiving free school meals gained five GCSEs at A* to C. Above average results represent schools where pupils receiving free school meals had GCSE results above the national average.

In a new report, he said there were 15 local authorities where only a quarter of children on FSM achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths last year and that those with the poorest record on this were West Berkshire, Peterborough, Barnsley and Herefordshire.

Nationally, the average for all children was that 59% reached that level, while for children on FSM it was 36%.

He made recommendations aimed at closing the achievement gap between rich and poor.

"National Service Teachers", he says, should be employed by central government to teach in "schools in parts of the country that are currently failing their most disadvantaged pupils".

And he is calling for smaller, "sub-regional" versions of the London Challenge, the initiative which ran in the capital in the 2000s and is credited with turning around many schools.

Under this Labour policy, schools were encouraged to help each other, with successful schools, heads and teachers working with those in less successful schools with similar intakes and circumstances.

The chief inspector also:

  • Confirmed that schools will not be rated as outstanding by inspectors if pupils on free school meals fall significantly behind others
  • Warned that schools will be inspected earlier than planned if poorer children there are not doing well
  • Called for data to be published on progress made in primary schools by children between reception and age seven
  • Recommended ways of closing the achievement gap in further education or on apprenticeships

In England, the government has committed itself to closing the achievement gap.


Bridging what is known as the achievement gap is something all recent governments have pledged to do.

There has been some progress, but with a million children on free school meals (FSM) and the danger that many might leave school without good qualifications and end up jobless, there is a drive to do more.

This report suggests some children on FSM do badly at school because they have not had the best start in life and begin school with poor language or social skills, "not ready to learn". Their parents might have "weak parenting skills", they might be out of work or in poor housing, it says.

Without blaming parents, Sir Michael said exceptional schools could "make up for parental weakness", by giving such children extra help as well as high expectations.

He and others suggest this happens when there are systematic improvement programmes, high accountability and high levels of support.

The coalition introduced an extra payment for schools - known as the pupil premium - for each pupil who receives free school meals.

This was about £600 and is rising to £900 in September.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Closing the unacceptable attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is at the heart of our reforms. That is why we introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5bn per year by 2015, to target additional funding for disadvantaged pupils.

"Ofsted itself has increased its focus on how schools use the pupil premium to narrow gaps in their inspections."

The spokesman added that other changes, to exams and the curriculum and the academies programme, would lift standards too.

Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, said his party's plans were to increase collaboration between schools to improve standards, as Sir Michael recommended, but those of the government encouraged schools to "go it alone".

"This gap narrowed under Labour and Michael Wilshaw is right to say that our policies, such as London Challenge in which successful schools helped struggling ones, were key to this," he said.

"Labour will ensure all schools work together to raise standards for every child."

'Isolated communities'

Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers: "[Rural] schools need extra help and extra interventions"

Mary Bousted, head of the teachers' union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the underachievement of poor rural children was not a new problem.

It had been highlighted in a 2008 report but had not been the focus of government attention "for too long", she told BBC's Breakfast programme.

One of the main factors was the isolation of schools and communities, particularly in coastal areas, where there were low wages, high worklessness, children not prepared for learning and children being moved in and out of schools, she said.

Such schools needed extra help and interventions, she added.

She also spoke of the "hidden" poor who were being taught in leafy suburbs among mostly children from affluent homes.

These schools often lacked the expertise or experience of inner-city schools of working with deprived children, she said.

Head teachers' association ASCL, said "parachuting teachers in to short-term placements" would be a "sticking plaster" and what was needed was a co-ordinated national strategy and the long-term support and assistance inner city schools had had.

'Regular testing'

Platanos College in Stockwell, south London, is one of the London schools to have turned itself around. Some 60% of pupils there receive free school meals.

Deputy head teacher Michael Rush said that in 2000, just 11% of pupils achieved five GCSEs at C grade or above.

Last year, 80% of all pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, with teenagers on free school meals only a few percentage points behind at 77% - way above the average for pupils on free school meals nationally.

Mr Rush said: "If you look at our intake, we don't have an option not to target the disadvantaged kids as they make up a high proportion of our students.

"We have had to look seriously at how to close the gap and raise the achievement of all children."

He said the school's strategies included having good information about children's abilities through regular testing and then targeting them with the right support.

Children are grouped by ability and there is an emphasis on getting the basics of English and maths right, plus extra classes at weekends and in the holidays - especially for the GCSE years.

Mr Rush said data was important - with the school educating children and parents about the various levels - and that all pupils were set "very challenging targets".


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    Sorry but poor parents fall into two basic categories. There are those who seek to lift their children into a better life through education. They encourage and support them and enable social mobility. Then there are those who just do not really care and are selfish enough to accept their children can mimic them in a nanny state. A school cannot make up for the latter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Parents are NOT teachers! If they are, what is the purpose of schools?

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    So many sweeping statements about parents here: while it's true you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear, at the same time a great teacher can instil a love of learning in any child, from any background, if engaged correctly. A great teacher can make up for any perceived 'failings' of the parents. But many teachers simply can't be bothered, or lack the training.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    As with so many of the comments here (see Highest Rated) the primary influence and help that a child receives is from their parents. Neither my wife or myself are what could be termed 'big earners', so are not well off, but we devote all our time to helping our very bright daughter - with her homework, discussing issues and always praising her for the good results she achieves at school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    My son who is fantastic at sport is not one of the top achievers at his school. My wife and I, each and every day, spend time with him doing homework and making home learning fun. As a result he's really improving and enjoying it more. If we simply left it to his school I dread to think where he'd be. Why oh why won't any government recognize that parents are the biggest influence on their kids.


Comments 5 of 7


More Education & Family stories


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • TravelAround the world

    BBC Travel takes a look at the most striking images from the past seven days


  • A bicycle with a Copenhagen WheelClick Watch

    The wheel giving push bikes an extra boost by turning them into smart electric hybrids

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.