On Tuesday 14th July Radio 4 broadcast a programme in their Positive Thinking strand (strapline: Meet the innovators bidding to change our world with one brilliant idea)  fronted by Sangita Myska.  This one was entitled “Closing the Attainment Gap: How tearing up the school calendar could help kids fulfil their true potential.”  After the programme, Comprehensive Future committee member, Alan Parker, wrote to the presenter as follows:

Dear Sangita

I have just heard today’s broadcast and although it was well enough put together I’m afraid you didn’t meet your brief.  Rearranging the school year is neither radical nor new and – although these ideas have some things to recommend them – they are not going to fix the problem.

I am 67 years old and have been involved in education policy all my working life.  In 1982 I edited a publication for the Association of County Councils called “Education on Even Terms” which researched and reviewed the same ideas – and they weren’t new even then.  It is significant that guests on your programme were advocating making the summer break both shorter and longer and each claimed success.  They are in fact both right and both wrong.  Education is a complex process and there are many other things that impact on children’s attainment. It is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to separate out one factor from everything else that is going on at the same time.  Most people who claim that their ‘one big idea’ has made a radical difference are victims of the ‘Hawthorn effect’ (i.e. the fact of focussing attention on any problem is more important than what you actually think you are doing).  In reality there are many different ways that schooling can be done better and, by and large, they mostly help disadvantaged students.  But they also tend to help the more advantaged as well and so don’t necessarily close the gap. 

There are in fact only two things which government could do that would be both radical and effective.  

The first is to introduce a fully comprehensive system whereby all children are educated together.  It has been conclusively established that more advantaged children tend to do well whether they are in a socially homogenous or mixed peer group; but schools which contain only deprived (or predominantly deprived) children struggle to thrive and, on average, children in those schools do less well than they would have in more socially mixed institutions.  Selection by ability and ‘social selection’  (which are often the same thing) damage the deprived without an absolute benefit for the better off;  but it does tend to maintain the gap – and therefore the relative advantage of the better off.

The second, and genuinely radical, solution is to recognise that the programme was looking at the issue from the wrong end.   The problem of deprived children’s education is a direct result of, well,  their deprivation.  During their school years children spend approximately 15% of their waking hours in school –  so why focus on this when you could address the 85% they spend with their families?   To put it simply  – if you had a problem with children falling off a cliff would you erect a safety net and park an ambulance at the bottom or would you build a fence at the top? 

The most accurate point that was made in the programme was by your contributor who said that “government action is unlikely because all the privately educated posh boys in the cabinet see no reason to change a system that benefited them.”  As Donald Trump might say So true! So true!