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West Berkshire’s ‘shocking failure’ of poorer pupils

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The latest report, called ‘Unseen children: access and achievement 20 years on’, revealed that for the year 2012, disadvantaged children in West Berkshire had the worst attainment in England at primary school level. It also had the second worst attainment at secondary school, and was one of the bottom three local authorities for qualifications at age 19.
According to the report’s research, disadvantaged pupils are classified as those “from low income backgrounds who are eligible for free school meals”.
In a speech at Westminster last month, the chief inspector of the education watchdog, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said: “Where do you think is the worst place in England to be a child from a poor family, in terms of educational opportunity? Is it inner London, Liverpool, Leeds or Manchester? Absolutely not at all. The evidence suggests that it’s West Berkshire.”
Sir Michael said that West Berkshire was an example of a wider problem affecting prosperous counties in the south-east, but accused those areas of “deep and shocking failure”.
Statistics released in 2012 by the Department for Education revealed that only 25.8 per cent of children eligible for free school meals in West Berkshire’s secondary schools managed to achieve five A* to C GCSE grades last year.
The news follows a report by the End Child Poverty charity in February, which revealed that 14 per cent of children in the parliamentary constituency of Newbury are living in poverty – a four per cent increase on the previous year.
Sir Michael has now demanded a new focus on failing pupils in affluent and rural areas.

West Berkshire Council’s executive councillor for education, Irene Neill, insisted that the authority was taking immediate steps to combat the issue, but added she felt that some figures were not reflective.
She said: “We are doing everything we can to resolve this. We have brought in a school improvement officer and recently had a conference run by two Ofsted inspectors where 160 representatives of schools from West Berkshire attended.
“The numbers don’t always help because several primary schools only have one or two pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and if for whatever reason they don’t get the expected grades, the school could potentially have a 100 per cent failure record. I feel much has been made of performance tables, which can sometimes focus on those who do not necessarily need to work as hard as some pupils to achieve results. ”
Mrs Neill said that more conferences would be held over the coming weeks and that the council had enlisted the help of local “leaders of education”.

Newbury MP Richard Benyon, said: “It is very concerning and we need to make sure that we use all possible resources to get to the bottom of the problem, something I can assure that the Local Education Authority is doing.
“It is a difficult situation because some individual pupils from certain backgrounds who are finding life difficult might sometimes be carrying baggage not related to school and that can reflect badly on the school, which could otherwise be performing very well.”
The prospective parliamentary candidate for Newbury, Judith Bunting (Lib Dem) said: “This report is the latest in a terrible set of revelations about the state of education in West Berks.
“I’ve visited our schools and understand how hard our teachers are working. We have no leadership from this council on education and severely reduced resources on which our schools can draw. Our children deserve a lot better than that.”

Sir Michael has also proposed that squads of top teachers, which he described as ‘national service teachers’ employed directly by the Government, were sent into schools.
Kennet School headteacher Paul Dick said he was not confident that Sir Michael’s proposed idea of employing national service teachers would work.
“I agree with the chief inspector’s report, it is important to help children from all backgrounds – but I don’t agree with the idea of teachers coming in from all over the country. It seems like a foolish one and I don’t see how it would work.
“Our school is above the West Berkshire average, but of course we are still not entirely happy with the current figures and we are now providing extra tuition in the core subjects.”
Mr Dick added that he had written to the local leader of education to suggest the idea of pairing up schools, and said it was something they were keen to take forward.

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