Issues of youth culture and behaviour are at last being placed at the centre of Britain's education debateby Katharine Quarmby / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Andrew Adonis, the schools minister, returned in June from a tour of the far east to declare, in a lecture, that Britain must strive to be an “80/20” society, in which at least 80 per cent of 16 year olds achieve five good A-C GCSE grades by 2020. At present, fewer than half of 16 year olds achieve such grades in GCSEs, including English and maths, but Adonis believes the improvement is possible, citing the achievements of countries such as Ireland, Finland and Singapore. The mechanisms for success listed in his lecture are familiar—more early-years’ investment, better pupil tracking, extended school hours and provision, more targeting of resources for those on the margins of good GCSEs and more business involvement in schools.
Yet almost entirely absent from the lecture—indeed the elephant in the room of much mainstream educational debate—were the intertwined issues of culture, upbringing and behaviour. Are Britain’s families producing enough children with the self-discipline and educational ambition to fill the 80 per cent quota even if everything else were in place?
The latest evidence on low achievement makes for dispiriting reading for Adonis and other optimists. In June, Robert Cassen from the LSE published a big study into low achievement. His team found that nearly half of all low achievers are white British boys. Poverty is strongly correlated with low achievement, as is lone parenthood and low-achieving parents. Cassen also noted that “male kinds of behaviour” in secondary schools cause difficulties, and boys are, as a consequence, far more likely to end up being excluded from school. While many children are well-adjusted, there is a “difficult minority” which many schools do not help.
One man who has experienced bad behaviour at first hand is Paul Grant, a head from Barking and Dagenham, in east London. Robert Clack school, set among the high-rise concrete towers of the Becontree estate, was once one of th…