Education

The following five articles by Nick Davies attempt to dig into the underlying assumptions which inform government education policy and link to the consistent way in which Flat Earth News distorts policy. These articles relate to a reference on page 40 of the book.

Failing schools and failing solutions

The Guardian, July 2000

In the bizarre world of Britain's target-driven schools, it is not only teachers who have joined children in cheating to get good results. The Department for Education are in there, too.

We decided to test the DFEE's claims to be 'turning around' failing schools, by analysing the academic results of every secondary school which has ever been put into 'special measures', the programme of intensive reform and inspection which, according to the repeated claims of the Education Secretary, sets schools "back on the path to success". "We are turning them around more quickly than ever," he declared last year.

In the latest available list, there are 166 secondary schools who have gone into special measures. The first point is that seventy per cent of them are either still in (87, including one that has been there for six years) or they have closed (29, including nine that have been re-opened as Fresh Start schools, which we examine later). Setting aside one school which has been merged, we looked at the remaining fifty for the signs of success which are celebrated by the Secretary of State.

We found that in the year before they went into special measures, on average only 13.24% of their pupils were scoring at least five A to C grades at GCSE, the government's chosen measure of academic success. This was seriously low. Mr Blunkett announced in March that in future he would consider closing any school which failed to deliver at least 15% A to C grades. Then we looked at the average achievement of pupils in each of the schools for every year since it went into special measures and found out that Mr Blunkett was in some difficulty. On average, in these schools which are "back on the path to success", there have been only 13.66% of pupils scoring five A to C grades - well below Mr Blunkett's threshold for survival.

This tiny overall improvement has been secured at an estimated average cost of £500,000 per school, a total bill of £25 million. And it has taken place against a background of intense stress for teachers and heads, some of whom have lost their jobs in the process; and tumbling morale not only amongst staff but also among parents, some of whom have reacted to the imposition of 'special measures' by withdrawing their children.

Of course, our averages refer to schools of different sizes and they conceal wide variations. Among the fifty, there are some who have moved upwards sharply: St Mary and St Joseph's in Bexley was scoring 35% A to Cs and now scores 45%; Hayes Manor in Hillingdon was scoring 18% and now scores 27%; Fairham in Nottingham has moved from 17% to 25%. Almost all of the fifty schools now have fewer students who fail to pass a single GCSE at any level (only six have deteriorated in this respect). Clearly, there is some genuine improvement.

However, the signs of continuing failure are striking. On Mr Blunkett's own 15% benchmark, twenty one of these success stories are liable to be closed down: fourteen of them are not even scoring 10% (one school scores only 2%, two others score 4%). Nearly a third of them have actually declined: sixteen are turning in results for A to C grades which are worse than they were before they went in. (This includes the troubled Ridings School in Yorkshire, which went in with 8% and came out with only 6%). Four others have delivered a net improvement of only one per cent over five years.

We also looked to see if there was a trend for results to improve over time. We found that after twelve months in special measures, the schools showed a small average improvement in the number of children scoring five A to Cs. But after two years, there was a small drop, followed by a two-year plateau and then a marked fall for those who had been in special measures for more than five years.

The signs of failure touch even the most renowned success story. Northicote School in Wolverhampton was the first secondary school ever put into special measures, in November 1993, and when it emerged two years later, it was greeted with a chorus of official acclaim. Its headteacher, Geoff Hampton, was given a knighthood for his success. He became a national consultant on techniques for 'turning around' failing schools and was subsequently invited to Downing Street to tell the Prime Minister about his methods.

Last year, a team of Ofsted inspectors returned to the school and, although they found strengths - "GCSE results rising much faster than the national average... majority of students making good progress... good links with the community... financial planning is very good" - they also found just as many weaknesses. They re-ported: "Not enough teaching that is good or very good... monitoring of teaching is unsatisfactory... students' personal development is unsatisfactory... quality of sixth-form provision is poor... school does not meet all statutory requirements... level of students' attendance is below the national average."

The underlying point here is the one that has been made repeatedly to Mr Blunkett - that schools can be improved by shaking up teaching and management, but this improvement is limited by the school's resources and by its intake of children. In the case of Northicote, where the per centage of students scoring five A to C grades has reached 20%, there has been a clear change in intake. In 1995, Ofsted found that a massive 70% of the pupils had special educational needs. Last year, they found only 33% had. The number of children whose families were poor enough to claim free school meals had also declined, from 33% when the school went into special measures; to 30% when it emerged in 1995; to 26% now.

Phoenix School in Hammersmith has done everything which Mr Blunkett could ask to improve its teaching and management. Last year, Ofsted reported that five years after the school went into special measures, the leadership of its headteacher was 'excellent', the governing body's link with the school was 'first rate', the LEA's help was 'effective and enduring', and teaching had improved to the point where 60% of the lessons were either good, very good or excellent. And yet despite all this, the number of children at the school who scored five A to C grades at GCSE last year was only five per cent. In the year before the school went into special measures, it was more than three times higher, at 17%.

Mr Blunkett may not understand the reasons for this fall, but anyone at Phoenix School can tell him that the school was damaged directly by being put into special measures in early 1994. This triggered a rash of vitriolic pubicity which, in turn, created an immediate flight of teachers and of parents of motivated children. This left classes to be taught by supply teachers; it also took high-achieving children directly out of GCSE groups and drained many of the most able children from the new intake in September. The school's results immediately started to slide, from 17% to 11% in 1994 and then 5% in 1995. As the improvements in management took hold, they rose again, to 16% in 1997 only to be slammed downwards again when the intake of eleven-year-olds which had been most weakened by the bad publicity reached Year Eleven in 1999 and sat their GCSEs, with only 5% of them scoring five A to Cs. In other ways, the school can show real improvement: more children attend, fewer are excluded, they behave better; Ofsted said their moral and cultural development was very good. But special measures has not delivered the academic results which are claimed for it. In truth, in some respects, it has damaged them.

Earlier this year Mr Blunkett tried to justify his sidelining of the impact of a poor intake on school performance by citing a school which turns in less than 25% A to C grades but where only six per cent of the children are poor enough to claim free meals. What he chose not to tell his audience was first, that this is a secondary modern school surrounded by three grammar schools which systematically skim off the brightest children in the community; and, secondly, that the school, in Lincolnshire, has been forced to adopt a new system for registering free school meals. Children can now claim them only if their parents physically attend school to confirm that they qualify: the headteacher says that, without this new system, they would have some 20% of children on free meals.

For those schools which fare particularly badly in special measures, Mr Blunkett has created the Fresh Start programme, in which the school is closed and its entire staff are sacked before it is re-opened with a new name, a new head and a new staff, which may include some hand picked from the old school. In March, he declared that "our Fresh Start policy is already being used by LEAs to tackle failing schools and is beginning to have an impact." A month later, he referred to the scheme again as an example of 'rapid progress' in tackling failure and added: "A successful example of this is Firfield School in Newcastle."

Since then, Firfield has been caught out by Channel Four News trying to get rid of difficult pupils by persuading parents to claim they were going to educate them at home; its 'superhead' has resigned; and this year, with 120 vacancies for Year Seven students, it has been chosen as first choice by only 60. Our understanding is that the LEA are now planning to take this 'successful example' and close it down for good.

Most of the nine other Fresh Starts have also run into trouble. In Wolverhampton, the new head of Kings School, Tim Gallagher, recently told the Times Educational Supplement that that he had been given no warning of the Fresh Start decision ("We were told we would be part of the Fresh Start initiative. We thought 'What's that?'"). They had been given no extra funds (a common complaint in the Fresh Start schools) and he complained that essential building works were being stalled by Whitehall bureaucracy: "In effect, we were given a millstone when we started, not a fresh start." In Hull, Kingswood has seen 23 of its 50 teachers, including four heads of department, hand in their notice since the school went into Fresh Start last September. Riverdeen in Nottingham are expecting only half of their Year Seven places to be filled in September. Bishopsford in Merton has recruited only 60% of the new pupils it hoped for.

In Brighton, the new College of Media Arts similarly lost 18 of its 58 staff within two terms of its Fresh Start, before also losing its headteacher, Tony Garwood, and its chair of governors. When they tried to find a new head, five of their six short-listed candidates pulled out of recent interviews, and the only remaining applicant was considered unsuitable. Earlier this month (July), they finally found a new head from the private sector, but she cannot start until next Easter. The school has been dogged by debt, computer foul-ups, friction with the LEA, truancy and indiscipline. For September it has filled only 58% of its vacancies. Now it has been put back into special measures. One senior figure at the school told us: "The requirement was for a radically new way of doing things. Unless we were going to change the children as well, that approach was a mistake."

The much-celebrated Fresh Start at the Islington Arts and Media School has also crashed in flames. For two months after the school opened, there was only one phone line in the whole place, no hot water, no kitchen, no fire alarm (they used a fog horn for fire drills), no science labs (the builders had gutted them by mistake) and no locks on the doors. When the locks finally arrived, they were the wrong ones; when the right ones finally turned up, they were wrongly installed. The electronic registration system did not work, because there were not enough cables. All this reflected a state of stunning chaos in the LEA which had no idea how many children would come to the school, no idea what the school budget would be, no extra Fresh Start funds because they failed to apply for them, and no New Deal money because they applied and were turned down.

When the head teacher's guestimate of the number of pupils turned out to be too low, the LEA provided no extra money for the extra pupils and the classrooms which had been planned for 22, were suddenly filled with 30 pupils. At the beginning, there were so few classrooms that pupils had to come to school in shifts. Most of the toilets did not work. There was a surge in bullying, but when the head tried to exclude pupils, he was blocked by the new policy of 'inclusivity'. When two girls started fighting in the playground over a bag of chips, it turned into a running battle involving 40 students. A new 'privatised' LEA took over, at which point the school discovered that the few decisions which it had managed to wring out of the old LEA were all null and void because none of them had been minuted. The new head resigned and, like Brighton, the school is now being put back into special measures.

None of this failure should surprise Mr Blunkett. The Fresh Start scheme is based on the idea of 'reconstitution' developed in San Francisco in 1984. It spread to other cities, but by 1997 it was thoroughly discredited. In December of that year, the American Federation of Teachers described the initiative as "politically popular but educationally bankrupt". That was when Mr Blunkett grasped the idea - just as it was being abandoned not only by its pioneers in San Francisco but also by other converts in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Memphis and Minneapolis, all of whom agreed with the AFT that it would be better to try a more collaborative approach, in which teachers and officials worked together to draw up action plans for struggling schools and offered teachers the chance to stay on or to leave.

Even Gary Orfield, who chaired the committee of experts which launched the San Francisco experiment, now recognises the limits of reconstitution. He told us: "My basic conclusion is that this is like open heart surgery. It is necessary in some cases, but very costly and needs a very strong supporting team to give it a reasonable chance at success. It produces strong resistance and anger from faculties when it is done in the wrong way, and it cannot produce miracles. It should not be done on a massive basis because it requires a great deal of investment in leadership in creating a brand new school in a situation which is inherently difficult."

Furthermore, Mr Blunkett has been warned repeatedly that his whole approach to school improvment is flawed. The same experts who pioneered the techniques which he is using, have urged him to recognise that their benefits are "valuable but limited". The improvement which has occurred is precisely within the narrow range predicted by these experts, and yet he continues to try to use their methods to deliver far more.

A senior Ofsted inspector told us: "A poor school is fantastically hard to turn around. The DFEE deems schools to have been turned around by concentrating on criticising teachers and managers and watching for signs of change in behaviour, particularly truanting. But in order to do so it has to turn a blind eye to its own professed target, an increase in academic standards. So a school is turned around if its behaviour improves, even though its education may remain quite unchanged. In order seriously to turn that school around, they would have to look at its curriculum, exams, teaching technique and they would have to look at the fundamentals but they absolutely refuse to do that."

Mr Blunkett is thrashing the wrong horse. There is widespread agreement now that, in the 1980s, the Tory government were right to complain that schools were suffering from some bad teaching and idle management. It set up some of the most powerful systems that have ever been brought to bear on a public service and, with a few exceptions, they have purged the problem. Now almost everyone at every level of education knows that the DFEE need to switch their attention to other causes of failure, some of them structural, some of them in specific policy, most of them the direct product of DFEE decisions. And yet Mr Blunkett is still thrashing the horse in the stable instead of the one with the cart, still smiling and claiming to be pleased at the progress of his journey.

Additional research by Helene Mulholland

Poverty invades the classroom

The Guardian, September 1999

This is the moment. The teacher with the Bleeper has legs like an ostrich and takes the stairs three at a time. Within 30 seconds, he has reached the classroom which has called for help and there, he wades into the confusion. The trouble is Terence.

Terence is on a computer but he is refusing to work on the exercise he has been set. Instead he is fooling with graphics, simply ignoring instructions, his chin resting insolently on one palm. The classroom teacher is torn between Terence, who is stealing his attention, and the other children, who are beginning to wander and chatter. The teacher on Bleeper Patrol tells Terence he must leave the room. Terence sullenly refuses and carries on toying with the screen in front of him. Two girls come over to eavesdrop on the confrontation. In the background, several boys break into Punjabi to swap insults.

This is the moment that lies at the heart of the often frantic debate about Britain's schools - when a teacher stands up in front of a class and the teaching simply fails to take place. It is the moment which haunts a Prime Minister who famously declared that his three highest priorities are "education, education and education". And this particular moment happens to be occuring in a school which sits right in the centre of Sheffield, the political cradle of the current education secretary, David Blunkett.

The Bleeper Man persists. He has been on this kind of patrol many times before, acting as a kind of fireman who can be called out to deal with any crisis in the building. Tantrums, fights, breaking windows, smoking cigarettes, all riddled in amongst the daily rituals of a stable school. On a bad day, the Bleeper will call for help 40 or 50 times - a crisis every eight minutes or so. He knows he has to be careful. A few weeks ago, a boy went up on the roof and dangled one leg over the edge, threatening to jump unless he was left alone. That time, the Bleeper man quietly talked him down.

For several minutes, with the whole class wobbling on the verge of disintegration, Terence simply ignores the requests to leave, until suddenly he jumps to his feet, crashes his way through several unused chairs, snears at the classroom teacher and surges out into the corridor where he marches off, drumming one fist loudly against the wall. In the doorway at the end, he bumps into a 12-year-old girl, kicks her in the shin and vanishes around the corner. The class calms down, the teacher teaches and the Bleeper man goes off in search of Terence, the electronic alarm already squealing once more in his pocket.

Abbeydale Grange was once the cream of Sheffield's schools, a well-endowed comprehensive which was built out of three grammar schools with a tradition of high achievement and old-fashioned discipline. In many ways, it still succeeds and yet now it is beset by trouble. It struggles to survive; its numbers have disintegrated, from more than 2,000 to just over 500; only 22% of the pupils score five A-C grades at GCSE; its budget is drowning in deficit. It is one of the 40% of secondary schools in Britain which are said by Ofsted to fall below the required standard.

Why do some schools fail to deliver the best academic results? The big problem is trendy teaching methods (according to just about everybody on the right); it's a chronic shortage of resources (just about everybody on the left); it's teachers (Ofsted); it's Ofsted (teachers); it's a culture of low expectation (George Walden, the former Tory education minister); it's an overdose of intervention (the teacher unions); it's the abolition of grammar schools; the existence of private schools; the rigging of exam results; the shortage of nursery schools. It's the most important question in British public life. And yet the answer is torn like a fox between hounds.

This matters not simply as an exercise in failed analysis - there are plenty of policy questions which remain unanswered - but because in the last 15 years, education has attracted more intervention than any other area of goverment. From the sweeping Tory reforms of the late 1980s to the volley of initiatives since May 1997, this cacophony of answers has generated a cross-fire of activity by the state. If the analysis is wrong, much of this activity has been shot into the dark.

Why do schools fail? Despite all the confusion, there is an answer to the question. The strange reality is that in an area which is so peculiarly riven with controversy and genuine doubt, there is one clear, undeniable truth - one factor which more than any other determines whether a school will succeed or fail in delivering academic results. It is something which is recognised by almost everyone who is directly involved in schools, and yet it remains overlooked by almost all outsiders and sidelined by almost all official discourse. The answer is revealed by the Bleeper Man.

*

It is ten o'clock in the morning at Abbeydale Grange, and already the Bleeper has been busy: Dave has casually walked out of his class and gone to see his mates two doors away; a Somali lad with a baseball cap has downed tools and will not work; Joey is dancing on a table, whistling loudly so he cannot hear his teacher's protests. The Bleeper Man ricochets between them, ferrying the unruly to the Time Out room, where he finds Darren who is not supposed to be there at all. He was excluded yesterday, but his mother has sent him to school just the same. It is a contest with disorder.

Here on the wall is Shane's poem, one eleven-year-old boy's image of education: "School's crap, school's good
Every day, we come to school
It always rains
And every day I get off my bus and go for a fag
I say to myself 'Well, there goes another day'
Teachers talking, students shouting
When is all this noise going to stop?"

Here comes Imran, long and lean and full of mouth, sauntering late into class with a bag of crisps on the go, stopping to chat to his friends on the way to his desk. Never mind the lesson struggling to survive. Never mind anything. Imran is already on a last warning. He threatened to take off his belt and thrash someone who crossed him and the headteacher has told him he is on the edge of the precipice staring down at permanent exclusion. He has promised to produce "a ten-out-of-ten" day. Now, he grins as he swaggers towards his seat, a little lord of disorder.

What is going on in this place? It is not that the school is in chaos. There are no riots or rapes. Indeed, there are classrooms full of children who are learning. There are charismatic teachers and some brilliant kids - charming, clever kids, sporting stars, girls taking their GCSE's two and three years ahead of schedule. But then there is this fragility, this constant bubbling of trouble threatening to erupt as if the teachers were pulling off a miracle every time they reached the end of a lesson without an explosion. As the Bleeper Man lopes through the school, juggling crises, the outlline of the truth begins to emerge, slowly through the blizzard of contradictory claims.

He talks about the day he followed an eleven-year-old boy who had skived off class. When he caught up with him, he asked him simply "What's up?", and the boy slumped on to his stomach on the floor and started beating the lino with his fists, groaning with some inexpressible pain. He talks about the boy with the elfin face, who is sent to the Time Out room three times today: he has no father, his mother cannot cope; he has an alarming medical problem and he knows it; he is eleven but he has the reading age of a six-year-old; his dearest wish is to be excluded permanently so that he does not have to deal with life in the classroom.

There is the boy who comes to school from some kind of hell with his mother and spends the day hiding in the hood of his coat; the girl who has lost her mother and her father and whose grandparents were so harsh with her that she went to social services and begged to be taken into care; the boy whose home burned down, killing his pet while he fought with the firemen who would not let him go into the flames to save it (and who is now obsessed with doom and destruction). There are girls who get pregnant, boys who get drug problems, kids who have been taught at home to beat the crap out of anyone who irritates them, a boy who has moved home seven times in seven months because neighbours keep attacking his mother - and several times a week, he disappears from school and trails back to their latest refuge to protect her.

There are twelve-year-old girls who are the main carers in their family, feeding, clothing and supervising a cluster of younger siblings. This girl's brother has been beaten up by the local street gang. This boy's father is in prison. Somebody's mother is a drunk. Somebody's house has been torched by the neighbours. Here's an art class of thirteen-year-olds who have just spent the day in Derbyshire: half of them had never left Sheffield city in their lives. Here's a girl who has gone to the school office because her leg hurts, only to find that the police want to talk to her about reports that her step father has been assaulting her.

The children who are caught up by the Bleeper Patrol have more stories than Hollywood, but almost all of them have one thing in common. They are poor. And that is what matters. It is a simple thing. Every teacher knows it. There was a time when every government minister admitted it. The banal reality is that the single factor which more than any other determines a school's performance is its intake - the children who go there.

A small part of this is gender: girls at secondary school do better than boys. Everybody puzzles over it, but nobody can deny it. No single-sex girls school, for example, has ever been failed by Ofsted. While 40% of Sheffield girls scored at least five A to C grades at GCSE last year, only 33% of boys did so. But the big factor is poverty.

If a school takes in a substantial proportion of children who come from a disadvantaged background - if their parents do not read, if they have no books at home, if they are awake half the night and then half asleep all day, if they have been emotionally damaged by problems in their family or in their community, if they have suffered from an environment which, more than any other, is likely to expose them to drug abuse and violence and alcohol abuse and the collapse of social boundaries, then the school is more likely to fail academically. A school which is based in a disadvantaged community will struggle with its children, while one that is based in a more affluent area will prosper.

This not an occasional problem, but an endemic one. There are about 13.3 million children in Britain. On any available measure, some 4.6 million of them live in poverty - and they are all enrolled in schools. The evidence that poverty undermines education is overwhelming - and has been for years. Yet governments deny it. The last government denied the poverty itself. This government admits the poverty but denies its impact.

By obscuring this simple reality, the public discourse on our school system has entered the realm of the absurd and become lost there. This is not to deny that there are good and bad teachers, that there are good and bad approaches to teaching, that schools can make a difference. It is not to quarrel with the complaint that schools in the 1960s and 70s were allowed to drift into a state of unsupervised complacency or that ideologies of social engineering may often have interfered with education or that the Guardian among others on the left was seduced into some naive and unsupportable positions. But when those factors take their proper place in the picture, they slip out to the margins while the children take up the centre - and the host of political initiatives which ignore the children are revealed as mere alibis. Like all alibis, those initiatives may contain some element of truth but like all of the most dangerous alibis, they are essentially dishonest.

*

Until a few years ago, Dr Phil Budgell was the chief inspector of schools in Sheffield. Like his opposite number in every other Local Education Authority, he visited all the schools on his patch and noted their strengths and shortcomings but, unlike most of his opposite numbers, Dr Budgell is a trained statistician. In search of an understanding of what he saw, he began to sift through the river of statistics which flowed into his department, panhandling it in search of patterns.

The poverty was obvious. Since 1979, South Yorkshire has lost 24% of its jobs, and nearly a quarter of Sheffield's children now live in families with no earner. Dr Budgell started using census material to tot up the indicators of poverty in each household - no earner, no car, overcrowding, single parent, ethnic minority. Then he switched to the database for the city's schools, pulled out the post codes for every single pupil, matched this against the districts for which he had census data and produced an index of disadvantage for all the schools in Sheffield. He added in the distribution of girl pupils and also figures for those who simply failed to turn up for school in Year Eleven, when exams were being taken, and he produced a table which ranked all 27 secondary schools in the city according to the difficulties of their intake.

Then he looked at the academic outcomes of the 27 schools. He used seven different measures of exam results, including average scores, mean scores, A to C grades, A to G grades. There were small variations but essentially the picture was clear: the league table of schools who did well in exams was simply the reverse of the league table of difficult intakes. Using multiple regression analysis, Dr Budgell found that more than 90% of the difference in exam results between schools was accounted for simply by the poverty, gender and final-year attendance of the children who were enrolled there. What was being done by the schools was influencing only the remaining five to ten per cent.

"I'm not saying that schools don't make a difference," he told the Guardian. "There are incompetent teachers, but in order to explain the failing of inner city schools in terms of incompetence you have to make the bizarre assumption that these schools have hired a mass of incompetent teachers while good schools have hired none. There is a volume of evidence that schools are not playing on a level playing field. When you look at these intake factors, the level playing field is more like the side of Mount Everest."

Three secondary schools in Sheffield have been condemned by Ofsted and put into 'special measures': Earl Marshall, Hinde House and Myrtle Springs. All three of them are in the North East of the city, with an intake which is dominated by the children of poor families. At Fir Vale School, which has taken over from Earl Marshall, the head teacher Ken Cook has a pupil body of whom only 16% speak English as their first language. Most of his parents speak no English at all. On a Monday morning last term, he had seven Somali children turn up for their first day at school, fresh out of a war zone, without a sentence of English between them. "Within an hour they are in the classroom," he said, "and we are accountable for their performance."

At Hinde House School, the head teacher, Sarah Draper, deals with a similarly poor intake: "If there are 25 kids in a classroom, there may be 15 with behavioural problems. I am past being shocked, although I know that people out there don't understand." She recalled the children who had failed to turn up for school during England's first match in the World Cup last year. Some of their parents had insisted that the children were right to stay at home. "They thought football was more important than school. The trouble is that education is a middle class value which we are trying to operate in a working class culture."

Abbeydale Grange draws its children from a wedge of deprivation, which takes in the Sharrow area where unemployment is the highest in the city, infant mortality is the highest in the city, 30% of children come from families on income support, 12% of the adults are diagnosed as suffering from depression and 25% of the children live in homes which are officially deemed to be overcrowded. Fifty three per cent of the school's students claim free school meals: on national trends, a further ten per cent would be poor enough to qualify but fail to lodge the claim. The poverty invades the school like water flooding a ship, reaching into every weak point.

Poverty, at first, means sheer material hardship: the numerous children who come to school without breakfast; the boy who falls down in the mud at school and turns up for the rest of the week in the same muddy clothes; the homes which have no books, never mind computers or Internet connections; no quiet place for homework; no cash for school trips; no cash for bus fares in the morning.

Poverty often means parents who gained nothing from school and expect nothing more from it for their children, like the Somali father who keeps his daughter at home so that she can translate for him; or the man who has kept his 13-year-old boy off school for the last two years so he can help look after their animals. Abbeydale teachers last term told Wayne, who is 12, that he should start to think about what GCSEs he wants to sit. He blinked and shook his head and said that no one in his family - none of his numerous older brothers and sisters, and certainly not his parents or their siblings - had ever passed any exam of any kind, so, well, why would he?

Headteachers and officials at the town hall agree that in the old public housing estates, education has never been highly valued. In the good old days up until the early 1980s, that was because there were apprenticeships more or less on demand in the coal and steel industries. Now, Sheffield's traditional economy has been destroyed, 60% of the old industrial jobs have been lost for ever, and the reasoning is reversed: last year, one out of every five young people who left Sheffield's schools had no work to go to, and one out of nine of them had no qualifications at all. Overwhelmingly, those young people came from the old estates where they remain now, as the neighbours - and role models - of this year's students.

The best available source of income and status is the drugs economy, which reaches into every school in the city. One of the Abbeydale Grange teachers recalls the primary school where he taught where one of the eight-year-old boys daily stole the lunchboxes off other kids: he was the son of the local drug baron, so no one could argue with him. In the library at Abbeydale, Mark, now aged 15, tells how the previous day he bumped into a friend from primary school. "I never knew him that well. He wasn't exactly a friend. But he gave me his bleeper number in case I wanted to buy any blow off him. Which was helpful." Why bother with school?

Poverty steers children off course long before they reach secondary school. Of the 115 eleven-year-olds in last term's Year Seven at Abbeydale Grange, twenty five of them arrived at the school with a reading age of less than eight. Their Non Verbal Reasoning Scores were just as low. The effect on the rest of their schooling is catastrophic.

Many of the deprived children come from families of recent immigrants who do not speak English as their first language. Of the 521 pupils in the school last term, 204 are from the Indian subcontinent, together with children from Colombia, Brazil, Somalia, Venezuela, Kosovo, Senegal, Portugal and China. Half of the pupils in Years Seven and Eight are in the process of learning English. In Years Eight and Nine, the position is even more difficult, with 70% of students adapting to English as a second language. Last term, one boy completed a French test by translating the text into Albanian. By the end of the term, the teacher had found someone to make sense of it and discovered that he had got almost all of it right.

Poverty does its worst damage with the emotions of those who live with it: parents who are too tired or depressed, too stretched trying to juggle too many young children, too damaged to cope; children whose development is distorted from their earliest days. Forty five per cent of the students at Abbeydale Grange are classified as having special educational needs, many of them suffer from emotional or behavioural problems. Twelve per cent of them have a need so serious that they are 'statemented' by the local authority as cases requiring the involvement of outside agencies: IQ as low as 50, very short concentration, hyperactivity, disruptive behaviour, attention-seeking, dyslexia, clinical depression.

Josh suffers from a classic cluster of problems. He is twelve, his father has not been seen for years, his step father cannot be bothered with him, his mother drinks and simply does not like him. She criticises his every move and has called the school to complain about their sending home letters in praise of his better behaviour. When a teacher tried to take him to the cinema as a reward for trying, she blocked it. Josh expects to make a mess of everything he touches and he spends his day in school avoiding work for fear of failing; looking for attention with disruptive jokes and antics; smoking and attempting to wander off to the shops. There are children like Josh in every class in Abbeydale Grange.

*

So a school like this is logged as a failure, its academic results limping far behind the private schools and the state schools in rural towns and pleasant suburbs. Back on the Bleeper Patrol, however, a very different picture begins to emerge - signs of success, hidden beneath the surface of daily school life.

During the night, it rained, and, as usual, the puddles on the flat school roof have leaked through to the modern languages room below. Now, there's a whole Spanish class roaming the corridors in search of a home. The Bleeper man races down the corridor, finds an empty room, races back to the Spanish class but, before he can reach them, he finds a small girl wandering in search of a teacher who has failed to show up. He sends the girl to tell the Spanish class to go to the empty room, pops his head in the door of the class without a teacher and calms the children, gallops off down the stairs to the staff room, finds the name of the missing teacher on the rota, heads to the school office who have no idea where he is, charges back up stairs, shepherding stray Spanish students as he goes, tells two boys to stop spitting and a third not to swear, grabs some litter off the floor, finds a spare teacher, sends him to the class who have lost theirs, checks that the Spanish class has found its home and sees that all is well, heads for the class without a teacher and sees they are still fooling around, discovers the spare teacher has gone to the wrong classroom, finds him, redirects him, takes a breath... and realises that all is well, all is quiet. He has created order.

While the outside world looks at the league tables and sees failure, for the teachers inside the school, life is thick with success.

One of the Bleeper Man's most regular customers was Catherine, who left the school this summer. She came from a violent and broken home and, from her first day in the school was an almost constant source of disruption, walking out of classes, refusing to fit in, threatening violence against herself and others. The school poured its attention into her. They attached a support assistant to her, designed a special timetable for her, allowed her to go to a Quiet Room to escape from her most worrying classes, drew up a contract for her behaviour, reviewed her progress every week, gave her counselling, liaised with her unstable home. And it worked. Last summer term, she sat her GCSE exams. After five years of domestic turmoil and emotional pain, the school had no illusions at all about the grades she would get. But she sat them - decided it was worth the effort, decided to revise, decided to turn up on time and even to sit through them writing, decided to try. That is success.

When the Bleeper Man sees Josh in the playground being approached by two older boys on their way for a cigarette, and Josh turns them away, that, too, is success. When Terence rushes out of his computer class and disappears and the Bleeper Man quietly follows him and finally discovers him already sitting in the Time Out room, having decided to co-operate and not to run or to fight, that is success.

These are children who are so tough on the street that policemen won't go on their estates without back-up and flak jackets; yet a lone teacher in shirtsleeves deals with them thirty at a time. But that doesn't score points in the league tables. The same children who fail their SATs tests also write the school prospectus and sit on interview panels, with a power of veto, when the school hires new staff.

There is hidden success in sport - like the Abbeydale Grange football team which struggled to win matches but scored a city-wide record by playing for the five full years of a school career without ever arguing with a single referee's decision. They were rewarded by Sheffield United, who invited them to use their ground at Bramall Lane to play their final match. There is social success, in the tumultuous combination of cultures in the playground without any kind of race hatred; in the rarity of bullying; in the sheer delight of the Year Seven cricket team who have only tennis balls and four elderly bats for practice but who took on the local Birkdale prep school with their brand new kit - and thrashed them.

When a Year Ten student passes GCSE maths a year early, when two Year Nine students do it two years early, when a Year Eight student does it three years early, that is straight forward academic success. Although none of it shows up in the official school tables which record only Year Eleven results. When the government last year produced a 'value-added' table, concentrating not on exam results but on signs of academic improvement between Year Nine and Year Eleven, Abbeydale Grange was one of only three schools in the whole of Sheffield to record a dramatic improvement. But other schools, who normally come out top of the tables, complained - and the whole exercise was watered down.

The bell rings for the end of the last lesson. The Bleeper Man heads out to the drive way, where the children mill around the busses. The outside world is waiting to invade. Two young men with pimples and baseball caps start handing out advertising flyers for a free evening at a new nightclub in the city centre. The eleven-year-old boys and girls grab the flyers and mount the busses. Two girls from Year Seven hug each other tight and say goodbye for the day. A couple of boys slip away for a cigarette.

Schools are defined by the children who go there. Take the children from Abbeydale Grange and parachute them into Eton, and Eton will start to fail academically. Take Eton's teachers and plant them in Abbeydale Grange, and they will struggle to teach. The truth is masked by academic results. They simply disclose how well the children did in their exams, but they don't tell you how well the school did with its intake. And it is the intake that matters. For years, Britain has been shovelling children into poverty - taking away their parents' work, cutting their family's welfare, embroiling them in a war against drugs which has plunged them into crime and violence, breaking up their communities - and now these children are in the schools, messed up, screwed up, damaged and delinquent, shunted over the edge. A school with a poor intake is like an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff: sometimes, it can pick up the children and patch up the damage; most of the time, it's too late.

One of the teachers at Abbeydale Grange left at the end of last term, abandoning his career twenty years early. "Opinion formers seem to have no concept of what is going on," he said. "The general level of achievement of children with these problems is very low and it has got worse with poverty. " This particular teacher has found his own solution. He is a Christian and he has gone off to join the Church Army in the hope that God might succeed where governments have failed.

The point here is not that governments should introduce a more sensitive measure of achievement like value-added tables. The point is much bigger: the vast majority of government interventions over the last 15 years have been built on the foundation that schools can be blamed for the failure of their children; if that foundation is essentially false, the whole structure of reform is wrong. Millions of pounds and a mass of energy have been poured into projects which at best succeed only partially and at worst, actively damage the schools they are claiming to help. Tomorrow, we disclose evidence that that damage is now profound.

* To protect the privacy of children at Abbeydale Grange, most of their names and some minor identifying details have been changed.

Additional research by Helene Mulholland

Poverty and education: the evidence

The Guardian, September 99

This is the secret that everyone knows: the children of poor families are far less likely to do well in school than those whose parents are affluent. For the last ten years, this has been almost buried in denial. "Poverty is no excuse," according to the Department for Education. Neverthless, it is the key. As everyone knows.

The ministers and pundits who want to deny or diminish the link are keen to present it as the invention of soft-focus lefties trying to justify a socialist theory of education or to excuse incompetent teachers. However, the clearest and most persuasive recent evidence for the link was produced earlier this year, not by a teacher's union or a liberal academic - but by the Treasury, in its fourth report on the modernisation of Britain's tax and benefit system.

Reviewing nearly 30 years of research, the Treasury reported: "Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education... On 'difficult to let' estates, one in four children gain no GCSEs (the national average is one in twenty) and rates of truancy are four times the national average... There is considerable evidence that growing up in a family which has experienced financial difficulties, damages children's educational performance...

"The differences between advantaged and disadvantaged children are apparent from a very early age. At 22 months, children whose parents are in social classes one or two are already fourteen percentage points higher up the educational-development distribution than children whose parents are in social class four or five.... The data from the National Child Development Survey show that there is a strong relationship between children's performace in maths and readings tests between the ages of six and eight, and their parents' earnings, with the children of higher earning parents performing better... If one father's earnings are double the level of another, his son's maths test score is on average five percentile points higher than the other's... Going to school does not reduce the differences in early development between advantaged and disadvantaged children."

The link is strong. It is also central to the experience of Britain's schools because, as the same Treasury document confirms, poverty in Britain has trebled since 1979 to the point where a third of Britain's children - more than four million of them - now live below the poverty line. This torrent of poor children poured into the classroom at exactly the same time as standards of behaviour and achievement slumped. Our levels of pupil failure are higher than most of the rest of the developed world, but our levels of child poverty also are higher than most of the rest of the developed world. According to Eurostat, for example, 32% of children in the UK live in poor households, compared to 20% in the rest of the European Union. According to Treasury figures, we have higher poverty levels than Greece and Portugal.

The physical, emotional and social damage which is inflicted on children who live in poverty, is clearly reflected in the latest academic results. The independent group, Research and Information of State Education, trawled through Ofsted reports and matched the standards of students against the number who were claiming free school meals, the nearest available measure of poverty in the classroom. In schools with only a few poor children, one in every five pupils was scoring Grade 1; at the other end of the spectrum, in schools with a well above average number of children on free school meals, only one in a hundred was doing so.

A disadvantaged intake can make life tough for a whole school, not just for individuals. Researchers at Durham University looked at schools which have been failed and subjected to 'special measures' by Ofsted and then matched them against the six bands of disadvantage which are used by the Department of Education to reflect the proportion of pupils on free meals. Not one of the schools in special measures fell in any of the three 'affluent' bands. A small group fell close to the national average, but almost all of them - 96.5% - were in the two upper bands, schools with a proportion of children on free meals which is clearly above the national average.

The evidence goes on and on - from the US, from the OECD, from the EU. There are literally dozens of academic studies which confirm the link between poverty and academic failure. But in the Department of Education, anxious to deliver policies which appear to have a chance of short-term success, the new orthodoxy remains the same. "Poverty is no excuse."

Additional research by Helene Mulholland

How the government used and abused educational research

The Guardian, September 1999

The greatest dream of all good experts is to find a government who will listen and turn their research into reality. Some succeed. Peter Mortimore did. But the greatest frustration for any expert is to have found a government who finally listened - and ended up misunderstanding.

Twenty four years ago, Peter Mortimore abandoned a nine-year career as a school teacher to join a team of researchers who were about to embark on a special project for Professor Michael Rutter at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London. The goal which Mortimore and his colleagues set themselves was to try to identify the seeds of success in the classroom by spending four long years studying a dozen schools in London. They were to ignite one of the longest running theoretical disputes in the world of education.

In 1979, they published "Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children." It was a ground-breaking work. It challenged the conventional wisdom of the time by showing that although the social and economic background of pupils was a very powerful factor in deciding academic results, nevertheless it was not the whole story. Schools could make a difference, and they tried to identify the kinds of things which successful schools could do for their pupils to start to overcome their inherent social disadvantage.

This was important. There was no disguising the fact that state schools were in trouble. Numerous schools had been renamed ‘comprehensive' without any training for staff or change in their curriculum. Local education authorities allowed their schools to be accountable to just about no one. Headteachers could be as secretive as they pleased, concealing their results and disguising their problems, failing to heed criticism or complaint. There was widespread concern that some teaching methods were sloppy and ineffective and that ‘child centered' learning had reached a point of absurdity where teachers declined to mark their students' work for fear of appearing critical. Many schools appeared to have low expecations of their students, reflected in indifferent results. Now, finally, there was a chance to spread the best practice, to make schools more effective.

It took nearly ten years for the message to get through to the Department of Education. By that time, the research had been confirmed and refined repeatedly, in the United States as well as in Britain, and there was real excitement about a cluster of possibilities for school improvement - some involved different approaches to leadership and management, some to classroom technique. But, when they finally acted, Conservative ministers grabbed the wrong end of the stick and started beating teachers over the back with it. They fired off a volley of reforms - league tables, SATs tests, Ofsted inspections - all of which was aimed at the kind of School Effectiveness which Mortimore and his colleagues had identified and all of which utterly ignored the fact that the social and economic background of pupils remained a very powerful factor.

Mortimore and others tried to warn them. They explained that the most you could hope to achieve by improving schools was an increase of between eight and ten per cent in results. It was important and yet it was only a fraction of the whole. It was like watching a furious motorist pumping up the tyres on a car which had run out of petrol: it might eventually help the car to run more smoothly, but if he refused to address the real problem, it would do very little good and sooner or later, if he just carried on pumping regardless, something was bound to blow.

By now, Mortimore had become one of the leading experts on education in the country and had been appointed head of the Institute of Education at the University of London. In a book called Road to Improvement, he warned: "It is crucial that policy makers desist from claiming that school improvement - by itself and in the absence of extra resources - can solve all the problems. Whilst this might be true in ‘advantaged' schools, it is certainly not true in disadvantaged schools." Rather like the atom scientists who saw their work hijacked by government for immoral ends, he saw his warnings ignored.

The difficulty was that School Effectiveness was immensely attractive to politicians. By pinpointing the work of teachers and administrators, it completely absolved central government of all possible responsibility for failure. By sidelining the impact of intake, it permitted policies which focussed on detail in the school and were therefore relatively cheap, and which promised to deliver results quickly and were therefore electorally attractive. And so the Department for Education and Ofsted were already committed to hunting down failing schools and attributing their failure entirely to the weakness of teachers and managers, ignoring the destructive impact of an intake which had become progressively more delinquent as the new poverty swept through the country. The government's supporters were determined to recognise part of the truth and nothing but that part of the truth. Conservative columnists savaged Mortimore's book, effectively accusing him of not understanding his own research.

Ofsted and education ministers justified themselves by pointing to the performance of a group of schools with a disadvantaged intake, who appeared to have succeeded against the odds. The National Commission on Education organised studies of eleven such schools and found there was real evidence that, despite their intake, these schools had succeeded, using a combination of strong leadership, the setting of clear targets, and the involvement of parents and staff and community. And yet this study warned, first that none of the eleven schools saw government policy as helpful; and secondly that "the nature of school improvement.. has yet to be thoroughly understood and measured in a sensible and sensitive way." Researchers expressed real doubt about whether such schools would succeed in the long term, once the special effort of rescuing them subsided; and whether, in any event, there was any prospect of schools generally achieving these exceptional results; and, finally, whether some of those who were being credited with success against the odds had not simply attracted an easier intake of children.

One of those who took part in the eleven studies and who celebrated the achievement of these schools was Professor Peter Mortimore. However, this support for his early work only left him struggling all the harder to persuade the government to understand the rest of the story: "Whilst some schools can succeed against the odds, the possibility of them all doing so, year in and year out, still appears remote, given that the long-term patterning of educational inequality has been strikingly consistent throughout the history of public education in most countries.... We must be aware of the dangers of basing a national strategy for change on the efforts of outstanding individuals working in exceptional circumstances." None of which has stopped the government pursuing precisely such a strategy.

Additional Research by Helene Mulholland

A book about schools

The Guardian, November 2000

Nothing I have ever written has produced a reaction like the Guardian series on schools which is now being published as a book - a torrent of readers' letters spilling over with passion, more than a hundred invitations to speak at public meetings, a couple of journalism awards and a personal denunciation from the prime minister and the secretary of state for education. The current editor says the response was of a different order to anything else he has seen since he took over the paper (and this is the editor who presided over the demise of Aitken, Hamilton and Mandelson). What was that about?

I think something rather odd happened. Normally, when you publish an investigation in a newspaper, you hope you are uncovering something which nobody knows. With these stories, however, we did the reverse - we delivered something which masses of people knew but which no one with any power would admit. That torrential response was not shock or horror but a clamour of recognition of a reality that was being denied.

In the eighteen months I spent researching them, I got deeper into the workings of a government department than I have ever done before. It was not a reassuring experience. I started with a vague feeling of unspecified benevolence towards the secretary of state for education, David Blunkett. I came out with a feeling close to contempt, having peered into a department which, I eventually concluded, was habitually lying and cheating and was presiding over a shambles - something which it was enabled to do mainly by the scale of that self-same dishonesty.

I came away with a picture of ministers beset by problems and lost for solutions - lost, either because they simply didn't understand the issues well enough to know what to do, or because they did know and couldn't bear the political consequences. Rather than admit they were stuck, they were reaching for pseudo-solutions, policies which gave them something to talk about, gave the appearance of action, gave the pundits something to chew on while the real problems sat unsolved in the background, because (as the ministers often very well knew) the alleged solutions were entirely bogus.

We looked at Fresh Start, David Blunkett's brave new cure for the weakest schools - and found a mass of evidence which had discredited the idea in the United States years before Mr Blunkett ever pulled it out of his briefcase and started pretending it should be taken seriously. We looked at 'special measures', the routine procedure for dealing with a school that fails its Ofsted report - and (after months of negotiations) we dug out statistics which completely contradicted the ministers' grandiose claims of success. We looked at the official claims for the virtues of our 'mentoring' scheme - and then unearthed the department's own devastating findings of its miserable weakness. These initiatives are high-octane guff. And they reflect the great underlying problem, that the entire strategy of Mr Blunkett's department is based on an analysis of school failure which has the intellectual weight of a joke in a Christmas cracker. Everything else flows from that analysis, and the simple reality is that it's phoney.

And then there are the outright lies. In one of the early stories, we gave credit to David Blunkett for securing a £19 billion increase in funding for education - a few months later, we discovered that we had been conned. Well, the whole country had been conned. What was worse, the conman got away with it. On the single occasion when he was challenged about it - in the House of Commons, by the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis - Hansard records the secretary of state's reaction. He laughed. And that was that (although he never again repeated the £19 billion lie).

This is a lesson not just about the cynicism of politicians but also about our own gullibility - particularly our gullibility as journalists. We allow Whitehall to manage us: Mr Blunkett makes a big announcement about extra funds for Fresh Start schools; we report it, as though there were some kind of sense in it; and then we go off into micro-criticism of its detail, whether this is quite enough extra cash, whether there is really such a thing as a superhead, without explaining that the whole project is a proven failure. We are pushed into a sideshow.

Within a week of Mr Blunkett first telling his £19 billion whopper, he was caught out by the Treasury Select Committee, who exposed the most successful of his several sleights of hand. They did the same for the then health secretary, Frank Dobson, whose claims about new cash for his department were similarly fictitious. The point is that the press missed the story. The Treasury Select Committee's report sunk like a stone, the journalists chased off to the next press conference, and the various ministers carried on fibbing for 18 months before they were caught out. (Frank Dobson's budget was exposed as a hoax by BBC Panorama, by coincidence, in the week after we took apart Mr Blunkett's.)

I spent the first three or four months of this research being as stupid as it is possible for a journalist to be without getting sacked. I started, in the approved fashion, by reading files of old newspaper stories; I read the book by the former education minister, George Walden; I went to see senior people at the Department for Education and Ofsted. And I emerged with the clear view that school failure was primarily caused by bad teachers and, in particular, by bad teachers who had been led astray by 'trendy teaching methods' from the 1960s. Then two things happened. First, I read a book called Failing School Failing City by Martin Johnson, a veteran teacher and now president of the NASUWT union. Then I started going into schools. And I realised that my working theory was complete garbage, that the truth was simpler, nastier and very plain to see, as the first two stories, set in Sheffield, attempted to make clear: you cannot make sense of why some schools fail and some succeed without taking account of the corrosive impact of child poverty, which has soared in this country in the last twenty years. Combine that with the effects of the Conservative education reforms of the late 1980s and you have a design for educational failure.

You can look at any area of our schooling system - the effect of private schools on their state counterparts, the scale and distribution of funding, teacher stress and teacher pay, syllabus and teaching technique, truancy and exclusion, the outbreak of teacher cheating in exams - and you cannot explain what is happening unless you take primary account of child poverty and Kenneth Baker's reforms. There are other factors in there as well, but those two are essential. The reality is that unless Mr Blunkett acknowledges this and until he finds the political courage to scrap almost all of the market-driven reforms of the late 1980s, none of the dinky little schemes which he has launched will save our schools from crisis.

* The School Report, published today by Vintage, £6.99.