School marks, city lessons

Youth unemployment is up and GCSE grades are down.

Youth unemployment is up and GCSE grades are down. The odds are that it is the most disadvantaged young people and the most deprived parts of the county that are affected most by both.

As pupils go back to school, the debate over this year's GCSE results continues. It is the impact that GCSE grading can have on a young person’s future prospects that causes so much concern. GCSE results determine whether a young person can go on to study A-levels en route to university. They also matter to employers.

The map of GCSE attainment looks remarkably similar to the map of youth unemployment. We published research today that shows that the lower GCSE attainment is in a city, the higher youth unemployment is. GCSE results, especially Maths and English, matter to job prospects.

Official national figures with more detail on this year's results aren't due out till early next year. But if previous results and the experiences of individual schools are anything to go by, it is the most disadvantaged that are hardest hit in the apparent move to halt grade inflation. Pupils eligible for Free School Meals are far more likely to get scores around the C-D border.

Year-on-year, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to get five good GCSEs. Social background remains the strongest predictor of educational attainment in this country; more so than many other developed countries.

Unsurprisingly, cities with higher proportions of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have lower attainment rates overall. Over 59 per cent of pupils from all schools in the most economically successful cities achieve at least five GCSEs including Maths and English but excluding vocational  equivalents. The attainment rate drops to 47 per cent in weaker cities creating a gap of over 12 percentage points.

These pupils face multiple disadvantages. They are more likely to go to an underperforming school: 40 per cent of schools in weaker economies  are judged "inadequate" or "satisfactory"  compared to 26 per cent in economically successful cities. They are less likely to leave school with the qualifications education providers and employers require. And local employment options are likely to be more limited.

All of this serves to reinforce the socio-economic divides that have long existed across the country. 

What is also striking is that schools in many of our weaker cities are better at improving the performance of  pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than economically strong cities. While there are fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in buoyant cities, they are less likely to achieve good GCSEs than disadvantaged pupils in struggling cities.

It is clear that policies to address educational inequalities cannot start and end with schools; there are many reasons why some pupils fall behind. But the experience of schools in some of the most deprived parts of London demonstrates that a child's background does not always pre-determine how well they do in their exams. Nearly 58 per cent of disadvantaged pupils in Tower Hamlets achieve five good GCSEs including Maths and English compared to a third nationally.

The fact that Tower Hamlets is located in one of the most economically buoyant cities in the country can't be ignored. It may affect pupil aspiration and schools may have access to a larger pool of teachers. Cities should, seek to understand what be learned from initiatives such as the London Challenge that led to marked improvements in attainment rates. One thing is clear. Without intervention to improve the education levels of our young people, the cycles of disadvantage will not be broken.

Naomi Clayton is a Senior Analyst for Centre for Cities.

Students getting their GCSE results. Photograph: Getty Images

Naomi Clayton is a senior analyst at Centre for Cities

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle