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Raising attainment and alleviating challenges in schools

Istock: Caiaimage/Chris Ryan

Policy@Manchester

5 min read Partner content

New report from The University of Manchester highlights key challenges facing today’s primary and secondary schools

From early years literacy to curriculum reforms, education is a pressing topic for policymakers in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic.

Now a new report produced by Policy@Manchester, The University of Manchester’s policy engagement unit, has highlighted some of the key issues facing educators, primary and secondary school leaders, children and young people.

The report, School Matters, compiled by eight academics from the Manchester Institute of Education at The University of Manchester, puts five areas under the spotlight, including education partnerships and emotional wellbeing, and provides a series of research-led recommendations and interventions.

It emphasises throughout that engaging with children and valuing their enjoyment of the subjects they learn at school are the best ways to raise attainment and alleviate challenges.

Robin Walker MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, welcomed the School Matters report. “School undoubtedly matters and attendance is vitally important,” he said. “After all the disruption of the pandemic the Education Select Committee has been at the forefront of debate and discussion on how we support attendance and tackle persistent absence.

“The new research from The University of Manchester is a welcome contribution to this debate and amongst other things supports our recommendation of an enrichment guarantee from our report into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils.”

Childhood literacy is one of the subjects tackled by the School Matters report. While the government is committed to improving literacy education as part of its levelling up agenda, the Manchester academics claim that the focus on literacy skills and mandated curriculums fails to acknowledge “the local and individualised contexts in which teachers teach”. They say that a lack of resources, funding and access to training has compounded problems within mainstream, local authority schools, “leaving budgets stretched and children at a disadvantage”.

The academics advise policymakers to promote the importance of reading for pleasure through ring-fenced funding for resources, giving children access to wide-ranging, quality literature. They also recommend that the early years phonic screening check, which measures the reading ability of five and six-year-olds by getting them to read a selection of real and nonsense words, should be replaced by teacher assessment – “a truer reflection of children’s reading ability”.

Maths education is another topic addressed in the report. In 2023 Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out the government’s plans to ensure that every student in England continues to study maths in some form till the age of 18, with the aim of boosting low numeracy rates and equipping school leavers for the workplace.

However, the Manchester academics point out that the profession will need an expanded workforce of well-qualified teachers to do this – and these are in short supply. The curriculum, teaching methods and assessment methods will have to be transformed too.

With “significant numbers” of children either marginalised or excluded from schools, they argue that local coordinated efforts are needed to promote equity in education and recommend that policymakers should support greater collaboration between schools, local authorities and communities. This would increase accountability and address local challenges, including children’s mental health, attendance and learner needs.

Young people’s mental health is a major concern, with increasing numbers of children experiencing poor emotional wellbeing. The report says that pupils with special educational needs, those with adverse childhood experiences, those who receive pupil premium funding and children at risk of being excluded or suspended from school are particularly vulnerable.

Catherine McKinnell MP, Labour's shadow schools minister, supports the report’s focus on wellbeing and enjoyment of school. “With young people experiencing some of the lowest levels of wellbeing in years, it’s so important we ensure school is enjoyable, with a focus on developing interests and passions as well as knowledge and skills,” she said. 

"We know that persistent absence and mental health go hand in hand with raising school standards and therefore we need to deliver a curriculum which is rich, broad and inclusive. As part of our mission to break down barriers to opportunity we will launch a curriculum and assessment review in government to look at how we can best achieve this and build up skills that set young people up for life.”

The move from primary to secondary school is another subject to be addressed by the School Matters report, which urges policymakers to encourage schools to implement a sensitive transition curriculum – “with targeted support for children’s emotional wellbeing at the forefront”. A new tool developed by Manchester researchers would help education practitioners to measure children’s emotional wellbeing and identify specific needs and support as they move from year 6 to year 7.

While education reform was “a hot topic” during the 2023 party conferences, when a raft of curricular and assessment reforms were announced, the report says there is little evidence to suggest that these will raise educational outcomes, solve attainment gaps and address the challenges facing schools.

Instead it maintains that greater local control is needed over education policy. A deeper understanding of young people’s lives, the activities they value and the resources available in their communities would help to bridge inequalities and ensure that better local interventions could be made.

“Education policy must be decentralised in ways that enable school leaders to work more collaboratively with young people, families, local community leaders and community assets,” says the report.

Labour peer Lord Knight of Weymouth, former minister of state for schools and vice-chair of both the School Exclusions and Alternative Provision APPG and the Education APPG, believes that the school system urgently needs change.

“Teachers are leaving, pupil attendance is falling, buildings are crumbling and attainment has stalled,” he told PoliticsHome. “At its best England’s school system still fails a third of children, despite the best efforts of teachers. 

“The School Matters report indicates ways forward that are more human, have place-based variation and more real life relevance in the curriculum. Every child and teacher must feel that they belong in school. These changes could be the start.”

Read the full Policy@Manchester report, School Matters, by academics at The University of Manchester here.

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