Tailing off

The future of the book trade depends on future generations reading and writing books.

It may seem self-evident, but this future is far from secure when you consider that 20% of England’s 16-year-old pupils have literacy skills below the level expected of an 11 year old.

The Tail: How England’s schools Fail One Child in Five: And What Can Be Done (Profile), brings together thought-provoking contributions from leading educational policymakers, practitioners and academics.

The contributors analyse the cost of the bottom 20%—or ‘tail'—of achievement in England’s schools both to its members and to society as a whole. That cost is large and enduring and deeply damaging.

The 'tail of underachievement' exists in every local authority and across every type of state school. It includes children from a range of backgrounds, not just the poorest.

Being in the ‘tail’ means you lack the reading, writing and counting skills needed to succeed in life. You are significantly less likely to find a job (let alone a well-paid one) and are less likely to stick with that job. Many school leavers who end up in the ‘tail’ succumb to long-term unemployment and are then unable to escape their circumstances.

Being in the lowest-achieving 20% at school also dramatically increases your chances of getting in trouble with the law. It is telling that over half the prison population in the UK has worse literacy and numeracy skills than a primary school child.

More worrying still, the effects of the ‘tail’ are passed down from one generation to the next. Children whose parents left school with bad or no qualifications are much more likely to face the same fate. This is not only a disaster for these children but for the rest of us too.

The economic inactivity of individuals in the ‘tail’ represents a significant barrier to growth. We identify in the book that bringing below-average pupils to the national average could add £14bn a year to GDP by 2030 and a staggering £140bn by 2050.

Much work is needed between now and then. At 20%, England’s ‘tail’ is a lot larger than in other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries and is therefore a bigger challenge to address.

In general, we urge policymakers to learn from and adopt best practice. In just eight years, the flagship London borough Tower Hamlets—which has the highest free school meal entitlement in the country—more than doubled the proportion of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs from 25% to 61%. This is a brilliant achievement that we should seek to replicate elsewhere.

More specifically, we suggest that the coalition government’s policy for tackling disadvantage and underperformance—the pupil premium—should be better targeted. Primary schools that fail to educate children in receipt of the pupil premium to a basic level of literacy should be required to pay for a remedial intervention when those children start at secondary school.

Approaches like these, which draw on best practice and create the right incentives for pupils to excel, will lay the groundwork for an education revolution in England’s schools. We hope that policymakers listen.

Paul Marshall is chairman of ARK Schools and the management board of CentreForum, the liberal thinktank.