THOUSANDS of York's most disadvantaged children face being hindered even more by proposed education reforms, one of the city's head teachers has warned.
David Ellis, head at York High in Acomb, urged Education Secretary Michael Gove to reconsider calls to put more emphasis on exams.
He said he welcomed Mr Gove's determination to secure better outcomes for disadvantaged children, outlined in a speech on Saturday, but said increased exam focus could be damaging.
Speaking at yesterday's York Fairness Conference, Mr Ellis said he did not want easier assessments and was happy being held to account, but said: "A system which is based increasingly on examination, which doesn’t recognise the challenges of vulnerable young people, the issues of building confidence and self-esteem and the mental health timebomb which is ticking in the background, is patently unfair.
"We are in danger of creating an education system that is even more unfair and potentially divisive."
He said he had rarely met a child who did not want to succeed, nor a parent who didn't want the best for their child, and said challenging behaviour or lack of parental support were symptoms of a problem, of its cause.
He said the difference between typical York High students and typical Eton students was only self-esteem and said: "It seems fairly obvious to me that a young person with a challenging background, mental health issues, low self-esteem or a learning difficulty is likely to find an assessment system based solely on exams and memory, which relies heavily on revision skills, difficult to cope with.
"It is no surprise they will at times react negatively to their school experience. It is also fairly obvious that the young people from backgrounds where they have had little access toreading, minimal cultural capital and little practical support from parents (who may have themselves failed) and who are frightened of the future are most likely to fail."
Mr Ellis was joined in his presentation by three Year 10 students: Megan Steel, Josh Jackson and Edward Bagnall.
Megan said many teenagers struggled with low self-esteem but were ambitious, and said too many people dismissed children as "a waste of space, lazy or uncaring"
She added: "Why, when we are putting more and more pressure on young people, are we reducing the amount of support available for them, particularly in the area of mental health? In my school we are lucky that we do have access to caring staff and a specialist counsellor but many other young people don’t."
Josh said additional costs, such as for school trips, were a burden for many families and created inequality, and also said many families could only afford a holiday if they broke the law by going in term-time.
Edward highlighted the onerous cost of some schools' uniforms and the stigma that pupils could feel if they were visibly receiving free school meals or could not afford to pay contributions to costs such as art supplies.
Mr Ellis and the students were speaking at the Ron Cooke Hub at the University of York, where City of York Council hosted York's first Fairness Conference yesterday, following a recommendation from the York Fairness Commission.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "We are determined to give all children in this country the very best education. That is why we are reforming exams to make them more reigorous and demanding, in line with the world's leading education systems.
"They will meet the demands of universities and employers - giving all young people the skills the need to succeed."
POLITICIANS, academics, school children and charity campaigners were among the delegates for York's first Fairness Conference.
In one of the keynote morning speeches, the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu said Britain's wage gap must be narrowed, calling income inequality "a giant that must be slayed".
He said politicians had overwhelmingly welcomed The Spirit Level, a 2009 book on equality, but said: "What have they done about it? Platitudes, platitudes, platitudes."
In the afternoon, speaker Stacy Bostock told how she had battled through poverty and loneliness, and said far too many people were not getting the help they needed, and Tracey Robbins from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation spoke of the desperation that poverty and loneliness can cause.
York Central MP Hugh Bayley said that despite austerity cuts, local and national Government still had "enormous resources" to tackle poverty. He said efforts should be focused on the poorest of the poor, and warned against slipping between the ideas of poverty and fairness.
City council chief executive Kersten England called for boldness, while The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's chief executive Julia Unwin said it was vital that economic growth did not leave the most vulnerable behind.
Alan Walker, from Sheffield's Fairness Commission, called for a minister of social justice, to drive a national agenda for fairness.
City council leader James Alexander said he was driven by the desire for fairness and the council would continue to work to tackle poverty and inequality, but visiting speaker Henk Kool, deputy mayor of The Hague, said much of the conference had been too abstract with too much deliberation on the known problems. He said: "I was a little disappointed. What will we do about it?"