FOR a city that has a consistently high standard of education - where the number of children passing their GCSEs and doing well in school routinely beats the national average - York has one area where it is failing its youngsters.
The “attainment gap” - the difference between what disadvantaged young people can expect out of their education compared to those who are better off - is among the worst in the country.
Statistics show the gap begins to show itself when children first start their education and tends to grow until Key Stage 5 - the 16-19 age group - when York’s attainment gap is so big it falls into the worst ten per cent of local authorities nationally - but now council staff and teachers alike are working on a project to drive up this gap.
Three years ago, the Pupil Premium was introduced to give extra funds to schools with pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and that means that now schools can track the performance gap between the best and worst off pupils.
At the centre of that work is the York 300 report - a study that has taken, as a sample, the York children about to start Year 6 in September. The achievement of each of those children will be tracked over coming months, to see what works and what does not work in the drive to raise their achievement levels.
The project is being led by the council’s assistant director of education and skills Maxine Squire, who as a teacher of 16 years experience herself often saw the gap play out in her classrooms.
And although the language around it may sound rooted in policy and academic arguments, she said the principle is very simple - making sure all young people, regardless of their background, have the same chances in life.
Maxine said: “As a teacher, the most satisfaction comes out of improving someone’s life chances through the choices that a good education opens up to them.”
One thing York does have in its favour, however, is genuine support from its teachers and schools.
The council’s director of education Jon Stonehouse said: “The buy-in from schools and head teachers is very impressive. I am extremely optimistic that we can address this problem and we can address it quickly. There’s a genuine belief among schools here that we are one city, and we are all responsible for each other’s young people.”
That optimism is partly to do with good co-operation between schools. Research so far has shown that schools with more disadvantaged children are better at “closing the gap” than other schools which might be, overall, better performers.
For a high-achieving school with a only handful of disadvantaged children, it can be tricky to find an effective use of only a few thousand pounds of Pupil Premium funding, Jon said. But those schools can learn from other schools where more children qualify for Pupil Premium funding, giving them more resources, and the project has already seen teachers from one successful school coaching colleagues nearby.
So far, schools have used things like trips to the theatre, or libraries, to make sure that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds can make the most of York’s cultural scene, even though it might usually be out of their financial reach, or be something their families are not in the habit of doing.
Charities too have been involved, providing tablet computers to schools where a lot of pupils do not have access to technology at home, so those students can learn to use computers as well as their better-off classmates.
And besides the help teachers can give their colleagues in other schools, the research has also shown that catching problems early makes an enormous difference in bringing important later-in-life exam results up to scratch.
Maxine said: “Intervention as early as possible is the best way of closing the gap. Early years work is absolutely critical.”
But, the most severe illustration of the disadvantage caused to Pupil Premium children is seen at the end of their school life in Key Stage 5. If youngsters fail to get good enough grades at 16, their options for further education, training, or work are limited.
So, Maxine argues, it’s down to the education system to make sure they do well enough early on - particularly in the key subjects of English and maths - so they have a chance of apprenticeships to get them into higher skilled, and better paid, jobs that last and break a cycle of “intergenerational poverty” that is a particular feature of York.
And although the achievement gap is a stubborn historical problem, that has not gone up or down in many years, this most recent project has seen the gap shrink by as much as 13 percent in some areas.
While in 2013, the gap between free school meal children and their peers in early years achievement in 2013 was 29 percent, in 2014 that had shrunk to 21 percent.
In Key Stage 2, children are measured against an “expected level of improvement” on their earlier achievements in reading, writing and maths. In 2013 the reading achievement gap was as big as 16 percent, in 2014 it was just three percent.
In writing and maths, the improvements are smaller - in maths the gap has fallen by one percent, in writing it has stuck at six percent - but they are “moving in the right direction” Maxine added.
As the project progresses, the council’s Learning and Culture Overview and Scrutiny Committee will take on the challenge of finding good practice examples from elsewhere. Councillors will be looking for examples among York’s “statistical neighbours” - council areas with similar demographic make-ups to York - to find techniques and interventions that work for their schools, and might work here.
Overall, the improvements so far show that while York and its achievement gap might have started off in a worse position than many places in country, it is getting better at a faster rate than many other places.