Opinion: Summer schools? Little more than a sticking plaster

Nick Clegg’s conference announcement of £50m to fund summer schools for the disadvantaged caught the headlines (even in the Daily Mail!), and received some support in editorials and from some Lib Dem bloggers. However, though it might be a crowd pleaser and a nice idea, in truth it’s little more than a sticking plaster for deeper problems.

Would I have them rather than nothing at all? Possibly, but I’d rather the money stayed in the Pupil Premium where it is at least targeted through mechanisms (schools) that are already set up to identify and address students needs. Perhaps even better if some money was spent on ultra targeted extra tutoring – for example, in the secondary school where I am a governor, a hour’s extra regular maths tuition targeted at the right students in Year 10 has seen an improvement of up to 1.5 GCSE grades (and of course schools can if they wish spend their Pupil Premium funding on such tutoring).

Summer schools risk diverting money away from a scheme – the Pupil Premium – which is designed to bring a sustained focus of resources to bear on young people in need who can be identified and catered for within the existing framework, and instead puts it into a brief flash of educational support that may well not, as it is voluntary, even attract those who need it most.  The content of the two weeks is also an issue: students moving from primary school to secondary school have finished and been assessed on the work of Key Stage 2 (primary school) and have yet to start the work of Key Stage 3, so what would be taught?  Recapping primary school is unlikely to appeal, and given the students in question, starting Key Stage 3 work early may be beyond their abilities at that point.

Summer schools, by themselves, are unlikely to tackle more than a tiny fraction of the multi-variant and multi-modal causes of the summer’s riots and looting. The media coverage for the announcement included lots of references to it being our response to the riots – I hope this is slightly over-enthusiastic spinning by a newly reinforced comms team rather than representing our actual considered response to the riots and looting.

There is an issue at transition from primary school to secondary school for some young people – either their attainment drops in Years 7 and 8 from what would have been expected given their SATs results – the ‘dip’ – usually attributed to a problem with loss of knowledge over the summer of transition. Or, their SATs results are inaccurate and / or primary schools are failing to prepare their students properly for secondary school.

This issue of itself isn’t a direct cause of the disaffection commonly identified in the teenagers and young adults implicated in the riots and looting. But, the related problem of young people being turned off education, and the opportunities for improving one life changes that it offers, can have a root in the problems of settling in to secondary school and coping with the change in pace and intellectual demands. This won’t be solved through the proposed summer school, particularly as by being voluntary it will be yet another ‘targeted’ scheme that fails to reach the famously ‘hard to reach’ problem families.

Back to where we are now, however. If they are going to happen, they need to be properly organised and the educational activities tuned to each student’s needs. As this comment on the Guardian website by a consultant brought in by Labour to deliver a similar project back in the 90s observes, we need to avoid falling into Labour’s bad habits in government of announcing a policy to make a headline but then fail to follow through on the delivery.

For this idea to have some, any, effect on the problems you’re addressing, Nick, you need to get some real Whitehall muscle behind it. Not just money, but political focus and attention – make those in charge of delivery accountable, just as you, and we, will be.

Alex Feakes is a Lib Dem councillor in Forest Hill, southeast London, and has been a secondary school governor for over eight years. He has also recently taken the plunge into retraining as a teacher and he blogs at www.alexfeakes.org.

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2 Comments

  • david thorpe 13th Oct '11 - 12:13pm

    I disagree strongly with this post.
    The reality is that the biggest single advantage the fee paying schools offer is that they often have the students in over the summer to prepaer them for the oxbridge entrance exame, clegg himself stayed on later at westminster for this exact purpose and got into cambrsdge…..cameron was the same at eton…..so summer schools can have a signifiacnt material impact

  • Christine Headley 13th Oct '11 - 1:47pm

    @david thorpe
    Oxbridge admissions have changed and it is now all about A-level grades. And I’ve never heard of a boarding school reopening in the summer holidays for its own pupils. (Many accommodate summer courses for other people.)

    I can’t think of a better way to discourage a young person than to invite them to return to school for half the holiday to catch up on literacy. Far better to spend the £ 50m on things within the normal school term, at after-school-club time, targetted at the free-school-meals hard-to-reach people.

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