Insisting disadvantage can be fixed with a traditional academic curriculum and a strong dose of discipline is not engaging with the issue. That method did nothing for my sister, and it will do nothing for others like her

Last term there was a predictable exam hullabaloo when school GCSE data was published. It happens every year. This time the Department of Education also issued some tough talk about how it felt high results were being achieved: converter academies “lead the way in academic standards”; schools bucking the trend of underachieving poorer pupils were “refusing to accept second best”.

My sister’s school failed to understand the emotional and psychological side
of learning

King Solomon’s Academy (KSA) was a high flyer yet again, achieving a whopping 95 per cent A*-C including English and maths, with a cohort where three quarters are eligible for free school meals. KSA is well-known by practitioners and policymakers. It is beloved for its “no excuses” behaviour management style, including giving points for students sitting a certain way and “tracking” (watching) whoever is speaking. There are expectations of silence. Fingers are clicked to show agreement. Demerits are given for calling out. These strict rules and its aspiration to send every pupil to university are pointed to as causal factors in their exam success.

My sister didn’t get five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths. Adopted at two, she was a smiley, beautiful toddler but by the time she was 16, she didn’t feel like smiling. She felt like a failure.

Like many who’ve experienced trauma in infancy, her body floods with cortisol when situations become stressful. Exams triggered her fight or flight hormones. The capacity to think and access her long-term memory shut down. By year 10 she was in lower sets, never the priority. “They just cared about the ones who weren’t going to fail their GCSEs,” she said. When the school couldn’t fill an English post, her class got the supply teachers.

When my sister was taken from her birth mother, she was placed in care for a year, before being separated from the foster carer she then called mum and meeting a new mother all over again. These early relationships are where we learn what emotions are, how to interpret them and how to control them. When those relationships are damaged or damaging, learning can be too. As a teen, my sister struggled to trust and – like many children with attachment disorder – could be threatened by others’ behaviour, even when it wasn’t intended. Public criticisms or minor reprimands could prompt extreme reactions. At other times she just withdrew and switched off. If the teachers didn’t care, why should she?

Working in KSA, what struck me was the student-teacher relationships. Students were in classes of 20, and spent up to four hours a day with one form tutor, who also taught them a core subject. By year 11, many of the pupils had been taught by the same teachers in English, maths, languages and music every day for the past five years. Yet these aspects of the school model are overlooked. Why doesn’t Nick Gibb mention the importance of low teacher-pupil ratios and continuity of care?

Bethnal Green Academy is second in Schools Week’s league table of excellent exam outcomes with disadvantaged pupils. Despite similar outcomes, it has a very different style. Students take ownership of their learning and behaviour in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Academia is prized alongside subjects with opportunities for self-expression and success, even for those, like my sister, who struggle with exams. When I was there, student voice and active citizenships were key school priorities to empower pupils beyond school life. What these two different schools had in common was the ability for pupils to be recognised as individuals, and a commitment to combine high expectations with compassion and care.

“No excuses” is too easy an answer for too complex a problem, championed by those who want to believe disadvantage can be fixed with an academic curriculum and a strong dose of discipline. In the end, it was an apprenticeship that helped my sister realise her potential. She loves her job and knows she is a success. Her failure at school wasn’t because of too many excuses. It was a failure of the school to understand the emotional and psychological side of learning, the long-term effects of early disadvantage, and the value of relationships, praise and experience of success in helping pupils overcome them.

Enough with the tough talk. The real key to pupil success is compassionate action.