Sir David Carter: Attainment gap is the ‘civil rights challenge’ of our time

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers is the “big civil rights challenge” facing schools, a senior government official has said.

Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, warned of a “stark” difference in achievement between better-off pupils and their poorer peers, who were shown to be on average 18 months behind in last year’s GCSE results.

I think this is our civil rights challenge in this country, to close this gap

Carter, whose team of commissioners is responsible for taking action in underperforming schools, said leaders had to recognise the scale of the attainment gap.

“I think this is our civil rights challenge in this country, to close this gap,” he said. “Our schools don’t belong to us. Our schools belong the communities we serve. Our job in the social mobility space is to make sure that when we hand that baton over, we hand it over in a better position than it was handed to us.”

He wants schools to recognise their role as community leaders “as community leaders as well as educational leaders”, as they have a duty to build relationships with the public and charitable sectors and “shine the light on disadvantage”.

He also warned of the limitations of school accountability measures, and said social mobility “can’t be measured by a set of Progress 8 scores and GCSEs”.

It would be more effective to measure the performance of young people when they reach their 25th birthday, Carter said.

“The true test of your leadership, and your teachers’ quality as pedagogists, is what happens to those children afterwards. I think that’s one of our greatest challenges when looking at vulnerable communities.”

Carter commended the work of multi-academy trusts in improving social mobility, saying academies had “historic success” in turning around schools in some of the most deprived areas of the country.

He called for more collaboration between academy trusts and schools, and urged chains to “over-recruit” teachers and leaders so they could help turn around schools outside their organisations.

“MATs who are recruiting just enough teachers for their organisation will not be able to play that wider system role,” he said.

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  1. Why single out MATs for turning round schools? The primary sector, where around three-quarters of schools are not academies, has more good and outstanding schools than the secondary sector where academies are in the majority.
    The role of academization in school improvement is overstated. The NAO found informal arrangements such as local support could be more effective than formal strategies such as academization. And the former is considerably cheaper.

    • Mark Watson

      I agree.
      And the best way of dealing with our traffic problems is to invest in our public transport systems.
      Neither of which are within the purview of the National Schools Commissioner though.

  2. Janet Downs

    Judging schools on how former pupils were performing at age 25 is to make schools responsible for decisions over which they have no control. And how would this performance be measured? Wages? But money earned doesn’t necessarily relate to the value of someone’s employment to, say, society. Job status? But, again, this assumes that ‘professional’ is better than ‘labourer’.
    And how exactly would the data be gathered? Only by tracking individuals in a way that many may find intrusive and an invasion of privacy.

    • Mark Watson

      Before you go getting all hot and bothered about invasions of privacy, this was not a policy proposal by David Carter. (I was there and listened to his talk).
      What he was saying is that context of closing the attainment gap it seemed rather unrealistic to only use measures at 16 and 18 – surely the true test of whether a child had been helped is to look at what the real outcome is for them and this will only become apparent later in life.
      It seemed a very sensible theoretical comment to me, and it was positioned as very much a theoretical concept without any inference this was (or indeed could be) an implementable process.

      • Mark – funny, but the TES came to the same conclusion as I did, and I guess their reporters were also present. Talking about a speech he’d made earlier, TES reported him as saying:

        ‘The change I suggested we consider is what would it be like to have a new metric that looked at the performance of young people when they reached their 25th birthday, as opposed to being in our school system at 16 or 18, because the true test of the quality of your leadership is about what happens to those children afterwards.’

        I’m not sure suggesting a ‘new metric’ is just ‘theoretical’.

        • Mark Watson

          That’s not what I took away, and I can’t read the TES article.
          But I have to say I completely agree with “the true test of the quality of your leadership is about what happens to those children afterwards”.
          To 99%+ of the population schools are not the start and end of their life but the massively important first stage. Of course GCSEs and A-Levels are massively important, but if School X helps a child do better or achieve more later in life than School Y (however you may define what ‘better’ or ‘more’ means, and whether we’re looking at age 25, 35, 45, 55 etc), then I would say that is more important than whether School X or School Y had better GCSE results.
          I’m not saying how you could do that, or whether it’s possible, but I do think it’s something that deserves discussion.

          • Mark Watson

            An Ofsted rating based on an inspection three years ago doesn’t necessarily reflect the current status of a school, and neither do last year’s exam results (any number of teachers or the head may have left over the summer holidays). So what’s the point of having any metrics?
            Of course, what we’re really looking at here is trends. If a school has performed well in A-Levels for 20 years then as a parent I can have some degree of reassurance it will do well in a few years’ time when my child is sitting their exams. Ditto if the results have been on a steady upwards trend for a few years. Nothing’s guaranteed, but it gives me something to go on.
            Equally if this “25 metric” ever comes in it isn’t going to be the be-all and end-all, especially for the first few years. But if after several years trends emerge (where the lone university drop-out is no longer statistically significant) then it potentially does become useful.
            Your article seems to imply that the 25 metric would be the only metric – I don’t see anyone suggesting that this would be anything other than an additional metric to go along with others.
            The real problem here, which I have to say I see so much of on these boards, is that most people here are teachers or ex-teachers and so see everything from ‘within the bubble’.
            As a parent deciding which schools to apply for, I want as much help as I can get and it’s not just about what’s going to be the best school for the time they’re there but the one which sets them up best for life after school.

        • Mark Watson

          Actually, it reminds me of an article I read about American universities. They charge fees which would make an English vice-chancellor blush, but there was talk of them being forced to publish details about added value which could be used to compare them. This could then be used to compare universities in a different way to the traditional ‘results’ way.
          As a very crude over-simplification, if I was a student I could see that if I went to University A I would be likely to get a better degree result than if I went to University B. But if I saw that going to University B would mean I was more likely to get a ‘better’ job, earn more money etc. then that it probably going to me more important for me.
          I appreciate the practical difficulties involved, and there will always be debate about what ‘better’ means, but I don’t see how you can object in principle to having another metric (which would sit alongside the existing metrics) which looks at how pupils did after school?