Headlines saying that West Berkshire is the worst for anything always concern me but the latest one was worrying. This area was identified in a report by the Social Mobility Commission as a ‘coldspot’ for social mobility when it comes to the percentage of early years children eligible for free school meals who go on to achieve a good level of development (GLD).
Prompted to dig a little deeper, it transpires that local statistics present a very different picture. This is a sector which is actually showing marked improvement. Ofsted rates over 84% of West Berks early years provision as good or outstanding. Council stats from 2016 show that 57% of our children on free school meals went on to achieve a GLD, up from 36% in 2014, putting West Berkshire in the second quartile nationally. And another report on early years published by the DfE in October this year shows West Berkshire as having the smallest ‘inequality gap’ for GLD nationally. What to make of this?
Big national studies can come up with stark comparisons as they look at large inner-city areas with high levels of deprivation alongside small semi-rural ones like West Berkshire where the cohort of free school meals children is relatively small. That is not to say that we should underestimate the challenges faced by disadvantaged youngsters, particularly in rural areas, and there is still work to do to improve social mobility. However, we should also be aware that small numbers can present significant yearly variations and data alone does not give a fair representation of all the good work going on in our schools to address this issue.
I am proud of the fact that the number of our children going to schools that are rated good or outstanding has risen from 72% in 2015 to 95% today which means that it is extremely likely that our children on free school meals, along with all West Berkshire children, are attending a good or better school. And the post 16 indicators are also good, with West Berkshire sitting in the top 20% of local authorities for NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training), around 2.4% of young people as against a national figure of 6%.
Later in the report, in the section on working lives and social mobility, there is West Berkshire again, this time identified as a ‘hotspot’, the 16th best in the country. No room for complacency and a good reminder of the need to encourage access to good early years provision, but by no means all bad news.