Creating a level playing field

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 115 | Autumn Term 1 2020

Director of Policy Julie McCulloch provides an update on ASCL’s new blueprint that aims to address the inequalities faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Back in March, just before the world went crazy, we published a call for evidence for our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System. The blueprint, a companion piece to our 2015 A Blueprint for a Self-Improving System (www.ascl.org.uk/BlueprintSelfImproving), is an ambitious attempt to explore why children from disadvantaged backgrounds do less well than their more advantaged peers, and what we can do, collectively, to address that gap.

This work was partly prompted by a report last year on the state of education in England from the Education Policy Institute and the Fair Education Alliance (https://tinyurl.com/sgfynjg). This report estimated that, at the current rate of change, it would take more than 500 years to close the attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students at the end of secondary school.

We believe that as one of the richest countries in the world, in the 21st century, we can do better than this. Our call for evidence invited school and college leaders, and other stakeholders and organisations, to consider five broad questions:

In a society committed to social equity:

  1. What and how should children and young people be taught?

  2. How should teachers and leaders be identified, developed and supported?

  3. How should the education system be structured?

  4. How should the education system be funded?

  5. How should we judge if the system is doing what we want it to?

Deepening crisis

Since March, of course, the world in general, and schools and colleges in particular, have had to adapt to a situation none of us could even have imagined, back in those halcyon days when a Corona was a cold beer to look forward to at the end of a long day, bubbles were something you’d find in that beer, and PPE was something future prime ministers studied at Oxford. Schools and colleges have had to focus on identifying key workers, hunting down stocks of hand sanitiser, teaching millions of children remotely and then working out how to bring them all back again while following the government’s hundreds of pages of guidance.

And while all of this has been happening, that yawning gap has been widening even further.

In May, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found, “School closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities. Pupils from better-off families are spending longer on home learning; they have access to more individualised resources such as private tutoring or chats with teachers; they have a better home set-up for distance learning; and their parents report feeling more able to support them” (https://tinyurl.com/yywebqhb).

In July, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) mirrored these findings, reporting that pupils from higher-income households spent more time on school work than those in lower-income households, particularly at secondary level (https://tinyurl.com/yy6jng87). Analysing the emerging data, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) warned that school closures were likely to reverse a decade of progress in narrowing the gap (https://tinyurl.com/ycvopnwt).

Far from being a ‘great leveller’, as some have suggested, it seems that the pandemic is only going to amplify existing inequalities. Without urgent action, we are in danger of moving from a period in which the disadvantage gap was narrowing, albeit glacially slowly, into one in which the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are getting progressively worse.

Holding communities together

The last few months have also thrown into even sharper relief some of the issues we highlighted in the blueprint call for evidence. It has become abundantly clear how much we rely on schools and colleges to hold our communities together – to provide food to children in poverty, to safeguard vulnerable children – and how quickly things fall apart when they’re not able to fulfil that role.

It’s become even more obvious how hard it is for schools and colleges to fully compensate for the deep inequalities in our society. Some were able to swing straight into live online teaching, confident that all their pupils had access to laptops and a quiet place to study. Others have had to try to find money to buy devices for huge numbers of children, to design different approaches to teaching that don’t rely on live access, to put enormous amounts of energy into trying to keep in touch with vulnerable children about whom they’re desperately worried. We’ve always known that schools can only do so much to overcome systemic inequity, but the last few months have really driven that home.

So, where does all this leave us? In a nutshell, even more determined to play our part in thinking deeply about the reasons behind the deep inequalities in our society, what schools and colleges can do to minimise the impact of disadvantage and the wider support we need from government to do that.We plan to publish our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System later this term. It has never, in our opinion, been more needed.

Take part

Members can continue to contribute to the development of the blueprint by responding to the call for evidence. You can complete the online form at www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint or email blueprint@ascl.org.uk

Julie McCulloch
ASCL Director of Policy
@juliecmcculloch

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