Do we really want equity in education?

by George Gilchrist

We are experiencing a time in education where equity and the closing of attainment gaps for those learners who are facing the most challenging of social circumstances, seems to be high on everyone’s agenda. Much research has been produced and papers written about the negative impacts experienced by young people from the most deprived backgrounds on their learning and educational achievement. In Scotland, the paper produced by Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu in 2014 Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is but one example of what the research is showing us all. In  Scotland, we have established centres of excellence and research such as the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change set up within Glasgow University, which has a vision and a remit of promoting equity and social inclusion within education systems, both in Scotland and further afield. We have a first minister, and government, who have committed to eliminating attainment and achievement gaps that exist within our education system and who have produced various policy documents, such as Getting It Right For Every Child and a National Improvement Framework which set out their determination to tackle the problem of inequality of opportunity for many of our learners, raise attainment and close those gaps. A lot of the impetus for this has been driven by and  been influenced by what we have seen happening in the Finnish education system. Consistently near the top of international rankings, Finland has been seen to put equity of opportunity and provision at the top of its own rankings of characteristics that make a difference in their education system and schools.

What we have in Scotland is an alignment of policy, institutions and systems that all have the issue of equity at their heart. So it should be. I don’t know about you, but I never entered education thinking I was going to try and disadvantage a significant section of our learners, or society. Fortunately, I have never met many teachers or colleagues who have thought any differently either. We all came into education because of our love of learning and our desire to make a difference for all our learners, so how come these gaps exist and what’s the problem with where we are now in Scotland and elsewhere?

I would like to suggest that the gaps that exist are a result of a combination of factors, and not just educational ones. Though we do have to hold our hands up and accept a portion of the blame. I attended a lecture by Stephen Ball in Glasgow recently and he pointed out that the responsibility that could be laid at the doors of our education system and schools for the equity gaps that exist represented just 11 to 15% of the causes of that gap. The rest of it was attributable to societal factors such as poverty, the class system, government policy, health, culture, history and the like. Sue and Edward, in their paper mentioned above, noted that the OECD had already identified that socio-economic factors have a greater impact on educational attainment than the schools which learners attended. Both Ellis and Sosu, and the OECD, felt that education was still a crucial factor. There is no doubt that this is true, but we should listen to the caution of Stephen Ball and not be drawn in to laying all the blame, and the focus, at the door of our schools and our teachers. Many of the gaps, in terms of literacy, verbal reasoning and problem solving are already in place by the time children enter our schools, and we are playing catch up from that point. That said, we can make a difference and should never give up striving to make a difference for all our learners.

For too many years, some teachers and schools reduced their expectations for some learners purely because of their backgrounds, where they lived, and the socio-economic groups they came from. I actually remember being in a lecture as a trainee teacher in the early 1970s and being told that some learners couldn’t be expected to achieve as much as others because of their backgrounds. When I questioned this and said I didn’t think that was fair, I was laughed at and told that this was just a fact of life and of course we couldn’t do anything about it. Fortunately we are a bit more enlightened now and have moved on from such narrow thinking and, just like we now understand intelligence as no longer being fixed, neither should the link between attainment and socio-economic background be seen as predetermined or set in stone.

However, I do feel our systems, structures, practices and curriculum have put more barriers in the way of our most disadvantaged learners. Often these have been equal, but not equitable. For many years we have developed all these systems and structures in our schools and have expected all our learners to engage with them, and dare I say conform, in exactly the same way. If you got it, and it worked for you, then you succeeded, if not the opposite happened. Now, many of us recognise that when learners are not engaging with planned learning, it’s not their problem, it’s ours. We need to shape and structure our learning so that it is accessible to all, and that means we need to really know our learners and where they are in their personal learning journey. If we believe, as I do, that much of the curriculum and learning that takes place in schools is ‘hidden’ in the culture and ethos of the school, then we need to make sure all of this is accessible to all learners. We need to examine everything we do in school and ensure it is truly accessible for all. That doesn’t mean we stop doing things because some are unable to access them for economic reasons, but we should be aware of this and explore all ways we can to ensure everyone has the same opportunities, no matter their background and circumstances. We need to value each individual learner and what each brings and takes from every learning episode, some of which will be deliberately planned and some of it at a subliminal level.

Currently we have an awful lot of rhetoric around the issues of equity and closing of gaps. Trouble is a lot of the strategies that are being proposed and supported to achieve this in Scotland may do the opposite. Every educational system that has gone down the road of high-stakes testing, increased accountability measures and more top-down direction, informed by cherry-picked research, has delivered lowered attainment levels and widening gaps. If we look to USA, Australia, Sweden and England as examples, the harm of such approaches can be readily seen. So to see Scotland beginning to travel down the same road is concerning and dispiriting for what we are all trying to achieve. Add to this the fact that education budgets and resources are facing cuts of a severity that make it more and more difficult to support all those who need and would benefit from it, and the impacts could be catastrophic. We see local authority after local authority cutting support available to our students, removing qualified teachers from nurseries, closing libraries, cutting home-school link workers and more, whilst still ratching up the accountability demands on teachers and leaders. The media is full of sound bites and more rhetoric about what is going to be demanded of teachers and schools, when the reality is that the people and resources to deliver on this is being cut deliberately, or by stealth. How can we get it right for every child, if we can’t support the ones who need it?

Add to that depressing picture the fact that those families and children most at risk are facing another barrage of cuts and financial stresses at home, and I am concerned about our ability as a society to meaningfully address this issue. In the face of changes in support and benefit systems, rising prices for food and accommodation, wage stagnation, attacks on the National Health Service, the rise in the use of food-banks and the almost demonisation of poverty by some media and politicians, it can feel in education  like putting your finger in the dyke with regard to trying to close gaps caused by disadvantage. If we are really serious about this, it requires political, social cultural and system change. Is everyone up for that? I don’t think so, not yet. There are significant vested interests that will be adverse to this disturbance of the status quo. So, whilst we may look and sound as though we are tackling the issue, in reality there is a lot of tinkering at the edges and not enough real and meaningful action. The fact that the dialogue by so many is solely focused on schools and education is another distraction that Stephen Ball cautioned against. But, I suppose, it deflects many from the real causes of, and actions required, to address the issue of equity and closing the gaps. At the moment it feels like schools and teachers are getting all of the blame, but I wonder who will receive the credit if anything actually does happen to those gaps? If they really do close in a meaningful way, everyone will deserve credit, because it’s only through changed thinking and actions of all that this is going to happen.

Let’s get on with it!

About the author

George Gilchrist is a primary school Headteacher based in the Scottish Borders. He is a Fellow of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership and a member of the Board for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. He thinks, writes, speaks and blogs about education, leadership, learning and how we might improve. You can follow George on Twitter @GilchristGeorge and his blog School Leadership – A Scottish Perspective.

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