Curriculum for equity: the journey so far

Curriculumforequity_hashtag

by Gary Walsh

The intention of this post is to summarise some of the insights shared on the Curriculum for Equity platform to date and to suggest some themes to focus on going forward.

I created the Curriculum for Equity website and Twitter account towards the end of 2015. Part of the motivation for doing it was a frustration that in Scotland we seem to be constructing an understanding of equity in education that is framed in terms of academic attainment at the expense of other issues. While attainment is important, I am concerned that this is a very narrow understanding of equity that could divert attention away from vital precursors to equity such as social justice, rights and democracy.

In their literature review, Woods et al (2013) describe the tendency of education policy makers to construct this narrow understanding of equity:

“…policy on school leadership and equity has, in fact, been implemented by governments as a means to identify and exclude factors that inhibit national education performance, which is measured through PISA to produce performance league tables for international comparison (OECD, 2010). The standards agenda is, arguably, incompatible with the account of equity as the reduction of social injustices that affect people’s lives… [it] creates a spurious meritocracy that favours the interests of middle class pupils.” (Woods et al 2013, 16)

The idea of Curriculum for Equity therefore is to share relevant research, news articles and other bits of content that are relevant to educational equity in the wider (and arguably, correct) sense.

Each of the website’s contributors have outlined some of the approaches and ways of thinking that are needed to achieve equity in education.

Dr Avis Glaze emphasised the importance of teacher quality among other key components. Ken Cunningham CBE cautioned against the language of ‘closing gaps’ and the risk it poses of leading us down various rabbit holes. George Gilchrist reminded us of the social factors and broader structures (including educational ones) that can disadvantage some learners. Jackie Brock challenged us to be ambitious and realise that innovative community partnership approaches and support for a range of other practical measures are needed, including learning through play in the early years, support for parents and teachers, building on successes and reducing bureaucracy. Mandy Davidson reflected on her role as a teacher and the importance of relationships in achieving equity. Ed Cadwallader suggested that the ambition of achieving equity is actually a form of ‘social engineering’ and that we should not be afraid to consider it as such.

All of these perspectives informed my recent piece for the website, in which I suggested that we need to reconsider the meaning of equity and the role of values in our education system, and that we should actively challenge the politicisation of education and other forms of systematic injustice.

What is particularly encouraging is that many of the contributions and indeed the principles guiding Curriculum for Equity can be located in relevant research. For instance, Smyth (2004) outlines the idea of a ‘socially just school’, which is reminiscent of some of the website contributions. They are schools that

  • articulate their purposes;
  • advance a concern for social injustice;
  • continually (re)focus around learning;
  • pursue a culture of innovation;
  • enact democratic forms of practice;
  • are community minded;
  • display educative forms of leadership; and
  • engage in critical literacies

While this initially looks hopeful, Smyth notes that this is not an easy fix: he finds that progress in schools that use this approach can be hampered by two related factors. The first is when schools are operating within a neoliberal policy arena, which itself is a direct cause of social injustice and can undermine the efforts of schools. The second is when teachers and school leaders have a limited understanding of what social justice actually involves, despite their commitment to the rhetoric of social justice, thereby limiting their abilities to enact approaches that could help to achieve it.

Regarding the latter, Smyth’s concern is when teachers are compelled, often by policy makers, to adopt an understanding of social justice that locates the ‘deficit’ in pupils themselves rather than in policy or the education system. His research suggests that this can result in teachers focusing on approaches that aim to compensate for the perceived cultural or psychological deficits of disadvantaged children and young people (’emotional intelligence’ is given as an example). The aim of such interventions is to increase the abilities of children and young people to ‘decode the system’ and become ‘successful consumers and entrepreneurs of schooling’, thereby allowing them access to the kind of relationships and social capital that are needed for success – something that their more privileged peers tend to be able to do without much effort.

In other words, achieving equity and social justice is understood in terms of ‘fixing the kids’ and not ‘fixing the system’. In such cases, school curricula tend to be designed around the needs of the education system instead of the needs of children and young people.

If we were to lead the equity drive by taking systemic, cultural, social and political factors into account, challenging them where necessary, that would mean something very different to focusing purely on the ‘poverty-related attainment gap’, which risks presenting the abilities of children as the problem. It would challenge us to tackle the opportunity gap and to ask critical and potentially uncomfortable questions such as:

  • Why do we continue with ability grouping in Scotland when research strongly suggests that it can add to the disadvantage experienced by many children?
  • How can we better connect educational research and educational policy in Scotland? Evidence suggests that doing so may improve educational equity.
  • What do we do if policy makers succumb to the lure of a ‘market-based’ education system? Evidence suggests that this would further endanger educational equity.
  • How do we construct a version of ‘educational leadership for equity’ that foregrounds issues of social justice, rights and democracy? Distributed Leadership for Equity and Learning could be an example.
  • Related to above, how do we create the kind of structures and cultures in which teachers’ knowledge and agency can develop, particularly around the issue of equity?

Perhaps these are the kind of questions that the Curriculum for Equity platform could help us to explore – feel free to suggest some others in the comment section below.

I hope that the website continues to evolve and perhaps even makes a difference to education and ultimately to children and young people in Scotland. At the moment the intention is to keep it as an unofficial space for dialogue, learning and what Stephen Ball (2015) refers to as a “site of struggle” and a platform for “fearless speech”. Feedback and comments received so far seem to indicate that this approach is the right one to take – it is feedback such as this that emboldens these efforts.

It has proven to be an illuminating and worthwhile experience so far. Thank you to everybody involved!

About the author

Gary is the creator of the Curriculum for Equity website. Click here for more information.