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Part 2: Bridging the Disadvantage Chasm.

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In my last post I tried to illustrate the chasm that separates our most advantaged from our most disadvantaged students; students in the same community, side by side in the classroom, yet living worlds apart.  Every day brings reminders of that chasm in one form or another.  The question is – what can we do about it?  The structural roots of inequality lie in the domain of economics and politics; it’s not realistic for schools to be tasked with tackling inequality at the source. Whilst schools have a role to play in the wider process of social change, the timescale is too great to have an impact on an individual child during the time they are at school.  We have to work on the basis that the chasm of disadvantage is an embedded feature of our community and of an individual student’s life for the foreseeable future.

In writing this…

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The disadvantage ‘gap’ is a chasm. Part 1.

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bridging Image source: etbu.edu.

In the 18 months that I’ve been working at Highbury Grove, I’ve learned a great deal about the complexity of the community that my school serves.  As the acting Designated Child Protection Officer for the last few weeks, I’ve learned even more.  The scale on the axis of advantage and disadvantage is extraordinary with consequences for learning, aspirations and behaviour that are far-reaching.  Within my school, there are students who, whilst sharing the same physical space, are living worlds apart.  This is a two-part post.  To begin with, here’s illustration of the opposite poles – rooted in reality but conflating different factors.  Part 2 will look at solutions.

There are obviously plenty of risks here – being judgemental, using stereotypes, making generalisations.  No two children are the same and there are multiple variations in every child’s characteristics and circumstances.   It’s hard to capture the complexity accurately and…

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Delivering excellence and equity – some commentary on Scotland’s national education plan

Professor Mark Priestley

The post-election period in 2016 has heralded a flurry of activity from the re-elected SNP and the appointment of a new Cabinet Secretary for Education. The next year or two will see policy development that puts education at the forefront of the nation’s priorities, all underpinned by the stated goal of closing the ‘attainment gap’ between those who have traditionally achieved well in education, and those who have not. The publication of Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education: a Delivery Plan for Scotland, coming as it does on the heels of the OECD review of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), marks an important turning point in Scottish education policy. There is much to be welcomed in this plan, but in my view there are also tensions and ambiguities in the document that will need acknowledging and addressing as the plan is implemented.

The positives

It is clear that there…

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Tackling inequity is the responsibility of us all

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by Jackie Brock

I was delighted to attend Scotland’s education summit on 15 June. What a tribute to Scotland’s commitment to children, young people and their education. How many other countries would be able to bring together the leadership of all our political parties represented in our Parliament together with key professionals, parent and third sector representatives?

It was also timely and important to hear from Andy Hargreaves of the OECD that, internationally, Scotland is “well ahead of the curve” in relation to our progressive and far-reaching reforms, principally Curriculum for Excellence and achieving outcomes.

But, he warned, if we are to maintain this, Scotland must be bold and clear in relation to developing a system, which shows how effective every aspect of the education system is in securing improved outcomes.

I suspect that there will be considerable debate and discussion before agreement on this system is achieved, and for our part, Children in Scotland will work with its members on contributing to this. However, what provided most of us present with considerable food for thought, were the reflections of the Head Teacher of Craigroyston High School, who hosted the summit.

He reminded us that his school’s successful work in raising the attainment of young people was a single-minded focus on how the school could do their best to make sure that young people left school with every opportunity to fulfil their potential –whether through work, further or higher education. Alongside this, he reminded us that his day-to-day work involved engaging with the diverse range of community groups and employers who can offer the school support and resources. The school is the first point of contact when any of the young people have experienced any problems out of school – contact from local agencies is a daily occurrence.

It made me think about what we want from our schools and how we need to support them in the challenge of reducing attainment.

We heard from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that while the reasons for the inequality faced by children are outside the school, the school is one very important route to remove these inequalities. So how do we support them better?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that every state school in Scotland faces inequalities. One of the fantastic aspects of Scotland’s education system is our commitment to comprehensive education. So, schools reflect their communities. But no matter how affluent their community, every school should review its approach to make sure that every child gets the same opportunities, no matter what their background or home address is.

Around a quarter of Scotland’s secondary and primary schools serve communities with high concentrations of multiple deprivation. That’s around 100 secondary schools and around 500 primary schools.

The National Improvement Framework and Raising Attainment for All has recognised this in its first tranche of funding. Funding is important – but it is so much more than that and the next steps need to look at the extent to which we are supporting the school leadership in these schools.

In our experience, the school leaders who thrive in serving these schools are those who are active and passionate champions for their children and young people. They are shameless entrepreneurs (in the best possible sense) – consistently seeking out opportunities to work with those people and organisations who will support their school and will lever in additional resources. They understand about partnership working. Equally, they reject the old image of a “Fortress School”. They actively enable leadership amongst their pupils, extending opportunities to the children and young people of their school to be leaders of their learning. They welcome and encourage parental engagement in all aspects of their school.

The school leadership are genuinely not just leaders in their school but are leaders of a school which is at the heart of its community – but are we providing enough support to them?

To what extent, do our expectations of school leaders and their training and development equip them for this community role?

What systems are in place within local authorities, community planning partnerships and within the third sector to enable the school leadership to exercise their role?

Do we make it easier or harder for school leaders to navigate their way through setting up an after school activity or bringing the very best employment partnership to meet the school’s particular needs?

There is so much to learn from the thousands of successful school and community partnerships. At Children in Scotland we recognise that if we can free up as much time as possible for school leaders, such as completing the paperwork for funding applications; organizing meetings; project managing, this then gives them the time to focus on making sure the support works for children. This is often overlooked by the third sector and we need to factor it in to our support. Never underestimate the relief we can provide by reducing any bureaucracy and making more time for teachers to be with children or young people, doing what they do best.

The Scottish Government’s Delivery Plan in this area is to be published by the end of June. A key element of this has to be about focusing on how we provide practical support to school in areas of significant deprivation – only through this targeted intervention, and sharing of the load, will we make a significant contribution to reducing inequality.

About the author

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.

Follow Children in Scotland on Twitter @cisweb, and Jackie @jackiejbrock.

Taking notes 60: why teachers matter in dark times

Philosophers for Change

[Credit: Joe Magee.] [Credit: Joe Magee.] by Henry A. Giroux

Americans live in a historical moment that annihilates thought. Ignorance now provides a sense of community; the brain has migrated to the dark pit of the spectacle; the only discourse that matters is about business; poverty is now viewed as a technical problem; thought chases after an emotion that can obliterate it. The presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, Donald Trump, declares he likes “the uneducated” — implying that it is better that they stay ignorant than be critically engaged agents — and boasts that he doesn’t read books. Fox News offers no apologies for suggesting that thinking is an act of stupidity.

A culture of cruelty and a survival-of-the-fittest ethos in the United States is the new norm and one consequence is that democracy in the United States is on the verge of disappearing or has already disappeared! Where are the agents of…

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Neoliberalism – how it travels, and how it can be resisted

Reclaiming Schools

by Professor Stephen Ball, UCL Institute of Education

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This article is based on chapter 3 of Flip the system: changing education from the ground up, a new book published in association with teacher unions around the world. It explains some of the ways in which the economic and political project called Neoliberalism impacts on children’s education and teachers’ work. 

I want to make clear that I use the term neoliberalism with some trepidation. It is used so widely and loosely that it risks becoming meaningless. Neoliberalism is not simply a concrete economic doctrine, nor a definite set of political projects, but (in Ronen Shamir’s words)

a complex, often incoherent, unstable and even contradictory set of practices organised around a certain imagination of the “market” as a basis for the universalization of market-based social relations, with the corresponding penetration in almost every aspect of our lives of the discourse and/or practice of commodification…

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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.