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.

Getting involved with Curriculum for Equity

Curriculum for Equity is an experiment. The idea is to find out if and how a collaborative blog for educators, researchers and other professionals could contribute to the aims of equity and social justice. See About Curriculum for Equity for more details.

If you are a researcher/academic interested in this area, you could submit a piece that signposts readers to your findings and examples of practice you have uncovered in your work. A great example is this paper from Richard Niesche and Amanda Keddie of University of Queensland, Australia: Foregrounding issues of equity and diversity in educational leadership. The paper outlines one secondary school’s approach to equity, including an ‘Equity Action Group’.

If you are a practising educator (all those from formal and informal settings are welcome), you could share stories, ideas and practice, you could ask questions and share the findings of your own enquiries. A great example is this article from Robert MacMillan (Principal Teacher of Social Studies at Lochgelly High School in Fife, Scotland) in his address to the Scottish Secondary Teacher’s Association: End Child Poverty.

Pieces like these are the inspiration for the creation of the Curriculum for Equity website. It is so easy to feel dis-empowered by the prevailing lack of fairness and justice. We can get run down dealing with the very effects of inequity in our day jobs, we can get fed up with politicians using terms such as ‘social justice’ in order to further their own agendas or careers, and we can feel overwhelmed by the global scale of the challenges facing us.

This is why sharing these thoughts and engaging in dialogue is so vital. We are one, global and knowledgeable community with a common goal in ensuring the best for children, young people and indeed people of all ages. We need to get better at challenging the status quo and being active, critical advocates for equity and social justice.

This website could just be the thing that connects an educator with a researcher, resulting in meaningful collaboration towards that common goal. Or it could result in an idea such as an ‘Equity Action Group’ being created in a school on the other side of the world.

Please leave a comment anywhere on the site or send a brief message via the Contact page if you would like to write a piece for the Curriculum for Equity website. You could also suggest a potential blogger, a topic you would like to see covered, or a question you would like explored.

Let’s get cracking.

 

A Curriculum for Equity: Part 1

by Gary Walsh

Chris, Croissants & Oysters

I attended the rather excellent SELMAS 2015 conference in November. You can read a summary of the event as it happened here. In this post I would like to offer some reflections I have had since it took place, and to provide some context for a concept that came from the event: a Curriculum for Equity.

[Having just read that the OECD Review of Scottish Education is calling for a rename of CfE and has in fact proposed “Curriculum for Excellence and Equity”, this has suddenly become a lot more relevant!]

The SELMAS conference took place in The Caves, Edinburgh, one of the homes of the famous 18th century Oyster Club that entertained the literati of the time including Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton and Benjamin Franklin (men only, of course). Oyster Club meetings took place weekly and discussions ranged from the arts, sciences and economics.

I found myself being struck, unusually for me, by a rather cynical thought: that it must have been easy for such people to gather, eat oysters and drink wine, and occasionally express powerful sentiments concerned with the blight of inequity and injustice – I imagined this as indulging in a kind of ‘underground hypocrisy’. I wondered whether I was about to indulge in such hypocrisy myself in the Caves, expressing roughly the same concerns as these moral philosophers from the past (though perhaps not so eloquently), the only difference being that instead of oysters, we were gorging on the frankly enormous croissants* provided by the venue when we arrived.

This is probably quite unfair and overly guilt-ridden of me. However, there is some truth in it. It is too easy to console our own consciences by articulating well-meaning concerns for those in need, while not admitting to ourselves that we are, all of us, complicit in the very inequity we claim to want to tackle.

Chris Kilkenny (@KilkennyChris), one of the most engaging speakers I have heard in a long time, laid bare that hypocrisy for us all to hear and feel. If you haven’t heard his presentation before, in which he describes his experiences of living in poverty and articulates the deficiencies of our system for supporting people in circumstances such as his, you can see a previous version of it here introduced by the inimitable David Cameron. Please find a quiet corner sometime and watch it:


(Thanks to @dgilmour for sharing this clip)

All of the speakers at the SELMAS conference were excellent and I don’t want to attempt to summarise their various inputs here.

I wish to focus instead on something that was mentioned during the event, as I think it neatly summarised one of the main challenges with relation to equity in Scottish education.

“In our school, we don’t talk about deprivation”

This was a well-meaning comment made by a headteacher during the event. The reasons given for this approach were positive and laudable: the school focusses on achievement and standards in an effort to secure a positive and sustainable destination for all its pupils. It is part of a genuine effort to ensure that deprivation does not define the pupils’ potential.

Despite that, the comment troubled me to the extent that it remained an uncomfortable source of opacity for the remainder of the day and since. It left me with many questions. If teachers in schools don’t talk about deprivation, how do they make a professional commitment to social justice? Aren’t they simply denying themselves and their pupils the opportunity to talk about the sources of injustice? How could they be certain that they are not seeing and responding to the pupils “hiding in plain sight” as Chris Kilkenny described? If pupils can’t talk about deprivation in school, where CAN they talk about it? If we focus relentlessly on achievement and standards, are we not succumbing to the terrors (or indeed the charms) of performativity at the expense of more socially pertinent values?

It should also be said of course that some schools not only talk about deprivation but do inspiring things do tackle its effects. See this as an example from St Eunan’s Primary School in Clydebank.

If we are to make any headway in terms of equity in our system, we cannot afford to ignore the root causes of inequity, which largely come down to our collective failure to curb the existence of poverty. If we cannot demonstrate equity at the outset of the learning journey for children, it will be almost impossible to demonstrate it at the end of their school journey (a wise comment I read recently from @GilchristGeorge), perhaps apart from hailing the occasional outlier who rises above it against all the odds in the style of the classic neoliberal success story.

Aspiring to a tale of ‘Rags-to-Riches’ is not a way to achieve equity. Not only is it a fool’s errand, it levels the responsibility of ending poverty on the shoulders of its victims. The message here is “you live in poverty and you need to work your way free of it”.

Basil Bernstein is often mis-quoted as having said that “education cannot compensate for society“. These words are clearly not true: education can change the world, of course it can. While it is not up to schools alone to rid Scotland of poverty, I would argue that it is a responsibility of schools and indeed all of us to identify what we can do in aid of that goal, and to get very, very energetic about it. Focusing on standards of achievement is an important part of what schools can do, but it isn’t the only contribution schools can make.

Talking openly about poverty, its effects, and how it could be undone would be a fine start.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore a half-baked idea that has been in my mind for a while now that might just help to get this dialogue going. The SELMAS conference speakers and delegates enabled me to articulate the idea in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise.

It is an idea for a people’s movement called A Curriculum for Equity: a vehicle for sharing and facilitating interdisciplinary practice, projects and dialogue aimed at achieving equity in Scotland, such as the project mentioned above at St Eunan’s Primary.

The curriculumforequity site will be a community-based Open Educational Resource. This means that is freely accessible, openly licensed and the content on the site comes from its own community. I would love it to generate its own momentum and really take off as a grass-roots movement involving pupils, teachers, parents, supportive organisations and whole communities.

Please look out for information about how to get involved in Part 2.

*By the way – just as I was about to leave the Caves, a staff member there encouraged me to take some of the left-over croissants away. There were about 30 or so sitting on a tray. I asked her if it is possible to bring the leftovers to a shelter in Edinburgh’s city centre or to a foodbank (a quick search indicates that there are five Trussell Trust foodbanks operating within 4 miles of the Caves). She said that they are not allowed to do that themselves because of food hygiene policies. She was clearly upset about that. I asked her to put them all in a bag and I said I would do my best.

I left the Caves and spoke to a homeless man on the Royal Mile. I explained the situation and I asked him where the nearest shelter was. I had never done anything like that before and I felt like a desperate fool speaking to him. He was very kind and pointed me in the direction of the Salvation Army Hostel on Cowgate. I walked down St Mary’s Street and dropped the bag off at the centre. While the staff there seemed really pleased that their guests for the evening would have a nice treat for breakfast, I still haven’t shaken off that feeling of being a hypocrite.

Good deeds won’t end poverty. This will only be achieved by critiquing and actively challenging its very existence.