“Mind the Gap!” by Ken Cunningham CBE


by Ken Cunningham CBE

Visiting with some Texan friends in London the other weekend, I was forcibly reminded of a phrase that you can’t ignore as you travel round the London metro system – “Mind the gap” – spoken and frequently writ large! It all washed over me but to my American friends it was intriguing from several fronts. One because ‘gap’ does not necessarily mean the same to them and, to their added surprise, the gap they had to mind was never constant if indeed it was even there.

You can’t go far in Scotland these days without ‘minding the gap’ either. Hardly a day passes without some reference in education to ‘closing the gap’. Article after article; political volley after political volley; news report after news report. It has become the stick with which to beat a range of backs and upon which the credibility of the reigning powers will depend. Shame on all counts. Like much in politics and education, aspiration is quite a different beast from reality. Like motherhood and apple pie, Named Person and closing the gap, there are few who would disagree with the sentiments. However, many will argue over delivery and probably even definition. A bit like my American friends, there is no defined ‘gap’ as such, well none that doesn’t leave more questions than answers anyway, and the gap indeed is variable, often depending on who’s measuring and what, where you are, who you are and what you are.

And the reason for raising the issue is obvious. Therein lies equity’s greatest challenge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Gary suggested in this first blog (maybe last depending on reaction!), I say something about my background, how that has been impacted by ‘curriculum and equity’ and some initial thoughts around its main challenges (I might have to do a second blog to deal with that…)

I’ve had a privileged and long career in education and every position has been impacted by the recognition of the effect of poverty, background and circumstances on the life chances of young people. And my very working class upbringing likewise. Having passed my ‘qualifying exam’ I was sent to the local senior secondary which delivered a wide range of courses allowing me access to university. After that brief stint at uni (another story), at the age of 19 I had the opportunity of teaching in a local junior secondary where I quickly realised just how big the gap in aspiration and ambition was.

That drove me into teaching as a career where I worked in a range of comprehensives with by far the greatest diversity of opportunity being in the city and including as an Assistant Headteacher in one of the poorest housing estates in Europe. It was a steep learning curve. When I moved into the Advisory service (as it was then), my Headteacher very wisely counselled me to work out quickly in my new post what real difference I would and could make to young people’s lives. That challenge never left me. I have seen it through that post, then in succession, directorate, inspectorate, head teacher and principal, General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland, and also Scottish Qualifications Authority throughout in various guises. But I have also seen it through a range of other third sector roles including as a Director/Trustee of Notre Dame Child Guidance, of Young Enterprise Scotland, of Children’s University Scotland, of the ICAS Foundation and most recently of Children 1st (RSSPCC). Every one of these exists for the main purpose of righting wrongs in children’s lives and improving equity. Different challenges; different issues; different responses; different measures for all of them.

If we get to a second blog, I’d like to explore these issues in their contexts. But let’s leave this with one thought. The biggest single difference ever made in lives were at an individual level, with individual interactions and a huge personal commitment from the teachers and workers who spent hours with each young person. The reinforced message: the quality of the professional at the point of contact makes all the difference. I’ve been blessed to have had the privilege to have seen many in action.

About the author

Dr Ken Cunningham CBE BEd MEd(Hons) DUniv FRSA FSQA is the former General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland. He has spent most of his working life in education having held a range of school posts as well as those of adviser, inspector, Chief Examiner and in local authority directorate. He was appointed General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland in 2008. He has Chaired and been a member of a range of Government Task and Steering Groups as well as Chair of Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland, former Director and Vice Chair of Young Enterprise Scotland and Notre Dame Child Guidance Boards, a member of the Qualifications Committee of SQA and the SCHOLAR Advisory Board, and a Trustee/Director of ICAS Foundation, Children’s University Scotland, and Children 1st. He was for 15 years the Head and Principal of Hillhead High School and its learning community, during which time he oversaw the merger of two large secondary schools. He was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to Scottish education in 2002.

Excellence with Equity: An Educational Imperative by Avis Glaze

by Dr. Avis Glaze
Edu-quest International Inc. Canada

As an educator for almost four decades, one of the areas that has concerned me most is the question of whether or not we can achieve both excellence and equity in school systems today.

I have a strong belief that we cannot truly say that we have an excellent school system if there is a long tail of failure, and, when we disaggregate the data, those at the bottom belong to specific demographic groups. These include boys, immigrants, girls, children from low socio-economic backgrounds or children with mental health concerns, to name a few. If some or any of these groups are clustered at the bottom of the achievement ladder, we cannot say that we have an equitable and inclusive system. That is a key measure of equity. For me, we cannot have excellence without equity.

Societal expectations are very high. In a recent discussion with Michael Fullan, I asked him what his thoughts were about school improvement, given his statement some years ago that schools should achieve 90-95% success. Michael’s response was that “The new mission for schools is to achieve 100% success, and to have specific explanations and strategies for addressing any figure that falls short of full success.”

I have long felt that the days of making excuses for low performance are long gone. We have the knowledge and skills to improve student achievement. If this is the case, the question has to be: Do we have the will? We know what works. We now have to build upon what we already know and have already done in many of our schools, to take the education systems as a whole, to new heights. We need to learn with and from our colleagues. In every system in which I have worked across the globe, there are many schools that are achieving the expected outcomes. But we need to refocus our efforts on building capacity, developing our leaders, establishing networks and spreading successful practices across schools.

Recently, I was asked to address the question: What does it take to improve student achievement? I identified 7 of the strategies that contribute significantly to improving student outcomes, which I will de-construct in another issue. These are, in random order:

1. High Expectations for Learning with Growth Mindsets
2. Effective Instruction in the Digital Age
3. Early and On-going Assessment, Interventions and Support
4. Inclusive, Culturally-Responsive Pedagogy
5. Innovation, Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Career Education
6. Leaders as Co-Learners, and
7. Character Development

Another Critical Factor

There are many other important factors that contribute to student outcomes. I would like to add another to the list above. It is the issue of teacher quality. We know from many years of solid research in education that the strongest factor in determining student achievement is not school size, accountability measures, standards, social-economic status or even the aptitude of students. In fact, researchers such as Wise and Liebrand (2000) have concluded from their meta-analysis of standards and teacher quality that well prepared teachers have a greater impact on student achievement, are more attuned to students’ needs, and are better able to devise instruction to meet individual needs. Another popular researcher, Linda Darling Hammond (2000) in discussing the notion that investment in teacher quality pays off, concluded that the greatest predictor of student achievement is not student demographics, overall school spending, class size or teacher salaries. She asserts that teacher quality is the variable that most influences student achievement. Other well-respected researchers Kenneth Leithwood and Doris Jantzi (2000) said that leadership is second only to classroom teaching as an influence on student learning. So let us continue to invest in and build teacher and principal capacity in order to improve our schools.

I hope you share my optimism for the future of education and the confidence that today’s educators will achieve both excellence and equity. We have the will and the skills to realize this promise. I encourage you to draw upon your rich repertoire of knowledge and skills and to focus on what works. We must build upon our successes and continue to improve our schools – with a sense of urgency. Parents are expecting it; politicians are demanding it; the community-at-large deserves it. But most importantly, as educators, we want the best for our students. We do not want to truncate their life chances or future possibilities. That’s why we accepted the challenging roles of teaching and leadership. As true professionals, we will redouble our efforts to make every school an excellent school in every neighbourhood.

In sum, we want all students to be successful so that they live happy, productive and self-sustaining lives. We want to improve our schools and ensure that all students, especially the most vulnerable or disadvantaged, graduate from our schools with confidence, high self-regard and concern for others. These imperatives are grounded in moral, demographic, enlightened self-interest, community health, social justice, global competitiveness and human rights expectations. We want to unleash student potential and motivate them to do their personal best regardless of the background factors that locate them in society. We want to build teacher and principal capacity leading to the instructional and leadership effectiveness that are necessary for systems to thrive.

Our goal must be to work quickly and effectively while always being mindful of the fact that we will not achieve excellence without equity. Let us re-affirm our commitment to improving our schools with a sense of urgency. Let us redouble our efforts and draw upon our rich repertoire of knowledge and skills to get the job done.

The children cannot wait.


About the Author:
Dr. Avis Glaze is one of Canada’s outstanding educators and a recognized international leader in education. From classroom teacher to Director, she was appointed by the Premier as the province’s first Chief Student Achievement Officer and Founding CEO of the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. Avis played a pivotal role in improving student achievement in Ontario, Canada. Currently, she is President of Edu-quest International Inc., offering a wide range of educational services and speaking engagements across the globe.
Avis co-authored Breaking Barriers: Excellence and Equity for All (Glaze, Mattingley and Levin) on the high impact strategies to improve education systems in general, and schools in particular. Her most recent book, High School Graduation: k-12 Strategies that Work (Glaze, Mattingley and Andrews), identifies the research-informed strategies to improve graduation rates for all students regardless of socio-economic or other social or demographic factors.
A few years ago, Avis’ international contributions to education was recognized in Scotland when she received the Robert Owen Award from Mr. Michael Russell, former Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.
Visit her website at: www.avisglaze.ca


Darling -Hammond, L. (2000) Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence. Education policy analysis archives, [S.l.], v. 8, p. 1, jan. 2000. ISSN 1068-2341. URL: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/392/515

Glaze, A. (2013) How Ontario spread successful practices across 5,000 schools. Phi Delta Kappan, November 2013 vol 95, no. 3, 44-50. DOI: 10.1177/003172171309500310

Glaze, A., Mattingley, R. & Andrews, R. (2013) High school graduation: K-12 strategies that work. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Leithwood, K., Jantzi, D. (2000) The effects of transformational leadership on organizational conditions and student engagement with school. Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 38 Iss: 2, pp.112 – 129. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/09578230010320064

Wise, A.E., Leibbrand, J.A. (2000) Standards and teacher quality. Phi Delta Kappan, vol 81, no.8, 612-621. URL: https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-61557305/standards-and-teacher-quality-entering-the-new-millennium