It is hard to find anyone these days who disagrees with the idea that educational opportunities should be equalised or that the poorest kids should get the richest teaching. After all, more equal outcomes demand not just that the quality of the educational experience is the same in all schools, but that it is better in places where learners are more likely to be disengaged or held back by material, social or emotional disadvantages. So how can we make this happen?
Efforts over the last twenty years have largely concentrated on stricter accountability (targets, inspection, closure threats) and expensive efforts to turn around ‘failing’ schools by quasi-privatisation, re-branding, or introducing super-heads. Since the late 2000s, more systemic and supportive attempts (school-to-school collaboration, Teach First) have been welcome. My research on schools in the most disadvantaged areas suggests that three areas still need further attention.
One is funding. The English schools funding system is substantially and increasingly loaded towards schools with disadvantaged intakes. But not enough. It currently costs between £10k and £30k plus per year to send a child to an independent school. The average funding for a state school pupil is around £6000, rising to around £8000 for those with the highest proportion of pupils with Free School Meals (FSM). Yet these schools face much greater organisational challenges: complex and diverse learning needs; children with emotional and social difficulties and living in extreme material hardship; high pupil turnover; difficult relationships with parents and so on. Substantial increases in funding would enable smaller classes, more support staff, and more time for teachers to plan and develop. Funding should be determined by what schools actually have to do, since FSM is a crude measure which does not reflect the substantial differences in organisational challenge between different areas of high deprivation.
The second area is teacher recruitment and retention. Teaching in tough schools is extremely demanding and emotionally challenging. The best teachers will only be recruited and retained if their work is highly valued, not just in terms of pay but of recognition, support and time for professional development,. Instead of knowledge only flowing one way (from outstanding to struggling schools) the skills and knowledge of teachers in challenging schools needs to be recognised and tapped. Government should stop publicly shaming them for having lower results, instead recognising their substantial achievements in keeping some of the most troubled young people engaged, supported and making progress.
The third area is pedagogy. Pedagogies that are based on a relentless focus on ‘delivering’ curriculum to maximise test scores are based on a profound misunderstanding of educational disadvantage. Where all the messages conveyed to young people in their real worlds tell them that they are powerless, disrespected, and facing limited choices and constrained futures, teachers have to work in different ways: allowing choice and control over learning, making curriculum relevant, creating more equal relationships, building confidence in achievements. Such ‘productive’ pedagogies are not an alternative to academic rigour or the acquisition of powerful knowledge. They provide pathways to it. Getting the best teaching to the poorest kids doesn’t just mean identifying some generic features of good teaching. It means allowing teachers to adapt their curriculum, classroom routines and relationships in order to make learning as relevant, manageable, enjoyable and successful as it can so easily be for the children of the privileged. Under constant performative pressures, this is very hard to do.
Getting the richest teaching to the poorest pupils will not sort out the problems of our society. Michael Gove commands wide cross-party support when he says:
Education reform is the great progressive cause of our times… Our schools should be the engines of social mobility, helping children to overcome the accidents of birth and background to achieve much more than they may ever have imagined.
Yes, some individuals will be enabled by a wonderful education to achieve their wildest dreams. But growing labour market inequality is making social mobility more difficult. As the rungs on the ladder get further apart, fewer entry-level jobs offer progression, and there are fewer middle-level jobs to aim for. And as the labour market stakes get higher, those families with educational capital will invest it in order to keep their children ahead of the game. Socio-economic gaps have closed substantially over the last decade at ‘expected’ levels, but not at higher levels of achievement. All of this means that education policy needs a serious re-think, but really making sure the best teaching goes where the pupils and students most need it would be a starting point.