A more equitable future for education: Where shall we start from, where shall we go?

by The Assessment Network, 09 December 2021
Teacher holding hands with pupils walking up a staircase of books

In October, Cambridge Assessment Network held an event with over 150 educators from around the world, coming together to discuss the topic of equity in education. The session was led by Loic Menzies, former teacher and former Chief Executive of The Centre for Education and Youth, researcher, and policy specialist with twenty years' experience in the education and youth sector.

Loic set out his vision for how we might create a map to guide us to a more equitable future for education and attendees were encouraged to add their voice to the conversation and challenge each other’s assumptions. Here, Loic summarises key points from his speech and highlights some of the different perspectives participants brought to the (virtual) table.

Where shall we start from, where shall we go?

Throughout my talk, Mapping the Way to a More Equitable Future for Education, I returned to the image of a journey towards equity and the need for a map to guide the way to our end goal. 

Understandably, several participants raised questions regarding where that journey began and where it was heading. Some saw educational equity as the starting point on a journey towards social equity, while others turned this around and pointed out that a degree of social equity - in relation to family housing, health and reducing poverty - was needed if educational equity was to take root. 

Another felt that although true equity will only be achieved once structural barriers are dismantled, tangible improvements can be made through education in the meantime. 

The importance of context

Seminar participants came from around the world and it’s therefore no surprise that they emphasised the importance of context. Some asked whether in countries where access to education is limited and inequality is even more of a problem than it is in the UK, educational access and resources - as well as overall quality, might need to come before an explicit focus on inequality.   

One participant argued we should focus on maximising opportunities for all rather than prioritising equity, but I'm wary of this approach. For me, there’s too big a risk of neglecting the distributional question of 'who gets those opportunities?' and how well they are matched to individuals' needs. It’s also risky because those with more economic, social and cultural capital tend to be better placed to seize the available opportunities.

How do we define educational equity?

Understandably, participants raised questions regarding what we mean by ‘educational equity’.  Some asked whether it was equity or equality we should be focusing on, with one noting that:

“Equity feels like a less controversial term for policymakers but also one that might be compatible with forms of inequality continuing.” 

Meanwhile another argued that:

“Equity is about getting everyone to the same level. Equality is giving everyone the same tools. It depends what you want education to be and do.”

Ultimately I don’t think we will achieve a consensus on these questions during our sessions, so when planning the series I made an explicit choice to avoid a potentially navel-gazing session focused on definitions. Instead I intend to pull-out and explore alternative perspectives as we go, bringing them together at the end.  

Drawing our map

In order to draw our map and pave the way to a more equitable education system I will be exploring three key themes with attendees over the course of the next year. 

All three affect both policymakers and practitioners and we will therefore structure upcoming sessions to explore both perspectives.

Our three themes

  1. What information do we need?

This first theme is a key insight from my book Young People on the Margins: Priorities for Action in Education and Youth”. The book brings together insights from a decade of research at The Centre for Education and Youth, conducted with young people who have, in many cases, faced profound barriers throughout their young lives. 

Young People on the Margins focuses on seven marginalised groups and identifies the overlaps between the issues affecting them. One of the arguments my co-authors and I make is that England’s education system, like many others, has a tendency to identify pupils due to specific problems. For example falling behind in reading or writing; not turning up to school; or behaving badly. 

We need to make sure both policy makers and practitioners have the right information to guide their decisions - both at system and individual level.

However if we want a more equitable future for education we need to go upstream - understanding and responding to the reasons for difficulties and educational disparities. To some extent we do this already, for example by identifying if a pupil is living in poverty or whether they might have Special Educational Needs. However, time and again these labels actually overlap whilst failing to get to the heart of what’s going on for a particular young person, and how we can best support them. 

Ultimately, if we want to find our way towards educational equity we need to make sure both policy makers and practitioners have the right information to guide their decisions - both at system and individual level. 

Based on our initial discussion, it seems that for some participants, our focus should be on having information on a broader set of metrics. Others believe we need to concentrate on getting better quality research on ‘what works’, or that the focus should be on ensuring we have more personal and granular information that goes beyond averages. 

Whatever information it is we need, several participants were at pains to emphasise that the information needs to avoid distorting the system.

  1. How can we share information more effectively?

"Is it about sharing information better? Or sharing better information? Or both?” - Comment from a participant

It’s not always the case that we lack information. In many cases, information exists but isn’t properly shared. In effect, although most of us in the sector are seeking the way towards the goal of equity, some of us know the coastline, others know the mountains or the beach; yet building a map involves putting all this together - something social workers, teachers, youth workers, housing officers and health workers all have a part to play in.

Problems of information sharing are glaringly obvious in the transitions between educational phases. For example, in 2020 I authored a study with Oxford University Press showing that nine out of ten of teachers think the transition between primary and secondary phases highlights vocabulary issues. This problem arises because there are different demands on vocabulary in the two phases, but pupils aren’t prepared to Bridge the Vocabulary Gap because communication and coordination between professionals is lacking.

It’s not always the case that we lack information. In many cases, information exists but isn’t properly shared.

Issues like this run through Young People on the Margins like a golden thread and it’s clear that many disadvantaged young people could be far better supported if closer partnerships resulted in better information sharing and guide more effective responses. 

  1. Finding a way around the obstacles

The unequal way the Covid pandemic has affected pupils highlights the differing obstacles they face. 

In England, when the pandemic hit, the government rapidly put in place funding for the Oak National Academy, a groundbreaking online school. But despite these efforts, it soon became clear that the scale and impact of the ‘digital divide’ had been vastly underestimated. 

We can see some indication of the deep impact this will have had by looking to research showing that pupils spent four times longer on their lessons if they were on a tablet compared to pupils on phones. This rose to five times as long if they were on a laptop. 

Of course, there will be a number of confounding factors at play here. It's also important to note that although it was the digital divide that grabbed headlines, research shows that things like having a quiet space to work in at home were perhaps just as important. 

I’d rather go upstream and look at social policy through the lens of educational equity

Divergences in the ‘home learning environment’ and their impact on outcomes are nothing new. Back in 2009, Chowdry et al. used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England to show that access to material resources in the home helped explain gaps in attainment between children from low and high socio-economic backgrounds. Moreover there’s a vast body of research demonstrating how poverty impacts on educational outcomes.

Our audience members contributed numerous additional examples to the mix, particularly highlighting how,  in an international context, differences in familiarity with the English language can skew the playing field. 

According to one view, the best way to navigate obstacles is to make adjustments when assessing outcomes. This might involve using more contextualised measures of achievement, or adapting the curriculum. But for me that feels too much like pulling people out of the river once they've already fallen in (to paraphrase Archbishop Desmond Tutu). 

I’d rather go upstream and look at social policy through the lens of educational equity, for example when the government makes decisions about things like child benefit. As one attendee pointed out, another alternative would be to fund and staff schools to embrace the extended role that society demands of them, acknowledging once and for all that this remit goes well beyond teaching.

Next steps

Over the next few months, I will be bringing together policy experts and educational practitioners for conversations exploring perspectives on the three key themes outlined above.

We will begin by focusing on 'What information do we need?' from the policy makers’ perspective by holding a small expert roundtable. I will then be presenting the ideas and findings from that discussion during an open discussion forum where I will look forward to hearing your responses and questions.

We will then zoom in on the information that frontline practitioners need before exploring how we can share information more effectively and then how we can find a way around the obstacles.

By the end of the year, we should have an incredibly rich body of thinking, which you will have played a critical role in helping us to develop. We hope to synthesise this in a short report - or maybe it'll be time to draw that map! 

Thank you so much for being part of the journey.

If you signed up for the launch event of our #MappingTheWay series, look out for an email with all the details on the next session which will take place on Thursday 10 February. Otherwise you can keep up to date with this event series and by signing up to our mailing list.

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