Exploring equity in education and beyond

by Guest Blogger, 24 March 2022
Children stood in overlapping circles

At an expert roundtable earlier this year we brought together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers need to improve it. Here, attendees Hardip Begol and Sammy Wright reflect on the discussion and share their thoughts on these perennial yet crucial questions for any education system that aspires to equity. 

Looking beyond the classroom

Hardip Begol, Chief Executive, Woodard Academies Trust

What information do policy-makers need to help them map their way to educational equity? That question made me stop and think. 

Whereas educational equity is something I think about every day in the context of leading a multi-academy trust with six schools across the country, it’s been nearly three years since I’ve had to put myself in the shoes of a policy-maker.  

My instinctive reaction was to think about the schools system and the evidence and data that would be useful on school organisation, assessment and curriculum, pastoral support, workforce, accountability and funding, amongst other things. After all, I’ve spent most of my career seeking to improve educational equity through these mechanisms. 

But if we start from the different causes of educational inequity, rather than starting in the school system, we get a different perspective. The effectiveness of the secondary school a child attends explains just 14% of the gap in educational outcomes between those from more and less affluent backgrounds. Yes, 14%.  

Given that school effectiveness can be improved – some other causes of inequity are less amenable to change - policy-makers should have the best information available. However, focusing all our attention on this one cause is as blinkered as trying to make sure you spend time during the week well, but then only review your schedule for Wednesdays. Our myopic focus on schools is a bit like ignoring what happens the rest of the week but hunkering-down to make the most of Wednesdays.

So the information I think policy-makers need to help them map their way to educational equity is on all the determinants of inequity and their relative importance. Let’s make the evidence clear to children and parents, public services, employers, communities and the wider public that educational equity cannot be achieved through schools alone.  

There may be no leadership or appetite for addressing the non-school causes of educational inequity, but let’s put the information out there and have the integrity to acknowledge that. 

What is a good education anyway?

Sammy Wright, Vice Principal, Southmoor Academy and Member of Social Mobility Commission 2018-2021

I watched The Talented Mr Ripley the other day, and in it was a throw away line about the poor spelling of the character Dickie Greenleaf being the result of “the best education money can buy". It’s a joke that worms its way into a lot of films and books about the upper classes. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what it means, though. Is it saying that to buy education is impossible? That it is an abstract good like love? Or is it saying that the best education isn’t the mundane details of spelling, but rather the network of power and influence and bulletproof confidence that wealth can bring?

There is an awkward truth hiding here. Education, and school, does not exist in a vacuum. It is about the future – where you end up, and what is useful for you there – as well as about the past – where you came from, and how that defines your priorities. And it is about the shifting, uncertain present, too. What the moment we are in demands of its children.

And what a moment we are in.

The current debate in education seems caught in polarities. Trad or Prog, ‘unmet needs’ or silent corridors. I’m not a fan of binary thinking like this – but I think the temptation to simplify what school does into dogmatic caricatures tells us something very significant about the uncertainty at the root of our current system. 

At core, I’m not sure we really have a clear sense of what the point of school even is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for the abolition of school, or for the abolition of exams. I’m not arguing for anything, to be honest – there are too many things I just don’t know, even after twenty years in the classroom.

But I do think we have to face some difficult facts.

Whatever else we think, we have to recognise that school is for sorting. It sorts kids into groups, and assigns them opportunities, and to be frank, social value. In its ideal form, this ends up with people doing jobs that suit them, and living long and productive lives.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world that has a vast and increasing pay gap, and a corresponding status gap. A world where disadvantaged children do worse, and where they therefore get disproportionately sorted into the lower status groups.

During my time on the Social Mobility Commission, I set up a research project to find out which schools actually close the gap, and how they do it. In retrospect this might have been naïve, but at the time, I genuinely expected to be shown some schools who had the answer. 

Of course, it didn’t pan out like that. What happened in the end was that the project identified only 11 secondary schools out of the whole of England that had consistently closed the progress gap at 16. And of those 11, none was a useful example – 6 were grammar schools with vanishingly small numbers of disadvantaged kids, 3 were ex-grammar, 1 was ex-independent, and 1 had been investigated for off-rolling.

The fact of the matter is that in all the most brilliant schools in the country, everything that is done for disadvantaged students also benefits the non-disadvantaged. Nothing outweighs the burdens of poverty – at least not while our system is set up to put kids into neat rank order.

And that rank order is custom designed to prioritise certain competencies above others. The great revolution of the last decade has been the renewed focus on knowledge, and the upping of the ante on academic rigour at GCSE. As a teacher, I find both of these hugely exciting. But I also find the way that these narrow ideas of success are used to assign merit to students hugely problematic. 

We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the importance of parity of esteem between vocational and academic routes. Innovations such as T levels have been introduced specifically to cater to this. But in education we have a persistent issue. We keep on taking kids for fools. 

You cannot expect to have a system that demands students try the academic routes first, and only get the chance to try something different once they’ve failed, to produce parity of esteem. You cannot get kids to aim for university, then tell them that the universities in their home towns, the ones filled with students like them, are ‘low-value’, and expect them to feel anything other than excluded. And you cannot tell a cohort of sixteen year olds that the base level for self-worth is a grade five, and expect the grade 3 students to feel as motivated and engaged as those this world they inhabit has been designed around.

We need an honest conversation. What do we need schools to do? Are they only for the academically successful? 

We’re in a moment that is questioning some of the most basic assumptions of the last 20 years in education – from the use of university to the importance of GCSEs. I’m all for both, personally – but maybe that’s because I was pretty good at them.

Maybe it’s time we allowed all students to feel that education was something they could be pretty good at.

This blog is part of our #MappingTheWay series of events exploring how to build a more equitable future for education. The aim for the series is to build an incredibly rich body of thinking, which participants will have played a critical role in helping to develop.

You can catch up with the latest event over on our YouTube channel and make sure you're signed up to our mailing lists to be find out how you can get involved in the next one.

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