Taking down the barriers

by Loic Menzies, 10 May 2023
Man's fist punching red illustrated wall on blue background

I opened the final roundtable in the ‘Mapping The Way to Educational Equity’ series by introducing the intended theme for the evening: “How can we best navigate the obstacles to educational equity?” But these events don’t always follow a script, and Julie McCulloch, the first contributor was quick to throw a curve ball by asking, “Is it always down to schools to navigate the obstacles to equity? Or should we be taking the barriers down?”

It’s a fair point. I’ve myself argued that if education policy is going to work for all young people, then we can’t leave it all to schools and set out three models for reaching beyond the school gates, which I have illustrated with reference to three contrasting 6th Form Colleges.

I’ve therefore decided to hand over to seven amazing attendees of that last roundtable who have agreed to share their reflections on how we as a society can take down the obstacles to educational equity. It feels like the perfect way to mark the last blog in the Mapping the Way series (before I get my head down to compile all the insights from the last 18 months into a report which will be launched this summer).

So below, you’ll hear from the brilliant:

  • Julie McCullochDirector of Policy, The Association of School and College Leaders
  • Juliette Cammaerts, Director: Policy, Planning and Delivery, Children's Commissioner Office
  • Tamzin Cooper, Vice Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy 
  • Will Yates, Former Teacher and MPhil Student, Cambridge
  • Duncan Spalding, Executive Headteacher, Aylsham Learning Federation
  • Ndidi Okezie, CEO, UK Youth
  • Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge University Press & Assessment

I’ll then round off by summarising ten ways forward they have suggested:

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy, The Association of School and College Leaders:

There's an assumption, in the premise of ‘navigating the obstacles’ that those obstacles need to be worked around rather than reduced or removed. And I was mulling that over: is that realistic? Or is it defeatist? To what extent do we just accept that society is unequal and education will do the best it can to paper over those cracks? Or do we think: if we're going to make a meaningful difference, we have to address things at the root source, rather than think that education can come and cure it all.

I’m really interested in how we develop local, collective responsibility - however it is that you define local.

One of the things I kick around occasionally is, ‘is there an argument to say, if you're going to put more money into the system in order to improve education, is the best place to put it, education itself? Or do you put it into housing or maternal health?’ All of these are things that we know make an enormous difference before children get anywhere near educational establishments.

There’s also a question of centralisation and autonomy here, in terms of agreeing what decisions should be taken where. We have decisions being made in Sanctuary Buildings (the DfE headquarters), which should be made by individual teachers in the classroom. And we have decisions being made by individual teachers in the classroom, which should be taken at a whole system level - and everything in between. 

I’m really interested in how we develop local, collective responsibility - however it is that you define local. How do we get to a point where all of the agencies who have any connection with the children or young people in a locality feel collectively responsible for the success of that young person?

Juliette Cammaerts, Director: Policy, Planning and Delivery - Children's Commissioner's Office:

Julie’s right to emphasise the importance of where decisions are taken. We want services to feel familial. By which we mean, to be local; trusting; with a memory; delivered by people who care and who are there when you need them; that are non-stigmatising. 

When you talk about hurdles of equity, the way decisions are made can make it hard to get ahead of things, because by the time a problem is big enough to be national, it will have got so big that it then needs a big solution to solve it. So how do you have a system that is locally flexible? How can we create a more dynamic and agile system that is responsive and trusts leaders in real time to solve issues they face, in a way that coalesces around children and families? 

We are deeply concerned about the fact that there's a whole set of children, and it’s not a small number, who aren't in school. Many of these children are invisible. They don't have a school, they don’t have a GP and they don't have a dentist. We need much better information sharing mechanisms to routinely know where children are.

At the Children’s Commissioner’s Office we’ve just been doing a large piece of work on making sure all children are back in school, every day, ready to learn. 100% attendance must be the ambition. We’ve also been doing some work on Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). There are 500 children in YOIs, who won't show up in any accountability records. These children’s outcomes are often dismal, but whose responsibility is it to fix that? Does the accountability follow that?

We need much better information sharing mechanisms to routinely know where children are.

One of the things the pandemic did was that it made more people realise that there are more than just a minority of children who need more than just a teacher to succeed at school. And actually, even the best teacher will not be enough to compensate for all of the other things going on in their life. I think the question needs to be not, ‘what does a school system look like that will make children succeed’, but ‘what services need to sit alongside fantastic schools to support children and families who need them to help them thrive and grow up to be adults that are happy and successful’. Now is the right time to think about how schools can be a locus of support.

We also need to recognise that building up relationships and trust is something that takes time and that isn't measured. So we need to think about how we can have a system that has more of a qualitative accountability metric around relationships and children’s views, voices and experiences. We also need to think about leadership across the sector, because at the moment, we say ‘who are the next 200 education leaders,’ but not ‘who are the next 200 other public service leaders that we need to lead other services.’ We need to be addressing both to have a system that truly delivers for all children.

Tamzin Cooper, Vice Principal, Dixons Trinity Academy:

Dixons Trinity gets great results for children - but that doesn’t mean we've achieved equity. And that's my main concern; it’s not the case that if you get the children the results, they still will have the same life chances and opportunities as children from different backgrounds.

My first concern is around young people and the power they perceive they will have in society. I serve a diverse community and many of our children are concerned that their life chances are going to be hampered by institutional racism. Our Trust Assistant Vice Principal James Lauder has therefore been active in supporting pupils across Bradford to run a Summit giving young people a voice and has written about the work in the book Education, Power and Change

That work is empowering our pupils to communicate their experiences to local policy makers; we go beyond speaking for young people and ensure they believe they can speak for themselves. That’s a concept that’s hugely important to us in our school. It’s about making sure children are seen by society, staff and each other.

It’s not the case that if you get the children the results, they still will have the same life chances and opportunities as children from different backgrounds.

At Dixons Trinity we talk a lot about our children climbing the mountain to attend University and getting exceptional outcomes is only one way we can keep aspirations on track. We find that students who get top grades default to going to a local university – and that’s not to say that there’s something wrong with those universities, but pupils are making choices based on location, simplicity and accessibility rather than evaluating the choices available to them. Put simply, it costs more money to go to University away from home. 

Beyond this, a lot of our children have never been on the train to Leeds from Bradford, let alone been to Oxford, Cambridge, London. I feel really passionate about getting children as far and as wide as possible while we've got them in our care, so that the world is not such a big and scary place. This is something that we were previously able to do a lot to counteract through trips and enrichment; something we call expeditions. But with financial hardships for the school, we've got to make decisions now: between ‘do we have a maths teacher? Or do we take Year Nine to visit Oxford University?’ 

That's the fear for me at the moment: it feels like we're on the precipice of some quite dangerous choices in schools. The sacrifices that schools will be choosing to make will be particularly painful in terms of equity.

Will Yates, Former Teacher and MPhil Student, Cambridge:

Tamzin’s point about access to trips is a great example of something referred to in a really dramatic line in one of Michael Young's books: he says cultural capital is actually an economic question not just a curricular question, we need to make it accessible. This is something that worries middle leaders in schools, as a recent Schools Week blog lays out. Schools can make some savings by taking advantage of local opportunities, but glaring geographical disparities mean that unequal access to cultural capital will persist.

I came back to university to do a Masters after five years as a teacher and my first impression was, ‘I don't even want to think about how much time, money, effort and manpower has gone into cutting that lawn or keeping that building tidy for centuries’.

The system appears much more meritocratic to some students than to others.

The amount of wealth that goes into bulldozing away obstacles to learning here in Cambridge is astronomical. Think about how that compares to what schools are able to do; I think back to the Secondary school I attended and contrast that with where I taught. I went to a private school, and I realised when I was leaving, there’s a tacit deal you make when you go there. The school says: ‘we're going to do whatever it takes to make every problem go away. And in exchange, you're going to put in your utmost efforts towards attaining’. 

For the most part the deal works, and pupils from these schools succeed academically, and leave thinking ‘I worked really hard and got what I deserved’. For pupils from other backgrounds, that link between the effort they're putting in and the outcome they achieve gets completely destroyed before I even see them as a teacher in a secondary school classroom. 

All of this happens for reasons that pupils often can't articulate - at the age of six they might go to the post office and their mum gets called a horrible name. Or they have to look after their sibling, or go to another country because they need to look after someone. The system appears much more meritocratic to some students than to others.

Duncan Spalding, Executive Headteacher, Aylsham Learning Federation:

Perhaps we should look at solving problems of educational equity as a Mariana Mazzucato-style ‘Mission’. Government would then back innovation beyond what we traditionally consider to be ‘education’ in order to achieve an ambitious mission. 

It makes sense to me that if we have a strong and thriving wrap-around infrastructure in a school it will mean we can do a better job of supporting young people. So we’ve recognised that adult learning is a hugely important part of the picture, because the more you have lifelong learners within the community, the more likely the youngsters are to see that learning as a positive thing.

It makes sense to me that if we have a strong and thriving wrap-around infrastructure in a school it will mean we can do a better job of supporting young people. 

Similarly we see leisure facilities in school as a way of bringing the community in. Unexpected partnerships can be part of that - for example we have worked closely with housing developers because they know that a strong school infrastructure with a comprehensive community offer is good for housing values.

Ndidi Okezie, CEO, UK Youth:

I agree that tackling the challenge of educational equity is a wider mission and therefore we need to reframe ‘education.’ Right now, it still feels like there are schools - and then everyone else is the second cousin, or the kind of, helper. I don't believe that. When we say education, we have to consider the entirety of what a young person needs to thrive. 

We need to reframe the entire concept of education, so the word becomes an umbrella, and each spoke represents a key contributing factor: you have families, schools, youth workers, social care, health, policy and so on. Every spoke is needed otherwise the umbrella doesn’t function effectively. 

Imagine the impact that approach would have on the way that we set things up, have conversations, the accountability, and the incentives. The more we continue to think that education is schools, and social care or youth services are optional extras; the more we will continue to have this fragmentation problem. I’m convinced that mindset is one of the things that is getting in the way of progress.

There needs to be an acknowledgement that we're working together, rather than working at odds. It’s about relationships and mutual respect.

What really brought this home to me was the pandemic, which showed us clearly that there isn’t one profession that can provide everything that's needed. 

As children and young people were facing a crisis, the question was always: ‘How do we get schools to do more?’ ‘How do we get teachers to do more?’ ‘Now it's the holidays - what more can they do?’. Yet there are professionals outside of school who are ready, willing, and able to play a role, if only they had access and sustained funding. 

If a school’s Senior Leadership team is going round to a young person’s house to check up on attendance, before going round on those visits, teachers should be asking themselves ‘do we know what the youth provision is in this area?’ There will be youth workers who know where those kids are and who might be able to have a different kind of conversation with a young person that would get them back into school the next day.

At the moment, those youth workers don't know the teachers, and the teachers don't know them. There needs to be an acknowledgement that we're working together, rather than working at odds. It’s about relationships and mutual respect.

Unfortunately, moving into the youth sector I was shocked to hear the depth of disregard that existed between teachers and youth workers, and what bordered on a disrespect for the skill set that each brought. The tearing down of other professions needs to stop. We need to see ourselves - in whatever space we’re in, as only one part of the solution. 

Ed Vainker from Reach framed this well in one of our cross-sector planning sessions: he says we need to move towards the recognition that every single profession surrounding young people has a distinct role that they are uniquely placed to play. That there is something of value in what each of them brings. It's not less than, it's just different, it’s a unique thing. If we could get to that mentality - where it’s about ‘what am I uniquely placed to do in a young person's life?’ - and how well do I understand the role others need to play? That could be transformative.

We are working together on a ‘Joined Up’ Leadership Development project. At a residential - where we brought youth workers and School leaders together, in an open, trusted space - people opened up about their frustrations and assumptions about the other professions, it was eye opening and genuinely emotional. The honesty broke down barriers and we were then able to move on and ask: ‘right, what would it look like if we could genuinely work together on behalf of the children in our local area?’

I keep asking people, ‘what is it that is stopping us from making this change?’. I’ve ended up having pretty frustrating conversations with leaders across many sectors and even with government. People don’t disagree that life would be better for young people if we could make the ecosystem that surrounds them more joined up, but it basically boils down to ‘computer says no. That's just not how things are done’. Even when people are actually eager to see more effective join up with other professionals, they lack the capacity. 

So, the belief that it will make young people’s lives better exists, the desire to do something about it is also there, but the capacity to lift our heads up and work on solutions is missing. How devastating is that!

Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge University Press & Assessment:

The Finnish education system has taken steps to tackle exactly the issue Ndidi is describing: schools there run meetings in which every teacher sits down and discusses each child. Sometimes it's once a term, sometimes it's once a week - it depends on the school and the circumstances. When they do that, there will almost always be others there, like the school nurse and maybe some other professionals. They might move on pretty fast, because they're not worried about a particular child. But that exists in every Finish school - there is an institutionalised process whereby the knowledge about the child is curated for the institution and that's very, very important.

All of this ties into economic questions though. Research by John Bynner (on 'personal capital', using the '58 and '70 national cohort data) shows that life chances are shaped by the point in an economic cycle at which a child is born, so that even if they have the same human capital, if they’re born at a different point in the cycle it will have a long-run scarring effect.  

In Germany this is recognised and the impact of the external economic cycle compensated for by allowing young people to stay in training and education for longer during economic downturns. They can then access longer duration training until the economy recovers. The idea is that ‘we're investing in you at a time when you can learn and you will be ready when there's an economic revival.’ 

Employers recognise and value that. They see that when they can take people on, they're ready and appropriately skilled. The state therefore monitors economic cycles and says 'we're going into a period in which we're going to have to hold a lot more kids in education for longer, so we're going to make that investment available’. The trouble is, it's counter cyclical investment. Because the state needs to invest at a time when tax returns are low.

The idea is that ‘we're investing in you at a time when you can learn and you will be ready when there's an economic revival.’ 

Contrast that with the UK, here we say ’everything's equal and once we've given people their quota of schooling, it's out into the world. 

There’s no willingness from the Treasury to accept that in some circumstances someone might do a Level Three course followed by another Level Three course - or they might even top-up or re-skill with a different Level Two course.

Summary of ideas

  1. When seeking to achieve educational outcomes, give equal consideration to how expenditure in other areas might help achieve the same goals
  2. End the treadmill of short term funding pots by deploying longer term funding streams that allow providers to invest in long term relationships. Alongside this, ensure that funding agreements with third sector providers give them the autonomy to refine their approach in response to learning and local needs and that the value of relationships and trust are fully recognised. Relational contracting offers one way of hard-wiring this into funding agreements. Similarly in schools, ensure that relationships and trust are fully recognised in the qualitative elements of the accountability framework. 
  3. Ensure outcomes for young people are at the heart of any proposed cross-governmental ‘missions’. For example Sam Freedman has recently proposed the ‘mission’ of: “Make it Easier to Start a Family” which would encourage cross-sector partnerships that tackle community-level challenges.
  4. Bring professionals from across the sector together to build trusting relationships so that they can collaborate on joint approaches to tackling local problems - as has been done through Joined Up
  5. Ensure schools have the funding and staff needed to invest in enrichment and in enhancing their pupils’ cultural capital - drawing on partnership with community providers.
  6. Invest in a pipeline of leaders for all services that support young people.
  7. Draw on learning about different forms of area level partnerships in education alongside wider reviews of local government in the UK to end hyper-centralisation, recognising that some decisions and services are best held at national level, whilst others should be more locally devolved.
  8. Provide opportunities for young people to take part in youth social action so that they can have agency in dismantling structural barriers to their future life chances. 
  9. Address the gaps in England’s data architecture to ensure children cannot disappear from the system and ensure that outcomes for young people in ‘hidden enclaves’ (like Young Offenders Institutions) no longer hide beneath the radar. 
  10. End the ‘you’ve had your quota’ approach to lifelong education, recognising that at certain points in the economic cycle, greater investment will be needed and that young people will not always move in a simple linear way between levels.
This blog was written in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to overcome them.

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