This blog post started as an NPQSL thinkpiece response to the NCSL's 'The Light is Worth the Candle' - hence the citations which I've left in to sound 'like brainy and stuff'. Anyway, the thinkpiece is a fab, optimistic piece it's well worth getting your hands on, but it left me feeling a little like Atlas: the world on my shoulders. Note: I've adapted it a little to try to help it make it a bit more sense without reading the original stimulus...
Education has practical and moral benefits: it has “positive effects on health and wellbeing” (Ross 1999) and “reduces the risk of poor mental health” (Feinstein et al 2006), but also has the ability to “create the kind of society that reflects and sustains what we believe to be good human relationships.” For those of us working in education, this is clearly aligned to the moral purpose with which we approach our jobs. From mentoring individual students to whole school professional development to improve the quality of teaching, this sense of commitment to a worthwhile endeavour is important in sustaining us in what is an increasingly challenging profession.
“Most would agree that a young person’s attainments, health and wellbeing should not to any large degree be determined by his or her parents’ income”. I too find the persistence of the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers extremely concerning, not least in the context of my own school. It seems logical that here will be ‘private, social and economic returns’ if the gap is closed, but also agree that this is fundamentally a moral issue or fairness and equality.
Dyson, Goldrick, Jones and Kerr (2010) highlight that education “All too often, instead of equalising life chances… reproduces existing advantages and disadvantages”. The most recent Teach First advert did a good job of communicating the emotive nature of this achievement gap, calling it “an epidemic and national scandal”. However, despite also acknowledging that this is a “multi-layered problem” it is my opinion that Teach First here falls into the trap of presenting their initiative as one of the ‘silver bullets’ that has the power to bring about significant change. If this achievement gap has “persisted across more than a century of public health and education provision” then I do not believe that teaching initiatives alone can reverse this trend in any more than a localised and/or temporary context whilst such inequalities persist in wider society. The more cynical may even say that scapegoating educators as the solution to this societal issue is a convenience for a government in which the gap between the richest and poorest in society has been a significant issue.
If nothing else, then the thinkpiece reaffirmed my own commitment to the comprehensive state school system. As it notes, in the historical tripartite school system “comparatively few children from working-class families were going to the grammar schools”. In this context, the current government’s reaffirmation of the grammar schools is troubling. Similarly, the diversification of British schooling through Academies, free schools etc. would seem to raise concerns that, rather than providing equality of opportunity, educational reform is in fact creating a plethora of varying opportunities and experiences.
In conclusion, when it comes to narrowing the gap in achievement, school leaders may well need to focus on their own localised contexts, celebrating ‘small wins’ where gaps narrow and accepting that any wider whole scale shift towards true equality is in the hands of politicians and wider socio-economic systems. Teachers alone will not change this world.