When I was teaching, I could not help but be amazed by the profound differences between how pupils were going to spend their summer break. One pupil had planned a summer trip to China, where exposure to a foreign language, culture and history would ensure that learning extended into the summer. In contrast, another pupil would be spending a long summer in a neighbourhood associated with gang violence, unemployment and deprivation. Schools are judged heavily on their exam results, yet they have no control over the quality and quantity of time spent on learning out of the classroom, including in the summer break.
Indeed, ‘summer learning loss’ was researched in an American study that revealed how low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement (Cooper, 1996). This is one reason why new civic model adapted from the US - Cities of Learning - could offer some answers to narrowing the experience gap.
The aim of Cities of Learning is to redesign learning for the 21st century so that all young people have an opportunity to succeed. An example is Chicago, where, through political support, more than 100 youth-serving organisations joined together to showcase their programmes. Through Cities of Learning, young people can earn digital badges recognised by employers. This in turn helps them access support to connect their in-school learning with out-of-school interests and find supportive social networks of peers and mentors that encourage a passion. To see the full potential of Cities of Learning, following the RSA’s New Digital Learning Age report published last year, it hosted a Cities of Learning Summit in March and pupils from RSA Academies took part.
Evidence of the impacts of lack of out of school opportunities for those from less advantaged backgrounds is overwhelming. The Sutton Trust has shown that those in the lower income groups in the UK spend considerably less on extracurricular activities than those in the top income groups. Why is this important? It shows a divide of resources that may prove especially important in terms of separating those who can face challenges and obstacles – whether academically or in work.
Cities of Learning promotes two main advantages for disadvantaged pupils. Extracurricular activities are important because they promote ‘non-cognitive skills’, such as determination, grit and perseverance, that remain key indicators of success in the world of work. Promoting youth initiatives makes these qualities accessible to the many rather than the few.
Secondly, showcasing the activities on offer inversely focuses our attention on the type of activities not present and on which regions are missing out the most. Mapping where there may be gaps in support and provision provides a mechanism that can hold the government and the third sector to account. By this it could put a premium on a holistic view of education, which shapes the terms of discourse that surrounds any discussion on improving educational attainment.
Analysis of several British cohort studies has shown that attitudes and behaviour can contribute to widening gaps in educational attainment between rich and poor families. More importantly, it highlights that any proposed solution needs wide coverage rather than merely focusing on a small number of pupils in need. We cannot control who our parents are and pupils’ lives are greatly influenced by parents’ networks, ideas and values – concepts that are formed by assumptions, presumptions and bias.
In contrast, Cities of Learning can surround young people with individuals who are passionate about their profession, and hence the degree of parental influence upon educational aspiration can be reduced. If disadvantaged pupils can conceive of a world beyond the lens of their parents, then passion for a subject can meet talent, without the restrictions and lack of opportunity from which low aspiration flows: poverty, deprived neighbourhoods, etc.
Pupils who are privileged enough to be tutored privately or have educated parents are more than likely to see the value of their learning as a consequence of these “nudges”. Scientists for tomorrow, a summer youth initiative made visible by Chicago Cities of Learning, acts as a nudge by showing how learning can solve real and local issues. It introduces young people to science, technology, engineering and mathematic concepts using local issues as a touchstone. It is a solution that does not diminish the importance of passing tests but instead expands the notion of preparation, whereby pupils are able to test their own assumptions within the context of learning.
Our education system cannot discount the economic and social backgrounds that pupils bring to school, as the extent of these differences has a profound impact on the nature of opportunity. If we truly believe in education as the great equaliser, and recognise the fact that for 3.7 million children in the UK, poverty is an indicator of background rather than potential for talent, then we need an imaginative approach that complements schools.
Barack Obama once stated, ‘It is difficult to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, especially if you don’t have any boots.’ Existing deep structural issues reward those who are already privileged. Cities of Learning could transform pupils who are too often and too soon written off into an engaged citizenry to the benefit all of society.
Find out more about the Cities of Learning project
Read our report: The new digital learning age