Mind the gap: Bridges to our Educational Futures - RSA

Mind the gap: Bridges to our Educational Futures


  • Picture of Christine McLean FRSA
    Christine McLean FRSA
  • Picture of Lucy Griffiths FRSA
    Lucy Griffiths FRSA
  • Economy, Employment & Design
  • Education
  • Curriculum

The challenge of overcoming attainment gaps in education is often seen as a major goal in reducing problems of inequality and opportunities for all. Dr Chris McLean and Lucy Griffiths who are leading the RSA Fellowship Innovative Education Network, examine some of the other gaps that exist beyond attainment.

Headlines on education often feature the challenge of overcoming gaps in the exam performance of pupils and schools. Highlighting the gaps in exam attainment has also been a key aspect of high stakes accountability, such as inspections and league tables. However, can problems emerge when these gaps and a specific area of attainment becomes the major focus? Are there other gaps that impact on pupils, teachers and schools and how do these fit into the wider context of learning, education and society?

The Innovative Education Network seeks to examine how our view of educational gaps impacts on what we value as important and how we act. This involves exploring how can we build bridges to a better future by re-evaluating the way we think about gaps in education and how we overcome them. By bridging these gaps, a new generation of informed, educated and socially responsible citizens will be able to flourish; people who can work together to rise to the global challenges we will face in order to develop rich, innovative, sustainable and inclusive lives for us all?

We propose and briefly outline 10 possible gaps within our education system. While we use the term ‘gaps’ as a starting point for discussion and the wider context of educational equity, we also wish to raise the question of whether it is appropriate to start from a position of ‘deficit’. Furthermore, we do not assume deficits in individuals or schools, but seek to focus on the need to change the system and the drivers that underlie everyday practice.

1. Attainment and awards

Attainment is a major focus for the assessment of schools and this measurement is often based on exam performance (SATs, GCSEs and so on). This raises two questions: Does high stakes accountability and testing severely limit the teaching and learning experience within schools and could a greater range of pupil outcomes be achieved if school accountability went beyond a focus on pupil exam performance and shifted from judgement to supporting schools? In the words of the New Zealand economist Anne-Marie Brook, who is leading the development of the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI), we need to ‘measure what we treasure’. In addition to reviewing what we ‘treasure’, the OECD’s Future of Education and Skills Project 2030 highlights how we need a more effective and diverse pupil award system that places a greater value on higher order thinking (for example, critical and analytical thinking, problem-solving); communication skills, collaboration, agency, humanity, sustainability and environmental concerns. Furthermore, in contrast to merely teaching to the test, Ofsted have called for a greater focus on providing broad and balanced curriculums and personal development. Finally, the Council of Europe’s report on Education for Change supports these overall aims that seek to prepare children for life. Beyond preparing them for their next educational stage, this includes reflecting on issues of living well/well-being, careers and their capacity to contribute more broadly to society.

2. Basic living needs and living well

The UK footballer Marcus Rashford’s heartfelt call for action over pupil hardship highlighted the importance of ensuring families and children have their basic needs addressed. It is much harder for individuals, families and communities who do not have access to these basic needs (for example, sufficient food, suitable living space and a good social environment) to have equivalent learning experiences and the same opportunities in life. Increased support is required to ensure families have the fundamentals required to live well and benefit from good educational experiences. 

3. Curriculum

Broad and balanced curriculums are required that are inclusive to all learners and enable children to engage with the breadth of opportunities available to them. It is particularly important to ensure that children in their early years have access to high-quality learning experiences. ‘Whole’ curriculums that provide rich and deep learning experiences need to be designed and developed through all key stages of education. We need to avoid the problems connected with narrow testing strategies that incentivise a restricted focus on specific pieces of abstract knowledge, at the expense of depth, breadth and choice. Rather, we need engaging and inspiring curriculums that allow children to fully understand the relevance, application and values connected to specific knowledge and skills, and the ability to mobilise this learning to tackle the major challenges that we face. This includes engaging with local and global changes and communities connected to conservation, sustainability and climate change (for example, the Ignite Chester Zoo project).

4. Confidence, pupil voice and agency

Gaps in self-worth, confidence, resilience and agency can be a major limiting factor for children. They may feel less able to express their ideas and speak out. Even when they do have the confidence to share their ideas, views, knowledge or understanding they may not feel listened to, or their opinions valued. This can reduce their aspirations and engagement with their local communities and the world around them. As the RSA’s Teenagency report highlights: “84% of young people want to help others but only 52% believe they can make a positive difference in their communities”. We all lose out when individuals do not feel engaged, valued or connected to their communities. In contrast, we need an education system and a process of deliberative democracy that enables us all to feel connected and inspired to induce positive change in the world around us (for example, the Ignite Project, and the RSA4 Academies Youth Action project). This includes supporting initiatives that create greater levels of agency and the confidence to share our views and listen to others (for example, WeSpeak, Voice21).

5. Cultural value and social capital

A greater and broader exposure to different and varied cultural learning experiences (art, music, heritage, theatre, sport and so on) is required within our education system. While this can be important for those who may have less exposure to these valuable experiences (such as children living in disadvantaged areas), it is important to value a diversity of experiences. This includes cultural and social capital connected to families and local communities in many different areas, backgrounds and cultures. Rather than a top-down approach that promotes a narrow view of social and cultural capital, we need to follow the guidance in the UNESCO report. This includes encouraging a greater understanding and appreciation of the values, richness, diversity and difference of our global and local communities.

6. Engagement, inspiration and wellbeing

Engaging learners is a key aspect of learning. The learning process needs to be valued, relevant, interesting, absorbing and challenging, so that all children are inspired, eager and motivated to learn. How many children feel fully engaged in their learning experiences and inspired to learn? The gap can be even more extreme when the curriculum and pedagogy are designed for a specific group of learners and not others. Educational spaces need to be created so that teachers have the time, resources and support to provide this transformative and inspirational learning environment within their schools (for example, Habits of Mind at the Fannie Lou School, Ignite project). We also need to consider the wellbeing of pupils and teachers. Clearly this is a concern for many people connected to education, particularly in the area of mental health

7. Equality and discrimination

Discriminatory gaps that place some groups of children at a disadvantage still exist in some parts of our education system. Simply focusing on exam attainment does not address this issue. A rethink of curriculum design, teaching and learning and assessment – what and how we ‘measure’ in terms of award, achievement and outcomes – is required to enable all learners to engage in a rich, diverse and whole learning experiences. This means addressing those aspects that go beyond the school gates (for example, health, social care, policing, youth work and mental health) and how they impact on education.

8. Lifelong learning and vocational study

Many individuals can feel detached from learning; some after leaving school or further education and others during their school years. Promoting a desire and passion for lifelong learning means providing opportunities to retrain or engage in different forms of learning experiences throughout our lives. This goes beyond what might be considered a traditionally academic curriculum. As the Edge Foundation highlight, we also need to value the importance of creative, technical and vocational learning and education that prepares children for the real world. This is crucially important as our economy and the nature of ‘work’ is changing with increasing rapidity, creating a need for career and skill development support and guidance like that provided by Sortyourfuture.com throughout an individual’s working life.

9. School coordination, collaboration and continuing professional development

In some respects, the UK’s education system has become increasingly fragmented. For school leaders, this has created many challenges in the areas of coordination, collaboration and the sharing of good practice. While initiatives have been developed that seek to counter these problems, issues and gaps continue to emerge. In addition, teachers need additional support, time and space to develop high-quality learning provision, as well as further links to research and opportunities for continuing professional development. Teachers also need to be valued and respected more and treated as educational professionals.

10. Technology

Greater access to technological resources that supports learning is required (hardware, teaching and learning resources and software), especially for low-income earners and in areas of deprivation. We need to ensure schools, teachers and children are not left behind due to a lack of knowledge, training, access and opportunity and we reflect on the wider issues. For example, addressing issues connected to the digital divides needs to go beyond supplying children with laptops, as problems can extend further (such as access to broadband, the money to even charge the laptop, digital literacy).

Bridges to the Future

Much more work is required in thinking through and challenging the specific issues and complexities of these gaps and building bridges to a better future. We are very keen to hear your thoughts on this approach: Are there more areas we need to include? Can we develop our understanding of these gaps in different ways? What examples are there of teachers, schools and other agencies seeking to overcome these gaps? How and what should we prioritise? How can we impact positively on policy and practice so that we to tackle these gaps?

These questions and more will start the conversation at the heart of the Innovative Education Network. To that end, the RSA will be hosting a now sold out evening discussion on this topic on 1st December 2020 and our online forum will provide an additional space to tackle and discuss these issues in more depth.

Chris is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. She is also a Fellowship Councillor and the Innovative Education Network lead. Lucy is an RSA Trustee, educator, and CEO of youth careers organisation Sortyourfuture.com.


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