I could not help but have a sense of dejection upon reading the headline ‘educational inequality in the UK is worse than it was 30 years ago’. What struck me about this line, which is part of a report commissioned by the Social Market Foundation, was not just its implications for teachers, and policy makers, but also for those children who have not been born into wealthy families, where education is the only passport to break patterns of stagnant intergenerational mobility. Indeed, the question must be asked, is it now time to redefine our expectations of what education can achieve?
What is Educational Inequality and why should we be bothered?
Educational Inequality carries many different assumptions and means different things to different people. TeachFirst describe it as a link between low socio economic background and poor educational attainment. The Social Market Foundation’s report also found that region, gender, ethnicity and family income are key indicators of how well pupils will perform in exams. Indeed, the report highlighted that being born into a family at the top of the income distribution pile, has become a stronger predictor of higher attainment for those born in 2000 rather than 1970. Additionally, the Sutton Trust revealed that the UK has one of the lowest scores of social mobility in the developed world, with a disproportionate representation of the most affluent independent school students in top universities and professions.
But why does this matter? In fact, it calls into question our fundamental assumptions of success being earned through hard graft rather than occurring as a consequence of inherited privilege. It also suggests that schools are losing their importance in levelling the playing field. Neglecting the issue is equivalent to accepting that your educational attainment destiny is circumscribed by what side of a rigid dichotomy you are born on. Born as a male in an upper middle class family is akin to winning the lottery of life.
In order to avoid this disturbing hypothesis turning into a doctrine, it is essential to give educational leaders the freedom to adapt and respond to the challenges that their communities face in order to directly address this. The nature of this freedom is one in which school leaders use local contextual knowledge as a sheath to personalise national policy prescription. Critically the assumption that underpins the function of this freedom recognizes that not all children are born on an equal pedestal. At the same time, to achieve comparable levels of outputs from a national policy requires different degrees of inputs that equally depend on the social and economic resources of the community, which are different for different schools. The dominating policies in education have set to define minimum standards; a culture based on centralisation and conformity. A shift towards autonomous institutions may be good, though not as a manoeuvre for dissolving political accountability, but with the overarching aim to create local hubs of collaboration and test new ideas so as to challenge classroom and procedural routines, that have in many cases been overly influenced by the national agenda.
An example of this is the RSA Pupil Design Awards. It challenges Design and Technology’s own low hierarchical status and position as defined by the English Baccalaureate. However there is also a local tint, a large proportion of pupils that the awards are aimed too are on free school meals, an unfortunate significant predictor of future employment challenges. The programme’s rationale is based upon creativity being documented as a major employment need and skills shortage in a report commissioned by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. It is an innovation that widens the frame of reference for these pupils in terms of knowledge of jobs available and deepens a passion to obtain the skills to achieve them as well as demonstrating how design can be used for social change. Indeed, this is a crucial factor in lives where the discourse to the term ‘knowledge economy’ places more emphasis on owning rather than designing the latest gadgets.
The immediate danger of the Social Market Foundation’s report could lead us to believe that education is the object rather than subject of history, where change is characterised by its appeal to caution rather than its progressive nature, and where school is regarded as a sanctuary from the outside world rather than a powerful and vital institution. Powerful in its reach in communities, whilst vital in its ability to provide access and opportunity. In short, any efforts to reform our education system should start by clearly articulating a progressive and active belief in the power of schools and reforms that favour more autonomy to school leaders should be focused on delivering that. That education could be, and should be, the passport to a more fulfilled and prosperous life, whatever your starting position.