This year’s Manchester Policy Week witnessed a lively debate on how we can close the socio-economic attainment gap in education. Dr Kirstin Kerr heard some clear recommendations emerge.
If there’s one thing the major political parties agree on, it is that the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes must be broken. Ever since Tony Blair set out his priorities for office as ‘education, education, education’, the education system has been on a roller-coaster ride of efforts trying to do just that.
Major initiatives have come and gone – Sure Start, Education Action Zones, Excellence in Cities, City Challenge, Every Child Matters, Extended Services. Others, like the Academies programme and Pupil Premium, have become flagship policies. The pace of change has been rapid, with the direction of education policy never far from the heart of political debate.
But of late, it has all gone strangely quiet. Not because the link between poverty and poor outcomes has been broken – far from it – or because a consensus has been reached about where policy should go next, but because the main political parties have seemingly little to say about education. It is almost as if education policy has been becalmed.
Should they be open to ideas, the third Manchester Education Debate covered a great deal politicians might want to hear. With a focus on closing the socio-economic attainment gap, an expert panel and audience of professionals, policy makers and academics considered ‘where should policy go next?’ The panel included Colin Ferguson from Teach First, Martin Johnson from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (speaking in a personal capacity), Hollie Warren from Save the Children and Carlo Raffo from The Manchester Institute of Education (MIE).
There were seven very clear recommendations for the future direction of policy.
Tackle child poverty. Poor educational outcomes are inextricably linked to poverty. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently reported that statutory child poverty targets will not be met in 2020. Policy cannot simply will the end of child poverty without identifying the means to do so. It must find ways to end low pay, support regional economic growth and connect families to sustainable employment.
Reframe the ‘closing the gap’ debate. Rather than framing this around a narrow definition of academic excellence, there must be an open and honest debate about the purposes of education. An education system must be created where other types of knowledge (including vocational skills) are equally powerful.
Support schools to be as good as they can be. Important issues to address include within-school variations and informal school hierarchies that trap the most disadvantaged children at the bottom. There are ways in which these issues could be addressed. Giving groups of schools shared accountability for all their children’s learning outcomes is one route to explore.
Act on the research evidence. Research suggests that about 85% of the factors affecting children’s attainment lie outside schools, many in their family and community contexts. Efforts to break the link between education and poverty must be weighted accordingly.
Create a seamless system. Early Years provision is highly variable and fragmented, and throughout their schooling, children are at risk of ‘falling down gaps’. There needs to be closer connections between educational phases and better data sharing between schools, and also between schools and other services.
Embed education policy in wider social policy. Schools can develop excellent extended activities, acting as hubs to connect partners across children’s services and with the voluntary and community sector. But even then, they cannot be expected to transform children’s family and community contexts. To be transformative, education reforms must work with wider policy efforts to improve health, housing and employment. Local, regional and national efforts to tackle disadvantage must support one another. Co-ordination from the centre can help to ensure this alignment.
Recognise that complex systemic change takes time. The pace at which major initiatives have come and gone has meant the potential of initiatives like Sure Start and Extended Services were never fully realised. Policy needs to be patient. Appropriate mechanisms are required to hold complex initiatives to account over time.
Focusing on short-term, the Manchester Education Debate also discussed how to ensure Pupil Premium tackles disadvantage without creating new inequalities. The audience raised several key questions. The Premium is helping to make some children more visible, but who is it hiding? How does the Premium link to wider welfare policies? Is the Premium making teachers accountable, not for raising attainment, but for solving problems which lie beyond the school gates?
All the debate’s recommendations are anchored in realities ‘on the ground’. Panel members represented powerful organisations actively committed to breaking the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes – whether by supporting teachers in schools, or working with parents and communities to promote reading, or helping policy makers and practitioners to understand how inequalities are created locally. Many of the audience are engaged in building on the legacy of previous initiatives. Researchers in MIE are already working with local policy makers and practitioners to show what many of the ideas voiced in the debate could look like in practice.
The potential in and around the system to address inequalities is considerable – but it is often untapped and poorly co-ordinated. In the absence of a supportive policy framework there is only so much that can be achieved. Policy could help to harness this potential and create the conditions in which it could be better realised. Rather than opting for ‘policy amnesia’, it could actively build on the foundations laid by previous initiatives.
But wherever policy goes next, it must not, in Martin Johnson’s words, make it even harder for those working against the odds to ensure “deprivation is not destiny”.