Responding to pupil diversity is a key policy challenge for schools, nationally and locally. But is our education system working in a way that supports this aim? No, say professors Mel Ainscow CBE and Alan Dyson, who have found that national polices are actually preventing primary schools from responding effectively to increased diversity in the classroom. And the schools most in need, are most affected.
Schools have many challenges to face, and one of them is pupil diversity, in particular, the needs of learners from minority and economically poorer backgrounds. Along with our colleagues Lise Hopwood and Stephanie Thomson, we recently reviewed research for a report into this subject to see if we could find any trends and policy implications.
The challenge and opportunity of diversity
The primary school system has, of course, long had to respond to demographic change – not just inward migration, but within-country migration and population growth. Schools themselves have had to find ways of educating children from very different backgrounds within the same institution and in the same classroom. Indeed, the most apparently homogeneous classroom is, in fact diverse, simply because no two children are identical in educational terms.
The most overt markers of difference, such as ethnicity or social class, are simply indicators of the underlying diversity that characterises schools and classrooms. Rapid changes in patterns of diversity, whether they are attributable to migration, population growth, gentrification or any other cause, are important because they present immediate challenges – and opportunities – to the school system. However, the presence or absence of such changes does not alter the fundamental task of schools to educate children who are different one from another.
Autonomy and accountability
We believe that it is encouraging that schools now enjoy an enhanced level of autonomy that provides space for them to determine their own responses. They are less beholden to central initiatives, less constrained by detailed curriculum and pedagogical guidance, and more likely to be operating independently of local authority oversight. There are undoubtedly opportunities for schools to respond to the diversity of their populations in creative ways. However, our concern is that national accountability requirements – particularly the demands of testing and inspections – are as powerful as ever, limiting creativity and risk-taking by their focus on a narrow conceptualisation of the purposes of education.
We are also concerned that alongside the reduction of external constraints there is far less of the support that went with them. Schools are more likely to be working in isolation, or as part of academy chains, federations and other networks that may or may not provide effective support.
Moreover, whilst school budgets have been protected, they have failed to keep pace with rising costs, and the distribution of ‘additional’ funding does not match the educational challenges facing schools as their profile of pupil diversity expands. In this context, much depends on what individual head teachers choose to do – and what the accountability systems will allow them to do. As a result, the school system is a more fragmented one.
We found that despite the barriers created by national policy, there are primary schools that find creative ways of responding. In order to build on these promising developments, there is a need for radical new thinking that will encourage greater collaboration and experimentation across the education service. This requires a recognition that differences can act as a catalyst for innovation in ways that have the potential to benefit all pupils, whatever their personal characteristics and home circumstances.
In terms of national policy, this requires a move way from narrow definitions of the purposes of education, as criticised by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust – most recently, in Robin Alexander’s submission to the current House of Commons Education Committee enquiry into the purposes and quality of education in England. There is also a need to create a system in which schools are no longer divided from one another, and from their local communities.
We propose a different way of responding to learner diversity, one that is viewed in relation to what we describe as an ‘ecology of equity’. By this we mean that the extent to which pupils’ experiences and outcomes are equitable is not dependent only on the educational practices of their schools. Instead, it depends on a whole range of interacting processes that reach into the school from outside. These include both the ways in which the local school system operates to support or undermine individual schools, and the underlying social and economic processes that shape the experiences of children and their families.
Implications for national policy
This suggests that in responding to pupil diversity it is necessary to address three interlinked sets of factors that bear on the learning of children. These relate to: within-school factors to do with existing policies and practices; between-school factors that arise from the characteristics of local school systems; and beyond-school factors, including the demographics, economics, cultures and histories of local areas. In our report we consider each of these in turn, drawing on examples from the field in order to develop our argument as to what needs to happen in order to strengthen primary schools’ capacity for responding to pupil diversity.
This thinking has major implications for national policy. It must allow practitioners to explore new ways of working without fear of the consequences if outcomes are not immediately improved. It should also encourage greater collaboration between schools in order to make the best practices available to a wider number of pupils. This, in turn, requires the development of an intermediary layer capable of interpreting national purposes at the local level; of promoting the networking of schools with each other and with other agencies; and able to learn from creative developments at the local level and feed them back into national policy.
Most importantly, it means that those who are closest to children and their communities must have the space and encouragement to make decisions about how all their pupils can be best educated.