How to raise educational outcomes and solve the entrenched attainment gaps between more and less affluent young people has long been a policy concern of successive governments. As the current government moves away from place-based approaches and towards curricular reform to address these gaps, Dr Claire Forbes will suggest that more needs to be done to understand young people’s everyday lives within their homes, schools and communities, so that this knowledge can be used to inform policy, practice, and future reform in sustainable, contextually relevant ways.
- Assets-mapping processes could produce important knowledge and understanding about young people’s everyday lives and what they value in their learning.
- Data suggest that young people value learning when they have some degree of autonomy and choice over what they do, where and with whom.
- Education policy must be decentralised in ways that enable school leaders to work more collaboratively with young people, families, local community leaders and community assets.
Educational reform on the agenda: what can assets-mapping offer?
Given the strong public discourse focussing upon issues with school attendance and general pupil engagement and behaviour, it should come as no surprise that education reform was a hot topic during the 2023 party conferences, with a range of potential curricular and assessment reforms announced.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that such reforms will raise attainment or address the key challenges facing schools today. Instead, what is required is a deeper, more holistic understanding of young people’s everyday lives within their homes, schools and communities, in ways that might enable learning to be placed at the heart of young people’s day-to-day realities whether in school, outside in local youth centres or other local organisations, as well as in their homes and online. This reform should be informed by local places and communities for it to be positive and sustainable. Assets-based approaches might provide a possible means of securing deep and sustainable reform.
Assets-mapping is a participatory process, identifying and exploring what assets exist within their neighbourhood, and how local residents value and use these assets, or not. An asset can be both tangible such as a physical place, institution, resource or service and/or intangible – such as a personal relationship, network, skill or talent. Assets-mapping processes are successfully used in the health and social care sector, and often play an important role in social prescribing models.
Given the strong connection between health and educational outcomes, I suggest that assets-mapping processes can be applied across the education sector, and in ways that enable a more coordinated, cross-discipline policy approach (by amongst others, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department of Education in supporting local authorities). This view is supported by research conducted at The University of Manchester, mapping assets with children in schools to see how local assets might support their educational outcomes and mental health and wellbeing.
Young people need to personalise their learning
Data from these two studies suggests that local children and young people value assets that enable them to learn in positive ways, particularly where they have some sense of autonomy over the learning content, process, and who they are learning with. In this sense, young people are using virtual assets, such as social media and online networks, as a learning tool, precisely because they can personalise the content to fit with their aspirations and worldviews. For example, one participant, Pupil A, aged 14, was using the internet to learn dressmaking:
“Big kids like me; they make clothes that are really ugly. So, I want to make something that’s nice that all sizes can wear. I’ve made friends with other people with similar interests in fashion design from all over the world. I’ve some in America that I would love to visit.”
Here, Pupil A – like many other young people – is creatively curating learning pathways in ways that build upon and extend current school curricula, enabling her to better transcend the limitations placed upon her aspirations by the deficit narratives that might exist around underperforming schools, or high poverty neighbourhoods and families. As another participant says:
“You would never go to the teachers for advice, especially not about something like careers. They are not approachable and I would just feel embarrassed and ashamed. Like they might judge me.”
Having the freedom to learn and develop in autonomous ways appears to be crucial in positively supporting children and young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. This should be a key consideration in devising education policy, rather than a focus purely on attainment and assessment.
How can policymakers apply this?
If curricular and assessment reform is the direction of travel for the current government – and this is to be sustainable and effective – we need to deeply understand how and in what ways young people value learning. Positioning assets-mapping as a process that school leaders and local communities, with local authority coordination, might collectively enact is a potentially significant first step. It is a step that might begin to position learning as a cohesive thread across young people’s lives, both in and out of school.
If we enable schools and education leaders to apply the learnings from assets-mapping to the development of contextually relevant curricula, this initial step can be a foundation for the Department of Education to develop more holistic forms of curricular and assessment.
For this to above to happen, the Department of Education should recognise that targeted initiatives are needed for school leaders to form partnerships with families and local community assets so that they can develop this community curricular offer both in and out of school.
Levelling up, asset mapping and local control
Policymakers particularly within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities may have to find suitable ways to help build a neighbourhood’s assets-base, but without imposing deficit narratives on young people and the places where they live. Assets are generally perceived as tangible, physical entities such as libraries. But research has shown that just because for example young people identify a local library as an institutional asset, it does not follow that they will engage with its resources and improve their reading and educational outcomes. A deeper assets-mapping approach which recognises social relationships and networks, as well as virtual assets could help policy makers and education professionals to understand how best to approach this.
More local control is needed over education policy and practice, and in ways that enable an expansion of what we understand to be educational outcomes to be. Although attainment is a key outcome, there are a range of other important outcomes, including positive mental health and emotional wellbeing that must be included and these should be prioritised in any future curricular and assessment reform that is proposed by the Department of Education.
However, underpinning all the above, we simply must involve children and young people in any reform processes to ensure their unique worldviews and lived experiences can shape policy in co-productive and potentially transformative ways.