Narrowing the Gap: but will the elephant in the room escape?

Narrowing the Gap: but will the elephant in the room escape?

I spent some time recently with a researcher from Teach First who told me this was a charity “dedicated to improving education for disadvantaged young people”. With an aim like this, I was only too happy to give up a couple of hours to answer his questions. Naturally, I did a bit of homework in advance. Teach First’s home page gets straight to the point: “How much you achieve in life should not be determined by how much your parents earn. Yet in the UK it usually is.” In two sentences, both an extraordinary moral and ethical declaration, and the harsh reality. But wait; there are more of these language dualisms: “This isn’t a tale to be proud of. In the UK, the link between low socio-economic background and poor educational attainment is greater than in almost any other developed country.” And yet no mention that this is the 5th richest country in the world, but also, according to research, the most unequal in the EU. But then Teach First’s mission is “to end inequality in education by building a community of exceptional leaders who create change within classrooms, schools and across society.” Not to end inequality per se.

I’d been asked to comment on young people’s experiences, which I took to mean ‘of life’. And on the challenges they face, and the opportunities they have or don’t have. So I was more than a little confused; might not discussion of educational inequalities demand at least some thought about wider circumstances? In my correspondence prior to the interview it had been acknowledged I had a background in youth and community work, rather than teaching, and that this would constitute ‘a different angle’. Which, for me at least, demands engagement with this context. Put another way, maybe I’m not the easiest person to interview. But then the issues we were discussing don’t seem to be easy ones to resolve either.

I’m not clueless about schools; I’ve been a governor in two for years now. And my academic works is as much about formal education as the informal and community dimensions I’m more typically associated with. This is because the educational inequality I too am interested in manifests itself everywhere. In both schools I am Pupil Premium Governor, with responsibility for oversight, so I like to think I know a bit about what happens both within and without school. And that I can contribute to the debate about the new educational agenda of ‘narrowing the gap’.

‘Narrowing the gap’ started life as ‘closing the achievement gap’. I’m not sure when or why it morphed beyond appreciating that the education policy meisters have a Foucauldian eye for the power of language. Witness the extraordinary frequency of subtle changes to the narrative, most recently exemplified by the Chief Inspector of Schools’ Christmas message to us governors. Read this carefully and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

It was in 2013 that David Laws, the Schools Minister of the then coalition government, delivered his ‘Closing the achievement gap’ speech to the Association of School and College Leaders. It laid the foundations for the ‘narrowing the gap’ agenda, most noticeably in the form of a Pupil Premium, extra money allocated to schools with the most disadvantaged pupils. In his speech Laws said: “It is unacceptable that in our country there is such an enormous gap between the life chances of children from poor backgrounds and other children.” This triggered a memory of studying The Newsom Report, which had a special resonance for me not just because of its subject matter but because it was published in the year of my birth (more than 50 years ago). It seemed entirely reasonable to mention this to my researcher friend, that we were engaged in debate about a long-standing and apparently intractable problem.

The report, entitled ‘Half our Future’, articulated similar sentiments to Laws, opprobrium at the injustice of it all. But it differed in perspective, no doubt being a product of its age: “Our terms of reference direct us to enquire into the education of pupils of ‘average’ and ‘less-than-average’ ability. If those words have any precise meaning at all, they must refer to at least half the children in the country – every other pupil in school, every other child at home.”

Which has to be an invitation to repeat that now famous anecdote from Michael Gove in which he expressed his desire that “all schools be as good as the best” or “better than average”; a point he was quizzed on by the chair of the Education Select Committee: “If ‘good’ requires pupil performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?”

I digress. Newsom wrote: “The point is, could many people, with the right educational help, achieve still more? If they could, then in human justice and in economic self-interest we ought, as a country, to provide that help.” This question is uncannily and tragically similar to that posed today. So why have we struggled to find answers? One clue might be in what’s not said; what wasn’t said then, and what’s not said now. In the three hundred page of Newsom ‘poverty’ is mentioned only once: “There is no doubt at all about the need for a good deal of social work in connection with the pupils. Problems of poverty, health and delinquency are involved. Nearly twice as many fourth year pupils get free dinners as in modern schools as a whole.” I’ll leave you to guess how many times Laws used the word.

Nonetheless, we might consider it progress that resources have been identified, in the form of the Pupil Premium, to try to do something about this achievement gap. There is certainly some interesting work going on and lots of people working hard to make a difference. But it will be a while yet before we have any evidence, particularly as so much in education needs time to bear fruit, or not, as the case may be.

In the meantime it might be worth reflecting on programmes around the world that target the wider context, that are unafraid to engage with the poverty agenda. Of note is Bolsa Família, a radical initiative of the Brazilian government to counteract the now indisputable social ills generated by poverty and inequality. The Bolsa Família, or ‘Family Grant’, is radical in that it dispenses with a history of providing goods and services to the poor.  It does something pretty much unheard of: it simply hands out money.

Critics talked of creating dependency, facilitating idleness. But there have been a wide range of social benefits, including those educational. The number of children working rather than going to school has fallen by 14 percent. School attendance in the country’s poorest regions has improved by the same. Those receiving the grant are twice as likely to graduate from school compared with poor children outside the programme. The national literacy rate has risen.

In addition, there have been myriad unanticipated outcomes that have transformed the lives of many of the country’s poorest people. By giving the grant to women increased numbers report having exclusive authority over contraception; they have been empowered. They, and many others benefiting from the grant, have a new sense of agency. Rather than feeling stigmatized through dependency, three-quarters said they were proud to be enrolled in the programme because it helped them feed and clothe their children properly without having to beg. Bolsa Família has helped them “lead more autonomous and dignified lives.” They express increased faith in their country’s democracy.

But let me inject a note of caution, based on what happened in relation to another programme for which positive educational outcomes were attributed. In Kenya, separate trials examined the benefits of giving pupils more books, teachers new technologies, and children de-worming tablets. The World Health Organisation reported no impact from the first two but enthusiastically that: “Regular deworming contributes to good health and nutrition for children of school age, which in turn leads to increased enrolment and attendance, reduced class repetition, and increased educational attainment. The most disadvantaged children – such as girls and the poor – often suffer most from ill health and malnutrition, and gain the most benefit from deworming.” And yet, these claims have since been rejected; new analysis claims the conclusions drawn were based on errors.

Who to believe?

It seems the ‘solutions’ to educational and wider inequalities will forever be contested, particularly by vested interests. And that what constitutes ‘evidence’ is a political battleground. What Bolsa Família teaches us is that a moral and ethical argument must be made also. In this case for redistributive policies. Sure, the evidence is important (it helps that Bolsa Família has plenty of that). But this is never enough. What really seems to matter is making these policies more palatable to those inclined to demonise the poor. Bolsa Família does both; it works and it has garnered support.

Time will tell if the Citizen’s or Basic income being trialled most recently in Finland can also tick both boxes. But the genie appears out of the bottle in terms of the benefits of redistribution, both evidentially and morally. Perhaps now is the time for further bold experiments? Like handing over the Pupil Premium directly to families. Might this get us closer to achieving the eternal aim of narrowing the gap? It might be worth a try.

There are some obvious conclusions. As with so many things, what’s needed is something more complex. Thinking schools have all the answers is one thing, and clearly misguided. But believing they have no role to play is just as bad. The question then turns to something even more profound; what kind of education will help shape a society where these wider inequalities will not be tolerated in the first place?