Education Oct 11 2010

Schools can’t make society fairer on their own

Is anyone is seriously surprised at the findings of the latest report from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The conclusion of  ‘How fair is Britain’? Our nation has glaring inequalities between men and women, rich and poor, and different ethnic groups.

No wonder all our young political leaders are in a fight to the death to assume the mantle of ‘fairness’.  Even if we assume fairness to mean more equality of opportunity rather than income equality, British society is found wanting.

When it comes to schools, the report rightly points out that ‘educational attainment has been transformed in recent years’, with half of all 16 year olds getting five good GCSEs including English and Maths and 2.4 million students enrolled in higher education.

That may not yet be good enough, but it is progress and, as the authors say ‘a considerable change from a time when educational opportunities were only available to a minority of young people’. However even though gaps in attainment according to social class and ethnic background are starting to narrow, with considerable success stories for some groups, the gaps are still there.

Particularly vulnerable are children with SEN, those on free school meals and some boys. Girls continue to outstrip their male peers at school and university level, although the fact that they still end up earning around 15% less than their male colleagues once in the workplace should be a cause for significant concern.

The immediate reaction to the report in some quarters will doubtless be to blame schools – witness the disproportionate amount of media coverage given to one, relatively inexperienced, deputy head teacher, Katherine Birbalsingh who played successfully to the Conservative Party Conference gallery (and the editors in it) last week by trotting out the usual clichés about low expectations, excuses, dumbing down, and allegations that most schools wanted to keep ‘poor children poor’.

Some schools may not be good enough, or ambitious enough, for all their students, and some teachers may still make subtle assumptions about children on the basis of their class backgrounds and relate to them accordingly. But when I look back at the school system my own children joined in the early 1990s, today’s schools seem revolutionary by comparison, staffed by a new generation of articulate, challenging, hungry young teachers and heads with high aspirations , more information, data and understanding about their pupils and a much greater awareness of how to use it.

The fact that many of them work in a system that is structurally unfair, with a private sector still subsidised through charitable status, continuing selection by ability, and an increasing number of autonomous schools with freedoms on admissions and exclusions that discriminate against poorer children, is usually overlooked.

But even if we ironed out all those inequalities and ensured every child could be educated in a good enough school with excellent teachers, an outstanding head, and a fully balanced intake, would the inequalities disappear? I suspect not.

Parenting, parental occupation, aspiration and family income matter. The quality of housing, the neighbourhood and the peer group with which young people grow up inevitably affects how they develop emotionally, physically and academically.

Moreover children move in and out of risky situations outside school; parents break up, lose their jobs, and suffer mental health or substance abuse problems. Some young people are more resilient than others, but all these life changes disproportionately affect families without resources to find help and support.

When you take all that into account, it seems even more laughable that a ‘do it yourself’ education system, in which the state hands over responsibility for narrowing the educational gap to individual groups of parents or teachers, operating in autonomous, experimental institutions, is the new education orthodoxy which, according to the shouty teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, will ‘glue our education system back together’.

It is quite likely, that if these policies take off, the reverse will happen. Schools will become more segregated and inequalities widen. A better approach must be to continue the focus on quality of teaching and leadership ( that the EHRC implicitly implies has worked) focus on structural unfairness, particularly in school admissions and autonomy, but then be honest about the wider inequalities in society that hinder some children’s chances of success.

The Coalition government is overly focussed on simply freeing schools, yet even the models it most admires, like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which includes ‘free’, charter schools,  actually have a different story to tell, as this piece in yesterday’s Observer, and the ensuing comments from some teachers, explained.

The fact is that the success of the Children’s Zone in Harlem is not built on charter schools alone. The project, which covers a 100-block swath of Harlem, also provides social services. It hosts parenting classes for expectant couples, provides a clinic for pupils that is often their only real chance of getting healthcare, and keeps in touch with former pupils who have gone to college, encouraging them to stay there at all costs. It also works with nine local public schools – while 1,400 children go to charter schools, another 8,000 benefit from Children’s Zone programmes, such as after-school lessons. In short, the HCZ is far more than just a charter school group and more like an aid organisation rebuilding a community.

“We are essentially like a parent to the kids in the neighbourhood. A good parent, always hovering nearby, and we will intervene to solve a problem,” said Marty Lipp, the project’s communication director. Lipp pointed out that HCZ’s remit was basically to shepherd a Harlem child all the way from “cradle to college”.

This is expensive though, which is why it won’t be replicated everywhere and may be why many other charter schools haven’t really worked. But if we want to end these deep rooted inequalities we should be investing heavily in  housing, neighbourhood, work with parents, and putting collaborative support services around schools which are universal and easily accessible, in the way this report suggested some years ago, rather than promoting quirky school level solutions.

In Labour’s post 97 government then Education Secretary David Blunkett ruled that no child should be ‘preordained to fail by class or by gender or by ethnic group or by their home life’. His government started some to lay foundations to ensure that isn’t the case, using early years provision, extended schools, family intervention and parenting programmes, as well as school improvement, to try and give every child an equal start in life.

But there are lessons here for new Labour leader Ed Miliband and his shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham . As the EHRC report lays bare, progress wasn’t rapid enough and those foundations are being dismantled fast, partly using legislation passed by the same Labour government, which will lead to fragmented, under resourced services and a weakening role for local authorities to provide for the most vulnerable.

Schools can make a difference but alone they can’t compensate for the wider unfairness in society. There is a role for the state to support them by nurturing, and coordinating, services that help and empower all families and children, but particularly the poorest, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say that.

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