Piecing Together the Jigsaw Policy Lab 2: Notes

Common Weal and Edinburgh University held its second policy lab on 25 November, exploring the education system and the attainment gap. Below is the notes and key information that came out of it

Introduction

Policy Lab 2 involved presentations from young people with Investing in Children, who had carried out peer research into young people’s views of schooling in England and Scotland.

There were two adult presentations from Geetha Marcus (concerning key themes in research about the attainment gap) and Terry Wrigley regarding the limitation of attainment gap, PISA and assessment research and discourses.  

Marcus drew from her report for the Scottish Parliament to argue that: ‘The link between socio-economic disadvantage, academic attainment and job prospects is a global issue (OECD, 2011, 2014). In Scotland, various measures have been taken over the years to attempt to break the seemingly inevitable intergenerational cycle of poverty and to address a lack of ‘positive and sustained destinations’ (Education Scotland, 2008; 2016a, 2016b). There remains a strong correlation between a pupil’s socio-economic status and their educational attainment. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have a higher chance of not succeeding in school.’

It was argued that schools cannot go it alone in tackling inequality, education is difficult to measure and that good teachers view families in poverty in terms of their possibilities rather than their limitations.

Wrigley reflected on the historic tensions of education under capitalism, arguing that they have been exacerbated in our era of neo-liberal globalisation. Government drives for greater 'accountability' and 'effectiveness' are a blinkered response to the threefold global crisis we face: poverty and debt; a collapse of the planet's ecosystem; and war. Indeed, privatisation and vocationalism threaten to remove the curricular space in which young people can develop the knowledge and social capacity to respond to these problems.

“It was argued that measurements such as PISA are very limited approaches that create very negative cultures and pressures on schooling and that this masks the creep of neo-liberalism that seeks to divide young people from each other and create elites.”

It was argued that measurements such as PISA are very limited approaches that create very negative cultures and pressures on schooling and that this masks the creep of neo-liberalism that seeks to divide young people from each other and create elites.  The question was posed: how does the education system connect to real lives and to social inequality?  An importance was placed on the way that professionals view the communities whose kids they are educating and whether professionals understand the context that children and young people are coming from – it was argued that we need to gauge how the education system understands inequality.  It was also argued that Curriculum for Excellence sought to move away from deficit approaches that involved the victimisation of the poor that set up intelligence is something you’re born with but that segregating children on class-based educational assessment continues in today’s society.

It was suggested that the myths of the 1960s regarding working class parents, restrictive codes etc had not altogether gone away and that prejudicial thinking leads to working class pupils schools not being asked their opinions and not enabling them to glimpse the glimmer of opportunity they require to have aspirations. For more on this click here and here.

League Tables, Prejudice, Discrimination

Interestingly, the young people from Investing in Children argued that neither children nor teachers are a homogenous group and we also found that there were lively, conflicting and contrasting views amongst the policy lab participants depending on their background and working context.

At the centre of the policy lab debate was a tension around challenging the socio-economic context of children’s lives and recognising the limitations and strengths of teachers, schools, educational cultures, the Curriculum for Excellence and pedagogy.  The young people strongly identified case examples where children from different backgrounds where discriminated against.

Discriminatory attitudes were found to be prevalent in schools.  One participant explained that they were currently working with a young person who experienced a range of issues but the thing that made her most sad was that three of her teachers refer to her in class, in front of the other children. as ‘the benefits street girl’.

“The question was posed: why are schools not rated by the relationships that schools and teachers have with kids?  But this question brought an equally contrasting response – why do we use top down performance indicators in schools?”

The young people also argued that structures within schools were utilised in discriminatory ways e.g. school uniforms, rules surrounding piercings, hair colours etc were used to single out pupils from less advantages backgrounds and the imposition of league-tables and inspections led certain young people to be denied access to respect, thoughtful school-based relationships and examination routes.

The question was posed: why are schools not rated by the relationships that schools and teachers have with kids?  But this question brought an equally contrasting response – why do we use top down performance indicators in schools?  The suggestion being that these created hierarchies and discrimination as people begin to game the inspection criteria.

Listening to Children and Young People – Building Relationships of Listening, Trust, and Mutual Support

As was the case in policy lab 1, question were, again, raised as to why the health and well-being aspects of CfE are down played in Primary and Secondary schools.  It was also pointed out that between Primary and Secondary – the rate of exclusion goes up by four times from the last year of primary and first of secondary.

The approach of moving children around different teachers and a lack of strong and supportive relationships between teachers and children was raised in relation to research that contrasted the knowledge and relationship building of school teachers in Scotland and Norway (where six teachers will work thematically with a year group of 100 children).  It was suggested that in Norway, children are taught in smaller groups and the community have a lot more of an input.

Scottish kids were asked about their relationships with teachers as were Norwegian kids, the latter were found to have more substantive relationships with teachers.

The young people from Investing in Children argued that most pupils in their research felt that they were not listened to in schools.  One participant with a background in working with young people posed the question why was it that  children were listened to in children’s services but not within educational services?

It was argued that children are service users with rights but in education settings they are never or rarely asked their opinion.  The Investing in Children young people posed the question why, in the digital age, where everyone has the ability to rate their experience of any service, restaurants, attractions etc., are young people not listened to?

“The young people from Investing in Children argued that most pupils in their research felt that they were not listened to in schools.  One participant with a background in working with young people posed the question why was it that  children were listened to in children’s services but not within educational services?”

Some participants suggested that the child at centre was a myth in a system where children don’t have a say in Secondary schools.  It was felt there were more examples of listening in Primary and Early Years but that not all teachers in these settings were the same. 

The question was posed why does a pupil have to bring in their parent when they want to make a complaint? If this is about rights, complaint and conflict resolution process should be clear, not arbitrary.  It was concluded that rights should be attended to all the time and too often rights are turned into privilege which pupils who express diversity are not afforded. 

Some participants asked - Why is HGIOS not working?  Suggesting that in some schools pupils are involved in rating teachers but that this is not whole scale. They argued that some primary schools do participation sensitively  – allowing kids to assess their experience, without the teacher in the room (so they give their honest opinion).

Other observations included:

  • Young People do not feel mutual respect and that they are being listened to.
  • In Sweden, there is an unstructured month like a ‘Freshers’ month where they spend time with their teachers in a more informal manner, improving general relationships. Why can’t this be applied in a broader sense to Primary and Secondary etc.?
  • Invest more time in unstructured bond-forming relationships.
  • Structure does not need to be abandoned, but periods of trust-building should be enabled.
  • Deferring school start dates for kids is increasingly discouraged.  One of the reasons for this is the cost to local government.  Edinburgh City Council changed this term from Defer to Delay – Edinburgh had the highest rate in Scotland so this was an attempt to use negative terminology to discourage.

“In Sweden, there is an unstructured month like a ‘Freshers’ month where they spend time with their teachers in a more informal manner, improving general relationships. Why can’t this be applied in a broader sense to Primary and Secondary etc.?”

  • A strong case must be made to the government to declare that your child is not school-ready. This encourages negative reasoning from the parent.  Often, this is because the parent doubts the ability of the school, rather than the child.
  • Early Years tends to be a more informal, safe environment and there is a sharp transition between early years to schools.
  • There are a lot of forward-thinking agendas, campaigns and initiatives occurring across Scotland.
  • School as a bubble that currently has little or no shared agenda with communities.  We need to be more certain how schools serve communities, involving communities more.
  • Parents need to be given the belief that students can do better.  Evidence suggest that in deprived areas young people can achieve.
  • We need to enable people to have their dignity and that is down to ethos and leadership that combats discrimination.
  • Health visiting system needs to re-engage to connect with schools – nurses used to visit but don’t anymore – there is a question wether health visitors have skills and time to be a link between young children and the school – surely the early years professional/manager should be the key liaison person regarding the named person.
  • It’s legitimate to say all children should attain equally – but to say that without challenging economic deprivation is a con.

The Post-Code Lottery of Educational Prejudice:

Investing in Children young people led discussions about a Postcode Lottery of education. Even if kids from multiple backgrounds/classes go to the same school, it doesn’t mean that they’ll have the same chance to learn due to their home life. Stress, nutrition, relationships with parents, community life, funds for school trips are all factors.  More needs to be done by schools to take into account the individual needs of kids – and not just in the sense of education.

Policy and Top Down Decision Making:

It was argued that there is an illusion of democracy in relation to opinions being heard, yet policy will be put through by the Scottish government regardless.

The question was raised: how do we make voices heard in Holyrood? While more accessible than Westminster, it does not create a participatory, citizen-led democracy.

It was suggested that events like Policy Labs/Agenda Day/Crowdsourcing opinion should be facilitated by the government and used to inform their policy and programmes and that, so many successes in education that have been proposed at the Policy Lab have been proven to work in many different countries. Which led to the further question - why aren’t they happening in Scotland?

Schools are not good at tailored education, but are accustomed to deliver education as a one size fits all package.

For some children, school is the problem rather than the solution.  School magnifies their social and economic situation.

What can be done to close the attainment gap?

Suggestions included:

  • Treating each child as an individual that requires a suitably tailored approach that can be co-creatively developed with them using dialogue, a rights perspective and non-prescriptive pedagogy.
  • Flexibility and creativity for teachers – as well as accountability.
  • Treating children as having knowledge – not just schools and education staff, but also governments, local authorities etc.
  • Realising that assessment is not a dirty word, but over-assessment is counter productive.
  • We’ve inherited a school system from the 1870’s – Scotland needs to be more ambitious.
  • In Early Years the structure is less about strictly education and more about wellbeing and relationship building, learning about the world and compassion. This should continue to an extent in Primary/Secondary.
  • Some children need more support but ASL services are being cut – we need to improve the support that removes learning barriers.
  • Our group should endeavour to link together the forward-thinking agendas, campaigns and initiatives occurring amongst different groups across Scotland.
  • Pre-School provision needs to be vastly improved in Scotland.
  • Mark McDonald, Early Years Minister, has said the priority is flexibility for families.  This needs to come from available services and the attitudes of employers.
  • Holistic teaching.
  • Children should be encouraged to voice their opinions, and question the services that are being delivered. Disagreement and questioning should not be viewed as dissent and as a discipline issue.
  • Educate all teachers and childhood practitioners to masters level.

“Politics of everyday life should be an important part of the education system and there is a problem with not having dialogue about everyday issues – see productive pedagogy approach.”

  • Politics of everyday life should be an important part of the education system and there is a problem with not having dialogue about everyday issues – see productive pedagogy approach.
  • Enable flexibility with SQA assessments e.g. in FE colleges professionals also carry out SQA assessment but they are trusted to group learning outcomes.  Why are teachers in schools not trusted to be flexible about assessment?
  • We need to get rid of the class divide and private schools and then work on sectarianism and the segregated school system.  Equity can’t be achieved in a system that enables elites or that divides the working/middle class.
  • We need less time spent on over-assessment and more time for more dialogue that leads to devolved leadership rather than ‘strong’ hierarchical and discriminatory leadership.
  • Some teachers only like the children who regurgitate and don’t like the children who ask them to be a thoughtful.  We need to develop and enable a generation of thoughtful facilitator type teachers (who, one participant argued, could enable children to call them by their first name).
  • Teachers need less class contact time, more time for CPD and sabbaticals so they can go and learn the best approaches. One participant posed the question: why do you give your job up to do a masters in teaching?

“Avoiding the gap rather than closing the gap – intervention as early as possible in terms of Early Years and provide support for parents for home learning from the age of two.”

  • Avoiding the gap rather than closing the gap – intervention as early as possible in terms of Early Years and provide support for parents for home learning from the age of two.
  • Schools can’t do this on their own – a wider social agenda, needs to start in the early years up to 7, remove the causes of stress.
  • For some young people school is the problem not the solution.  On participant suggested introducing kindergarten stage - coherent well-funded policy for 3-7 - raising the school age. 
  • We need to combat prejudice/ideas about stereotypes - those who do not attain are spoken to like it’s not expected that they will attain.  We need to have more approaches for how to combat teacher/government/societal stereotypes.
  • We need more of a focus on relationship - system not made for relationship-based practice even though we know it works.
  • We need to move away from the government describing the world how they’d like the world to be to having a strategy on the specifics of how to achieve that e.g. CfE has no framework for creativity rights, participation and equity. Each school does its own thing; we need a balance of supportive national framework for equity and local creative approaches. 
  • Offering after school spaces with computers and other resrouces - making things available at a community level.
  • Need much quicker link to mental health services for young people from school.  Mental health support whether positive or negative – is not being addressed in schools
  • We need to put the child at the centre – secondary school systems do not have the space for children to be truly listened to  - we must never again design buildings for profit rather than education, creativity and dialogue – the mistakes of PFI/PPP must not be made with the new early years buildings.

 

Policy Lab notes written up by Professor John Davis, with contributions from Keri Mcgachy, Jamie Mann and Ben Wray. With thanks for presentations from the young people in Investing in Children research project, Geetha Marcus and Terry Wrigley.

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