It’s a tricky one: school closures & pupil attainment

It’s a tricky one. I have a niece who has just found out that her exams are going to be cancelled. I have seen her work so incredibly hard for the last 5 or 6 years attending gifted after school classes, taking on extra responsibilities to boost her experience in preparation for her university application, frustrated when she falls short of the high expectation, she sets for herself. Whilst being female works in her favour, the fact that she is from mixed Black Caribbean heritage and lower socioeconomic status does not. She knows what is at stake. Education brings prospects, prospect improves outlook. Education is so closely linked to social mobility in our society and she is smart. She is ceasing the opportunity to do well. What stands in her way now? School closures and teacher-based assessments. 

I remember being her age and feeling the pressure to succeed. The only thing that matters is that you get the grades you want to get to where you want to get to. The subject content is important but the destination university is everything. 

The school closures are a barrier to education for all. Teachers have a right to protect themselves given the dangers they may expose themselves and their families too but my issue is with the education system and regulatory bodies that clearly demonstrated systemic bias last year. We know that the algorithm is off the table (thank God) but I still have some issues with teacher assessment. 

Teacher assessment bias is a real and relevant issue, whether conscious or not. Have you ever heard of ‘stereotyping’? Most schools make conscious efforts to educate around equality and diversity issues and you will find that they will have policies to “prove” this but Campbell (2005) found that teacher-based assessments and judgements of primary pupils were systemically biased. Stereotypes according to income-class, special educational needs, ethnicity and gender all played a part in some of these bias. Whilst the research is within a primary context, the principles of the centralised UK education system are similar and the points raised are therefore relevant. Burgess & Greaves (2009) also provides supporting evidence for this argument where some ethnic groups were systemically under assessed when comparing teacher led assessments and external examinations. 

Take race out of it, you still have the socio-econominc and gender factors that affect this process (see: Ready and Wright, 2011)

Sandra Johnson (2005) concludes that consensus moderation is key in ensuring inequalities are reduced. I tend to agree with her but I’d probably go one step further and ensure that the process by which consensus moderation is formed is an inclusive one. The representation of teachers and leaders from a range of backgrounds, schools, regions and ethnicities should be considered. It’s too late (for now) to amend the national curriculum but the Government and Ofqual have a duty to ensure that they consider the factors listed above and the only way to do that is to include greater representation in the decision-making process. 

There is a fantastic article about this on The Teacherist Website, which is worth a read if you have time. 

Teacher assessments are not the only issue with school closures. My heart goes out to all the parents who are supporting their children with their education during these tough times. It is certainly not easy; but for every parent that is able to give their child a helpful hand, there is a parent who is not in a position to do this. I’m not just talking about Google Classroom or Zoom lessons which schools and the government have caught up with (not to mention laptop handouts for the disadvantaged). I’m talking about motivating children for learning. It’s a fundamental determining factor between those that do well and those that don’t. Children who are motivated to learn engage better with the curriculum which has positive implications for their attainment progress. In the words of Linnenbrink & Pintrich (2002), motivation is an “enabler for academic success”. We know some groups find it more difficult to motivate themselves for learning, particularly boys and if they are from White working-class (Mongon & Chapman, 2008; Demie & Lewis, 2014) or Black Carribean (Mclean & Demie, 2017Allen, 2009) backgrounds. Motivation is not the only thing that matters. There are some fundamental practicalities that are involved in the education of those with special educational needs and disability such as individualised adult curriculum support or adapted resources, which parents may not have the time resource to give whilst making sure they are able to work from home or go to work. The current answer is that schools are open but not every child with special educational needs and/or disability has an Education, Health & Care Plan or can go to school because they are shielding. Internet access is necessary to access online learning but not everybody has a home broadband connection. A desk at home to work off (see photo) is a luxury to some and is not found in every household, and if it is, it’s probably shared with other users for other purposes. It does show how fragile the system really is and the resourcing necessary to actually make it work for all irrespective of their differences.

Teacher based assessment is probably the best out of a bad situation, as the alternative would be to set children up to take exams that they are not prepared for. School closures are necessary to safeguard society and protect the NHS and loved ones we care about but once the dust settles, surely this conversation must continue? It will be interesting to see what the government’s detailed position is and how they will support teachers and school leaders to ensure that it does not result in children being further disadvantaged. 

To my niece, I know she will rise above this. Life is a series of doors and opportunities to level up. One summer should not ruin it all and I have every confidence in her ability to succeed regardless of any obstacles that the education system unintentionally puts in her way. 

To the teachers, I salute you. It’s not easy at the moment. I would challenge you to consider making representations to your union or school leaders on any proposals set out by the government and Ofqual. Let’s do right by the students who have worked tirelessly to improve their outcomes.

To parents, I salute you too. I do not have kids of my own but I speak to you all the time and empathise with the battle you are facing in juggling your employment and parent responsibilities. If you need a word of advice or a chat, drop me a message.

To anybody else reading this, just food for thought as always.

Until next time…

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

Education: the ultimate tool

For a second, let’s think of education as “tool”. A useful tool that can be used to shape society for years to come. If you had the power to decide what the tool could be used for, what would it be?

Is it more important for education to develop a nation’s economy or society?

There is a heavy focus on educational attainment where students and teachers alike feel pressured to perform well. Whilst there is nothing wrong in celebrating individual success or excellence in curriculum areas, should it be at the expense of those who might not be performing as well? I’m conflicted as of course I want everyone to do well but the philosophy that you need to get good grades to do well at school makes two contradictory assumptions

1. Everyone is capable of meeting the curriculum expectations and will make progress towards this
or
2. Not everyone is capable of meeting the curriculum expectations and will fall behind

I believe that point 1 is the ethos which underpins most national curriculums but how realistic is this when the population is so diverse and not everyone is capable of achieving the current curriculum expectations as it stands.

If your success at school is attributed to what grade you get then have we missed the point of education? I suppose the marketisation of schools within the UK education system and the competition it breeds in students supports the economic outlook of the country, as it rewards those who do well by offering them more lucrative job opportunities but if we think about the societal impact, it’s catastrophic. Do I want my children to grow up in an education system that values capitalist competitiveness over fundamental societal values of inclusion?

There’s a balance to be struck here and I am not sure we’ve got it right just yet.

If I had the power, I’d probably think about this more.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Levelling the playing field

Ability does not set us apart, opportunities do.

In the midst of the global picture, I felt it necessary to share a perspective for any readers to consider.

In 2015, I briefly worked for a wonderful organisation called Arrival Education that very simply provided opportunities for those from low socioeconomic (significant BAME percentage) communities with academic potential to get experience within the corporate world to promote upward social mobility. I lasted a week in that job, not because of the organisation but I knew that I had a greater passion for working with children who had special educational needs. In that week, I learnt that not everybody has the same opportunities in life and this ultimately affects their trajectory and anybody else they decide to bring into this world. Yes, there are stories of those that make it through adversity and become successful but they are the minority.

In the UK, an inquiry report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner showed that a black, disabled (SEN) , male child on free school meals is 168 times more likely to be excluded that a white female child without a disability and does not receive free school meals. The report is based on data that is now 10 years old but I suspect if there is another similar report then not much would have changed.

A study by Oxford University looked into the unequal representation of ethnic minorities in Special Education in England. It found that black Carribbean pupils are twice as likely to be identified as having social, emotional and mental health needs.

In sharp contrast, there was a study published in the journal, Autism, that looked how race might influence parental reporting of Autistic Spectrum symptoms. Black parents reported fewer concerns about their child’s ASD-specific behaviours than White parents. One of the things to be considered for further research would be the cultural factors that may influence how these concerns are reported as I grew up in an African household where I see lots of relatives with quite clear social communication difficulties and learning needs which are never acknowledged or addressed.

The examples I have provided you with above highlight some of the ways in which the learning experience and what may affect your experience is different depending on your race. Some are disadvantaged because through poor identification of their needs and others because through lack of knowledge, are unable to robustly challenge the quality of the education their child receives.

Whilst this specific post is not solely related to special education, it is totally relevant to an inclusive educator. Inclusive education is about “levelling the playing field” and closing the gap by breaking down any barriers that affect equality. By definition, a level playing field is a situation in which everyone has the same chance of succeeding. For those from the Black community, I do not feel it is a level playing field and the research will show you that if you take the time to look. I am fortunate enough to overcome adversity and continue the conversation from the other side but it is tough. If you add the complexity of a learning need or disability on top, the potential for inequality is compounded through something that you cannot help or control.

I’d like to give a special shout out to anyone trying to level the playing field. Let’s do more and be more creative.

Photo by Jon Tyson from Unsplash