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Bridging the Gap

As chief inspector of schools and head of Ofsted Michael Wilshaw was no stranger to grabbing the headlines. The self-titled ‘Dirty Harry’ of the schools system pulled no punches with pupils, parents or, indeed, the government. However it was his parting remarks as he prepared to leave the post he held for four years, which have sparked the most debate.

Speaking at the launch of the Ofsted annual report late last year, Mr Wilshaw said the educational divide between the north of England and the south had widened in 2016, and that such education inequality was a contributing factor to the Brexit vote – which saw many cities in the north of the country vote to leave the European Union.

His comments come as the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield made some striking generalisations of her own. The Leeds-based children’s tsar was speaking ahead of the launch of her ‘Growing up North’ research on children’s prospects in the north when she noted that parents in London and the south ‘demanded more from teachers and schools for their children’.

Speaking to The Times newspaper she said: “As northern parents, we need to be aware of these inconsistencies and variations in secondary schools and push hard for our schools to show how they are improving and helping our children to achieve.”

“One of the real drivers of improvements of schools in London has been the demand for good school results from parents and children. There is much we northern parents can learn about this parent power.”

With two leading figures in education highlighting the differences between the regions, the question is, is the division really that wide? Are there really such discrepancies between the education and opportunities given to students down south and those up here?

According to Sue Cronin, head of the School of Teacher Education and Director of Partnership at Liverpool Hope University, it would be foolish to suggest otherwise. However, she believes the approach taken by Mr Wilshaw may not have been the most helpful.

“It would be silly to disagree with Michael Wilshaw when he says standards must be raised,” she says. “Of course they should. It is vital that they are. But there is a fine line to tread between challenging schools to improve and constantly criticising them for what they have not got right. Michael Wilshaw is telling half a story, and is not vocal enough in celebrating good teaching and innovative solutions to raising standards. I think this has a knock on effect on morale and attracting the best teachers to the North.”

“As teacher educators, we know that the research tells us that the best way to improve learning is to build on the positives and celebrate success. Constant criticism will not necessarily bring about improvement. That is not to say we avoid challenging poor outcomes. Rather, we do it in a constructive way that leads to change and further improvement.”

Indeed, as well as demoralising staff, in highlighting the discrepancies we are in danger of promoting a self fulfilling prophecy for students.

“Within education ‘labelling theory’ and ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ are vitally important concepts to consider,” says Ashley Vallance, head of psychology at The Sixth Form College, Birkenhead. “From an educational psychological perspective, there are numerous studies which suggest that high aspirations and instilling target driven philosophy and resilience in students is essential if you want them to bridge the metaphorical gap between social class and adult success.

“Two classic psychological studies spring to mind firstly; Jahoda (1954)  a psychologist who studied the Ashanti people, this community gave boys ‘soul’ names.

If the boys were born on a Monday they were given a name which meant ‘peace loving’ if the boys were born on a Wednesday they were given a name which meant ‘aggressive and violent’. Boys born on a Wednesday began to behave in a more aggressive and violent way in later observations of their behaviour. Thus postulating that behaviour is shaped and moulded by factors beyond the child’s initial control.

“Jane Elliott’s (1968) classic blue eyes, brown eyes study-coined ‘The eye of the storm’ illustrates that if students are made to believe that they are less intelligent because of a variable which is beyond their control it can have a significant detrimental effect on their educational achievement.”

It’s clearly not just about attitude. Economics plays a part too – although the two are intrinsically linked.

According to the report Deprivation and Education, produced by the government Department for Children, Schools and Families, there is an obvious relationship between deprivation and education.

“There is a very clear pathway from childhood poverty to reduced employment opportunities, with earnings estimated to be reduced by between 15% and 28% and the probability of being in employment at age 34 reduced by between 4% and 7%,” says the report. “Crucially, those who end up with lower earnings are those with a lack of skills and qualifications: in other words, deprivation has a negative impact on educational attainment, leaving young people with fewer qualifications and skills which in turn affects future employment. Poor educational attainment has short – as well as longer-term consequences.”

Hope University’s Sue Cronin says that while Sir Michael notes that regions that are already less prosperous than the south are in danger of adding a learning deficit to their economic one, he does not acknowledge any connection between the levels of economic deprivation and potential learning outcomes.

“Yes, there is a north south divide but it is largely socio-economic in nature
and this should be considered as a causal relationship rather than a simple unfortunate correlation,” she says. “The impact of lack of economic opportunities over long periods of time will have an impact on the hopes and ambitions of generations, which creates an additional invisible barrier to motivation and outcomes in many secondary school children. There is a real danger of reinforcing the negative fixed minds of young adults in areas of socio-economic deprivation by constantly pointing out how badly their schools perform and how badly their communities and regions are doing.”

Sue says part of the answer is to start to identify, celebrate and build on successes.

Funding projects that can build on green shoots and narrow some of the invisible barriers to ambition is a positive way forward. This is what the Liverpool Hope Challenge sets out to do.

“The Liverpool Hope Challenge is a suite of projects undertaken with schools that face a range of challenging circumstances. They are not in a position to support traditional full time trainee placements but can see the benefits of involvement with the university and trainees. The university tutors and trainees know that there is a lot of expertise held within the schools, particularly in terms of knowing the context and barriers to learning which can be shared with new teachers.

“The real key to the success of The Hope Challenge is collaboration. By working collectively on ambitious projects co-designed by the teachers and tutors, there can be real impacts on learning outcomes for both the pupils and the trainee teachers. The projects help to breakdown stereotypes and myths around what schools in challenging circumstances are like – contradicting some of the unhelpful rhetoric around schools in the North. The collaborative approach that the Hope Challenge takes is one that we hope OFSTED and the government will take on board.”

Eleven primary and secondary schools across the North West have taken part or are currently part of the Hope Challenge. Sessions have included creative writing, developing speaking and listening skills in students for whom English is an additional language, GCSE Mathematics intervention and using music to aid reading. The Hope Challenge has even been cited in a recent OFSTED report on one of the participating schools, and been shortlisted for the Higher Education Academy’s Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.

“The Hope Challenge projects develop ambitious new teachers who can see that it is possible to make a difference and improve outcomes in schools in cities such as Liverpool,” says Sue. “They are an important part of the solution. Hope teachers are equipped with the skills and the desire to make a difference. We need to encourage them to stay in the region, not put them off.”

Of course, another major part comes in the form of creating investments and opportunities in these areas, something which is happening thanks to initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse.

The Northern Powerhouse scheme will see increased investment in the northern region, boosting job opportunities as well as improving infrastructure, industry and transport. A number of discussions are taking place on how to make education a key focus of the initiative.

The Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy, for example, was commissioned by the DfE and produced by Sir Nick Weller. It was published in November 2016 alongside the overall Northern Powerhouse strategy.

It claimed Northern Powerhouse cities should “take the lead on regional marketing initiatives to attract teachers to live and work in the North” and proposed that funding should be allocated to support these initiatives.

According to think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) addressing educational disadvantage for the region is “a crucial component of efforts to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’.”

The IPPR says the divide between London and the north of England starts before children reach school age. The ‘early years gap’ between children from poorer and wealthier homes is almost twice as large in the North as it is in London.

The think tank says focusing on failing schools is important but will not be sufficient to eradicate educational inequality.

“Schools in the North receive significantly less money per pupil than those in London, and can struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers and leaders,” it says.

2017 will see the Northern Powerhouse initiative make further progress with the second UK Northern Powerhouse International Conference & Exhibition taking place in February. And thanks to this and the likes of innovative initiatives like the Hope Project education in the region should soon see the benefits.

The recent naming and shaming of school performance in the North, and in particular our three Local Authority areas, highlights a complex national challenge which deserves a more thoughtful response from the government than we are currently seeing.

“The final report from the outgoing Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, makes reference to a divided country, pointing out the differences in leadership, outcomes and experiences for those in the North.

“He has also stated that five out of 10 schools in Liverpool are now less than good. I think that this phrasing is a miscalculated approach to raising school standards in the North. The narrative could quite easily have been communicated the other way around. His speech creates division by emphasising what is good in the South against what is bad in the North! Ironically, this approach will not help to bridge the divide; his speech simply accentuates the perception that things – and education in particular – are grim in the North.”

 

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