A manifesto to end educational inequality?

The challenge

We urgently need to address inequality and the human damage it causes, in education and across society. So, any programme with the aim of ‘eliminating educational inequality’ merits serious consideration.

The eleven proposals in the Teach First ‘manifesto to end educational inequality’ aim to go well beyond COVID-19 recovery and it’s clear that simply returning to a pre-pandemic situation is nowhere near enough. Addressing widening inequalities certainly requires an ambitious and radical long-term programme and these proposals are a positive contribution to the debate. But are they ambitious enough to make a real impact and can they help to achieve the fundamental system-wide changes which are needed?

The manifesto starts by framing its aims in terms of giving every child a ‘fighting chance’ to ‘reach their potential’. This notion of finite potential suggests an inherent cap on each student’s capabilities; how is it defined and how much of a shift in power, wealth and influence would constitute a ‘fighting chance’?

Educational activity and systems are not neutral, they can promote greater equality or inequality and they operate in a context of constant change. While we can’t fully ‘compensate for society’ that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do those things that can help to overcome the effects of pre-existing inequalities rather than do those which reinforce them.

But we need to recognise how many of our current education processes help to create and reproduce inequalities. There are so many aspects of our current approach which are anti-egalitarian: our high stakes and age-related grading systems, the existence of selective and private providers and the quasi-markets which pit providers against each other. The obsession with labelling, sorting, ranking, segregating and rationing of various kinds, the creation of hierarchies of providers segregated by class, wealth and type of provision; all of these contribute to counteract efforts to promote greater equality.

The Teach First manifesto makes some good points, but there is no analysis of how inequalities are socially created and consolidated and the many ways class privilege, white privilege, male privilege and economic privilege operate throughout society to tip the scales against particular groups of children and young people. The scale of social and economic change needed to reverse the tendency for power, wealth and influence to flow towards the most privileged is seriously underestimated.

The proposals are set within the current system, implicitly accepting its logic. The problem of disadvantage is described in terms of deficits faced by individuals, schools and teachers, deficits which can be reversed through more support. Disadvantage is seen as a category which is characteristic of certain individuals and schools, which can be chipped away at through compensatory measures rather than looking at the society and the systems which have created inequalities and considering how we might tackle root causes.

The truth is, in tackling inequality, education faces a problem it can’t fully solve, however much extra support schools get and however hard teachers work. Addressing inequality in education only really makes sense as part of a social, political and economic project to address it across society.

The proposals

The proposals are organised under three themes: funding, inclusivity and support:

1. Funding

The stated goal of ‘an education system that is fairly and fully funded’ is a good soundbite but it begs the question about what is meant by ‘fair’ and ‘full’. How would we know when that ‘full and fair’ level of funding has been achieved?

Education’s crisis of funding is well documented and there is undoubtedly a desperate need for investment across the system. Education, youth, family and children’s services are suffering from chronic underfunding; a legacy of the austerity which has affected all public services. More resources would certainly make things better, but they won’t guarantee greater equality if the system being invested in is itself generating inequality.

The 4 proposals in this section recommend increasing resources in ways which target schools serving disadvantaged communities, providing more pastoral, family and wider support services and a pilot reduction in teacher’s timetables in 1% of disadvantaged secondary schools in England. There is also a welcome proposal to boost the Covid-19 education recovery package which echoes the recent joint call by several organisations including the Association of Colleges (AoC) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) for a 3-year £5.8billion education recovery programme across all sectors.

While better funding is essential, we know that the current distribution of educational resources and opportunities is highly unequal and probably moving in the wrong direction. Any new investment programme must guard against simply boosting the processes that drive inequality. Are we clear what kind of support addresses inequality? Would the targeting suggested be enough to shift the engines of inequality into reverse?

2. Inclusivity

The proposals in this section are aimed at achieving an education system that is inclusive and founded on the belief in ‘the power of a broad, ambitious, and knowledge-rich curriculum’ and that what is taught in schools should represent the full breadth of the modern British experience.

A curriculum which does justice to the challenges we face and helps prepare students to face them will necessarily be rich in knowledge. But a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is simply not rich enough. It needs to be based on more than knowledge accumulation. It should speak to students’ needs and interests, develop their capacity to make sense of the world, to make different connections and to use skills and knowledge effectively for purposes of their choosing, including building their capacity to flourish as individuals, citizens and workers.

That ‘modern British experience’ also has to be set in a wider context. A more equal education in our country has to be understood as part of the global community, global challenges and the inequalities they expose. There are no references to the planetary crises we face and the collective global intelligence and solidarity which are required if we are to address these injustices and crises head-on – not in order to scare learners into apathy but to spur them to action.

There are some good proposals for positive action to achieve a more representative workforce at all levels, a very necessary aim. But these don’t challenge the structures of privilege; a society where the workforce is more representative can still be highly unequal.

This section of the manifesto does contain an exciting and genuinely radical idea which has real transformative potential: the proposal for ‘Curriculum Forums’ to support a national debate about what is taught. The idea is that these would involve a broad range of teachers, young people and others coming together to find common ground about what a rich and diverse curriculum might look like.

Such forums could bring a democratic, participatory element to the debate about the purpose of education and support a critique of current curricula and an exploration of alternatives, giving students and teachers more agency in curriculum development. This proposal offers the possibility of a dynamic, bottom-up process of deliberation and consensus-building about what the content of education should be.

3. Support

The broad aim here is ‘an education system that prepares young people for their future’ and this section includes proposals for ‘high-quality support’ to help young people leave school better prepared for employment.

These interventions are all welcome, but they don’t in themselves create new opportunities for young people in the labour market. Even if all students achieve higher levels of qualification, obtain good work placements and excellent careers education, their access to ‘good’ jobs will continue to be limited and rationed unless employment opportunities improve. In that ‘uncertain jobs market’ being ‘better prepared for employment’ won’t make the jobs market more welcoming or less unequal overall.

The final proposal to ‘give every household access to the internet, and every young person in education access to a working digital device’ is also clearly worthwhile. The digital divide is another driver of inequality and needs to be addressed with universal entitlements at a societal level.

Conclusion

A major blind-spot of the manifesto is its total silence about the role of colleges, universities or adult education in either challenging or consolidating inequalities. By focusing on schools only, the document misses key parts of the system. The college sector in particular can be a powerful egalitarian leveller because of its role in supporting so many learners of all ages to make up for their earlier lack of educational success by the age of 16.

We certainly need an egalitarian manifesto for social and economic change, and this requires a commitment to a lifelong education system which places equality, democracy, solidarity and sustainability at the centre. The proposals in this Teach First manifesto, as they stand, don’t amount to such a programme. Calls for more resources and more targeted support are welcome but they are unlikely to challenge the existing profound structural inequalities which shape the context for education.

If we are to imagine a different and more equal system and set about creating it, we will need a road map which is far more ambitious.

See also:

Learning, earning and the death of human capital (February 2021)

Starting to rethink education (June 2020)

An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)

Knowledge and education for the future (May 2020)

The promise of a national education service (January 2019)

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About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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