On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 2)

Understanding the limitations of current interventions

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the public sector who isn’t passionate about improving the life chances of the most vulnerable. By nature of their vocation, people who choose this path want to make a difference. Many initiatives and interventions across every aspect of the public sector are doing admirable work, but unfortunately not all are having the desired impact. It’s important that we consider why.

The biggest limiting factor when it comes to addressing disadvantage in education is funding. There is never enough money set aside for education (or the NHS, welfare or policing). However, the money we have is not always spent wisely; often being apportioned frivolously and not to the areas in which it will have the biggest long-term impact. Each government favours a quick-fix approach to promote a fallacy of success rather than a cross-party effort focussed on lasting improvement. Understandably there’s a limited pot so if we increase funding in one area, there’s another that will lose out. In 2011 the coalition government introduced the Pupil Premium, a fund to support the education of disadvantaged students, a much needed helping hand. About the same time, local and central government funding changes created a drain on schools which the PP coffers could not offset. It would be naïve to think that this deficit hasn’t caused some schools to be creative in their spending of the Pupil Premium money; you only need to look at the information on school websites to see this. Underfunded schools are often forced to redirect funds in order to avoid losing staff – after all, not to do so would mean disadvantage to all pupils – and it is difficult for us to judge them for that.

The nature of how Pupil Premium money is given can influence how it is spent. Variations from year to year mean that long-term provision for students is a risky business, creating a “sticking plaster” approach rather than a sense of ongoing investment. This situation can be exacerbated for schools in more affluent areas as income from Pupil Premium is more difficult to predict, with student numbers varying significantly each year and making long term planning almost impossible. Additionally, when there are small numbers of disadvantaged students in a school, this in itself can create social barriers which inhibit the impact of interventions. If students are aware that they are a minority a sense of alienation can quite easily develop resulting in a lack of engagement with intervention. This is a similar mindset to that described in my previous blog. That said, there are schools which address this issue extremely well and do fantastic work to create equity among their students. It is heartening to see that Justine Greening recognises this in her social mobility plan, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential. She highlights the need to share the work of such schools in order to improve the provision for disadvantaged students. Sadly, Justine Greening’s future as Secretary for Education hangs in the balance and a change in personnel will no doubt mean a refocus of priorities. Let’s hope that the disadvantaged don’t get lost along the way.

Pupil Premium spending and its impact are high profile in the media; schools and government ministers are acutely aware of the need to show results. However, there are a group of students who tread a path just above the PP/FSM breadline – these are the people who often slip through the net. Schools have neither the staff, funding, nor resources to support those students missed amid the Pupil Premium outcry. The size of this cohort is substantial, as is their impact on a school’s culture and results. Teachers know who these children are, yet still they lose out because of a lack of financial or academic support at home. These are often the children of low-income working families (the traditional working-class) whose parents are unable to support at home due to working long hours in order to keep food on the table. The sad reality is that there is insufficient funding left in school budgets to address the inequality which these students suffer.

Teacher recruitment and retention is a significant issue in education but for schools in areas of high deprivation it is a much more serious concern. This is a high profile media story and appears to be at the top of the government’s list of priorities, but we might question who benefits from the solutions currently in place. Back to Teach First. Participants reap financial reward and the prospect of accelerated career progression whilst their schools get a knowledgeable graduate in front of students. It is a very intense programme where trainees have less in-class supervision than they would following a traditional ITT route. That an unqualified teacher is a much cheaper option for struggling schools is clear, but a more serious appraisal needs to be made of the long term effects on both the graduates and the children they are teaching.

When TF graduates are placed in deprived schools close to major cities they generally opt to live in the cities rather than the towns. Northern towns are insular (a trip to Liverpool from St Helens is like a journey to Middle Earth) and they are all quite unique. Are teachers really going to understand or engage with a community if they don’t experience what it is actually like to live there or spend enough time serving in a school? If a TF graduate only stays in a school for two years their impact is extremely limited. If they progress quickly into leadership their impact in the classroom is limited, and it could be argued that this limited experience of the classroom is insufficient to support their leadership of others. Ultimately, could the huge financial burden of Teach First be better spent on other ITT routes which might boost local economies with greater success?

I’m going to put it out there: I have my concerns about Teach First and I feel that educational discourse becomes The Emperor’s New Clothes where it is concerned. I am not denigrating the thousands of teachers who have come into education via this route nor am I disparaging the intentions of its ethos – however, I am concerned that it does more to ease the conscience of the middle classes than improve the life chances of the proletariat. The benefits to its graduates and figureheads are clear, with fast tracks to school leadership positions, prominent government jobs and honours from the Queen in the offing. But where does that leave the children? We have a moral obligation to ensure that educational policy is driven by those it serves, and that it has a sustainable impact. I’ve alluded to the fact that I feel there is a better way and I’m happy to share my thoughts on this in part 3.

Initiatives like Sure Start and CLCs were introduced to develop hubs within communities. The idea to bring communities closer with a holistic approach was a move in the right direction. However, the execution of the plan was somewhat flawed with the removal of funding a catastrophically backwards step for the cultural and economic development of disadvantaged communities. Comprehensive schools which house a number of public services under one roof are hives within communities. They can reach out to children, families and other key groups much more effectively than any of these services alone. Some academy chains have made excellent attempts to become providers for the whole community (as have some maintained schools) – engaging parents and carers, and offering opportunities for adults to benefit from their services as well as students. Yet providing such assistance is costly, limiting the extent to which schools can fulfil this role. The implications reach much wider if we consider the impact on social mobility and cultural capital. Developing parental engagement and nurturing trust by improving communities can have overwhelming results on raising the aspirations and esteem of a whole community. Would it not make more financial sense to streamline the many routes into ITT and reinvest any money saved into lasting socioeconomic enterprises? And would there be a reduction in the number of graduates undertaking initial teacher training if there were less routes available, or is recruitment a victim of too much choice and services being spread too thinly?

The reality is that the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening and we have to take a look at why our interventions are failing. Funding is key but approach is also paramount. Ministers need to begin looking beyond their term of office (which can be shorter than that of an England football manager these days) and work towards giving schools and charities the financial security to implement lasting, holistic interventions which can raise the prospects of communities. There needs, moreover, to be some serious soul-searching about the motivation behind our “charitable actions”; we need to ask ourselves if we’re actually making a difference or just making ourselves feel better. And, finally, we must consider whether certain routes into teaching are fit for purpose or whether the costs outweigh their impact – in short, do they provide long term solutions or merely quick fixes? Things have to change, on every level. In part three I’d like to suggest how I think we can improve not only the chances for disadvantaged students but also the opportunity for whole communities.


One thought on “On why we are failing our disadvantaged… (part 2)

  1. Pingback: On why we are failing the disadvantaged… (part 3) – a view through different eyes

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