Tes focus on...How schools can address social inequality

While teachers tend to see closing the gap for disadvantaged students as an important part of their role, some of the day-to-day practices within schools may be inadvertently exacerbating societal divisions, finds Chris Parr
8th November 2019, 12:05am
How To Address Social Inequality
Chris Parr


Tes focus on...How schools can address social inequality


Schools put a lot of effort into closing the disadvantage gap. Whether that's through tailored academic interventions, cultural experiences, outreach, extra funding or any number of other initiatives, striving to create a more equitable society through education often makes up a big part of a teacher's role.

There is a plethora of help at hand, too: from large-scale programmes such as Success for All, developed by Professor Robert Slavin, to huge funding allocations such as the pupil premium, and detailed research from hubs, including the University of Bristol's Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice.

And yet, according to Laura Teague - a lecturer in the educational studies department at Goldsmiths, University of London - there are still many, many elements of daily educational practice that widen social inequalities within the classroom and beyond.

"Research, including my own, has shown that inequalities are actually produced in the micro-moments that happen in classrooms," Teague says. She points to three areas where teachers may inadvertently be having a negative effect: setting by ability, behaviour management and curriculum design.

The first may come as a surprise as it is so prevalent in schools. "Often, teachers are required by their school to set students by ability, putting them in high-ability groups, middle-ability groups, low-ability groups," Teague says. "It's so commonplace, it seems normal - like it is the only way we can meet the children's needs.

"Actually, though, sociologists have looked at the students who end up in particular ability groups and, often, there are disparities in terms of race and class."

Streaming can be 'damaging'

Teague continues: "Perhaps unsurprisingly, white and middle-class students are disproportionately represented in so-called high-ability groups, and minority-ethnic students and working-class students are over-represented in low-ability groups."

This, of course, has "nothing actually to do with the ability of a race or class", she says, but does speak to the "wider ways in which race and class are understood in relation to education", including the types of "assumptions, sometimes inadvertently, made by schools about particular groups of students".

Setting can also cause problems with how students perceive their own ability levels. "The language associated with grouping can become really commonplace and normalised within schools," Teague argues. "So, you'll hear teachers talking about 'my low-ability students' or saying 'this is a middle-ability boy, this is a high-ability girl'. Children aren't born high or low ability but those are the terms that have come out of this practice of grouping."

It is a practice that can be "really damaging", she says, particularly as streaming can begin as early as Reception year.

"Often, students don't move groups all the way through their primary schooling and even into their secondary schooling," Teague says. "Sometimes, groups are decided early on in the year and they're quickly fixed, and it can give students particular ideas about themselves if they're in a lower-ability group."

Teague points to a research project at UCL Institute of Education called the Student Grouping Study, which found that continually setting by ability was not a particularly effective way for young people to learn.

"If you struggle in a particular subject and you're working only with other students who also struggle, then the opportunity for learning from one another is limited," she continues. "Similarly, if you are quite able in a subject, it's not always beneficial to work with others who have similar strengths to your own in terms of opportunities to consolidate your knowledge via explaining and teaching your peers."

Professor Becky Francis, soon to be chief executive at the Education Endowment Foundation, led the study and talks about it at length in an episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast.

"We find a disproportionate amount of kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds in low sets and streams," Francis says. "So, those children are subject to a double disadvantage that is being pushed on to them by the education system. The kids who need the best help and the best practice are being disadvantaged by grouping practices. This is why grouping is an issue for social inequality."

Punitive behaviour management

Teague says the second area where schools may not realise that they are exacerbating wider inequality relates to behaviour management. Her research has looked closely at practices in primary settings.

"I found that behaviour management practices can be quite punitive and are often very shaming," she explains. "Students might be given a number of warnings, and then asked to go and sit on the floor in another classroom, or sit on the floor in the deputy head's office. Actually, that's really humiliating and, if you think about it being applied to an adult workplace, it is ridiculous."

The problem is that such practices "place the problem on the individual student rather than looking at why school might be challenging for some students", she says. "And again, as with ability grouping, there are usually particular students who are on the receiving end of this kind of treatment in school again and again."

As well as impacting on young people's self-confidence, this can affect how included they feel and can place their ability to access education at risk.

"If students are continually being removed for behaviour issues, that raises questions in terms of their access to what's going on in the classroom," Teague says.

Unfortunately, it is the children who do not have access to learning opportunities during their home lives who will be disproportionately affected by spending time outside the classroom at school - and a problematic home life can also contribute to behavioural issues, she says.

"I understand why this is the case in a hectic, stressful school environment but, often, it is the individual students who are blamed and given responsibility for things that are beyond their control," Teague adds.

"So, rather than continually excluding them - whether that be from the classroom or the school - perhaps trying to make time to listen to them, to maybe be a bit less rigid with the rules [and find ways] for teachers to be a bit more flexible in their thinking, might ensure students who might otherwise be excluded feel more included."

Ways to reflect diversity

And the last of the three areas? Teague singles out curriculum resources for their ability to propagate societal divisions and inequalities.

"Sometimes it can be hard work for teachers to change resources that might not necessarily reflect racial diversity or diversity in terms of gender or sexuality, particularly if they're using departmental resources," she says, giving history as an example of a subject that some groups of students might struggle to find resonance with.

"Imagine you are teaching about the Tudors, and you're learning about the kings and the queens, and the people who lived then, and there's no discussion of any racial diversity in the materials that you're using. You could maybe ask the question, 'I wonder if there were any people of colour in England in the Tudor period? Shall we look it up and see?' "

Such a move could help black, Asian and/or minority-ethnic students to engage with the topic more, Teague argues.

"There are conversations to be had about acknowledging that it's difficult for students to become interested in a topic, or a subject, or their school experience, if they never see themselves represented in the resources that they use," she adds.

"Teachers can still work around that, even if the resources are outdated or there is a particular exam syllabus that they are following. It's about tapping into the experiences of the students in front of you. And that can be quite powerful."

Ultimately, micro-moments in the classroom might not have the potential to tackle societal inequalities on the same scale as national governmental reforms, but Teague believes there are certainly some gains to be made.

She says: "My research found that the micro-interventions I was doing in my classroom … did have an impact on the students in my class, and the relationship I had with the students in my class, over the course of a year."

Teague's hope is that, if teachers are mindful of these issues and make changes to their practice, they can build on the fantastic work they are already doing to close the disadvantage gap.

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 8 November 2019 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Social inequality"

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