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'Geography is no excuse when it comes to education success'

Regardless of where in the country we are, we need to establish what works for learners, writes Andrew Otty

deprivation disadvantage social mobility college FE teaching Youth Opportunity Index

Regardless of where in the country we are, we need to establish what works for learners, writes Andrew Otty

The Youth Opportunity Index, published last week by the Learning and Work Institute, presented some challenging findings: no clear urban-rural split and no clear north-south divide. Instead, the report highlighted significant variations within regions. So, unfortunately, the future of our young people is still being determined by geography – but rather than somewhere abstract and "other" that we can pretend is someone else’s responsibility, it’s happening to our neighbours.

I’m not on Facebook or Friends Reunited, or whatever it is that people use to stalk old classmates these days, so I had to do a bit of googling recently when I became curious about two of my best friends from when I was 11 years old and living in one of the index’s success hot spots. One had qualified as a lawyer and then, apparently not fancying that too much, had gone back to grad school and is now a medical doctor. The other is an executive for an internationally-successful American TV studio.

“So what happened to you, loser?” I hear you ask.

Well, actually I’m more than happy with my lot in life, as teaching and education still thrill me even as I enter my second decade in the profession. In the region where I now live, teaching is relatively highly paid, and my workplace truly feels exceptional. On top of that, I’ve somehow blagged the privilege of writing for Tes and am also working with the inspirational education charity SHINE Trust.

What if?

But there’s a seed of doubt that occasionally sends a quiver through my otherwise zealously-liberal heart: what if any…some… even all of the good fortune I’ve had is not down to either merit or hard work, but to the fact that my parents quickly took me out of an area that scores abysmally on the index and raised me somewhere, frankly, wealthier. My primary school made short work of disciplining me out of pronouncing things with a distinctive accent.

We have to be aware of our own privilege so that we don’t put our own experiences on a nostalgic and precious pedestal that we try to duplicate. I certainly wouldn’t want to reconstruct the rigid and terrifying primary school that so humiliated me out of the way I pronounced the letter "a" that later, at secondary, I complimented a friend’s ahh-dee-dahs trainers and never lived it down.

However, we also need to be aware of our own privilege so that we don’t try to deny it to the generations that follow us. I have no doubt that the shocking index score in Knowsley is the legacy of the appalling experiment that was Building Schools for the Future where economically-disadvantaged students were labelled “kinaesthetic learners” en masse and presumed not to need conventional classrooms, or teaching, or rules.

Middle-class ideologues denied tens of thousands of other people’s children nationwide the traditional basics of education that they themselves had benefited from and Knowsley went the whole hog: all of its schools became BSF.

No simple solutions

Just as the index has shown that there are no simple divisions, there are also no simple solutions. Both within our regions and nationally we have to work together as educators to look for what actually works for our learners in 2018, whether that’s exciting innovations or just going back to basics, to close the gaps we see. Thanks to SHINE, this year I plan to find out if some of the improvements I’ve seen with English GCSE resits can be replicated in different contexts at different ends of the country. I’m hopeful, because however lucky you or I might have been in our varied privileges, we can’t continue to leave the success of our young people to a postcode lottery.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE


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