Equity is the greatest challenge of our time

10th May 2013 at 01:00
We must change the way we work together if we are serious about reducing educational inequities

Earlier this year, education secretary Michael Russell delivered a lecture at the University of Glasgow in which he made an articulate case for a more equitable Scottish education system. This call comes as no great surprise; indeed I hope everyone involved in education wants schools to get the best out of children irrespective of their background.

Unfortunately, it is well documented that this is not the case. Despite decades of research, not to mention attention from successive governments, education systems within the UK replicate rather than reduce educational inequities.

This is not an original observation. In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recognised equity as an issue of specific concern for Scotland, identifying an achievement gap that opens in primary education, widens throughout secondary and leads to inequitable participation in higher education.

Furthermore, issues relating to equity are at the core of much of the recent policy from the government. For example, the McCormac report says: "Scottish schools could and should do more to reduce inequalities within our society." Put simply, equity is the grand challenge of our time.

It is ubiquitous. It transcends communities and is as significant in rural settings as in cities, although for the most part it is in the latter where variations are most stark.

There is much to learn from around the world. The Finnish and Singapore education systems are high performing and highly equitable and have a great deal to admire, but I want to avoid Pisa tourism by looking at the UK. Experiments, including nurture groups, professional learning communities and a cocktail of policies south of the border, such as the City Challenge, are part of an agenda to improve achievement of the most disadvantaged.

Success is patchy for the most part, but the most promising experiments share one common feature - working across boundaries. It is here that we need to focus our energy. In order to benefit from promising experiments we need to create new ways of working between and beyond schools.

Traditionally, we have focused on change within schools. This has delivered some returns: at worst tactically ratcheting up test scores and at best increasing schools' capacity to manage change. Within-school approaches rightfully have a place in an improvement agenda. However, it is becoming clearer that these approaches alone will generate lower and lower returns. Richer rewards will be gained through school-to-school collaboration. There is emerging evidence from a range of school-based networks to suggest that collaborative, inquiry- driven approaches can improve learning outcomes for disadvantaged students.

In Scotland, promising examples include the development of learning rounds, lesson study, learning communities and new models of pre-service teacher education. Our research supports Mr Russell's plans for information systems to support school-to-school relations, prioritising leadership and partnering higher- and lower-attaining schools.

Stretching the focus from within-school to between-school improvement will strengthen the collective capacity for equitable outcomes, but it is no panacea. Schools cannot compensate for social inequity on their own. As the Christie Commission rightly argued, they can do more, but the final component requires crossing another boundary into beyond-school improvement.

By this I mean the involvement of a coherent range of broader services that create the context whereby children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can effectively engage in education. It is clear that health, social and other public services have a major role to play in the achievement of children from our most disadvantaged communities, and this is the area with the most untapped potential.

There are a few interesting examples of this in the UK, but there are lessons to be learned from overseas, specifically the work of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York.

The complexity of stretching from within- to between- and beyond-school improvement is difficult terrain requiring a fundamental rethinking of roles within the system. There will need to be new ways of working within, between and beyond educational institutions. Continuing as we have done in the past will only lead to a failure of implementation.

So what broader changes are required? In order for all this to become reality, a cultural shift in our professional identity is needed. Those working within schools will need a more outward-looking perspective, working with colleagues from different institutions. They must rethink not only with whom they work, but also how and where. This involves the blurring of institutional boundaries.

In my view, there are three key priorities:

- Focus on professional development. This is the key to constructing a new genre of education professional - linking initial teacher preparation and continuing in-service education in a way that challenges assumptions about roles and responsibilities. This will have a profound effect on how education professionals work.

- A commitment to ownership over "what works and why". This galvanises the appetite for change - investing in a range of evidence-based experiments and monitoring their impact.

- A dedication to joined-up public service provision. This is a prerequisite for tackling educational inequity - mobilising public services to provide a coordinated framework for within-, between- and beyond-school improvement.

These three areas must be addressed if the optimism sparked by broadly positive policies such as Curriculum for Excellence and Teaching Scotland's Future are to bear fruit. Maintaining current ways of working will reinforce the status quo and is ultimately likely to fail, leaving another generation of our most disadvantaged children condemned to inequity. We cannot allow this to happen.

Professor Christopher Chapman is chair of educational policy and practice at the University of Glasgow. chris.chapman@glasgow.ac.uk.

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