How I had a fight in the name of social justice

Forget your pedagogical differences: teachers need to speak up about how a reduction of services to alleviate poverty is the real threat to closing the education gap, says Kiran Gill

Last weekend I got into a fight. I had spent the day listening to stimulating talks at Michaela Community School in north London and debate was still rumbling on as we rolled into the pub; my friend and I sparring over the merits of “traditional” or “progressive” schooling.

We both went into teaching for the same reason: social justice. A gulf in educational and life opportunities still separates children growing up in poverty from their wealthier peers in the UK. A recent Sutton Trust report revealed differences in A-level entry by background: poorer pupils were three times less likely than wealthier peers to take four AS-levels, blocking their path to university.

Yet, if I invoked critical literacy (Paulo Freire – do your homework); my friend parried with cultural literacy (E.D. Hirsch). When I discussed differentiation; he critiqued low expectations. If I argued that pupil mental health demanded flexible behaviour policies; he insisted vulnerable children really needed consistency.

“Some early damage affects people irrevocably,” I found myself shouting “and they shouldn’t be blamed for that.”

“Making excuses is exactly what needs to stop. We know working memory can be expanded and the gap can be closed over a pupils’ school career,” he yelled.

As increasingly inchoate arguments flew past one other and our passions rose, we were close to giving each other a hefty biff in the name of social justice.

It’s all those things deemed extra that are the first to go

So, what of that achievement gap? The Sutton Trust’s research showed that enrichment activities during adolescence (including home reading and educational trips) had a positive impact on GCSEs, especially for poorer pupils. The report pointed out how parental high expectations and opportunities to practise out-of-school study were crucial, particularly in bucking the trends of underperformance including white working-class boys living in coastal communities and northern cities. It recommended schools help provide these things to close the gap.

Yet as budgets are squeezed, we know it’s all those things deemed “extra” that are the first to go: trips, library books, parental outreach and ancillary staff who supervised homework club. Wednesday’s spending review announced that the Education Services Grant will be cut almost entirely, estimated as about a £90,000 cut from the budget of a large academy. When the cupboard is bare, in a school system with ever-higher stakes focused purely on academic attainment, it becomes harder and harder to argue for investment in the things that practitioners and researchers alike know will make a big difference.

The Sutton Trust identified “double disadvantage” for some. A strong negative effect from the index of child poverty (IDACI) meant children living in the poorest neighbourhoods were half as likely to enter for four AS-levels as those in less disadvantaged neighbourhoods, regardless of other characteristics. Yet the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that cuts to local government have hit the most deprived councils hardest – in 2010/11 they had “45 per cent per head to cope with additional needs. By 2014/15, this
had been reduced to 17 per cent”. The “budget gap” has resulted in cuts to early years and children’s services, housing and social care; it will impact the attainment gap before our students get to school, affect whether their living conditions are conducive to home reading and study,
and determine how young carers are supported to deal with mentally and physically disabled family members.

It’s all a far cry from the cosy pub in which I was debating. A reduction of services to alleviate poverty is the real threat to closing the education gap and we, as teachers, need to speak up about how it is affecting our pupils. There are differences of pedagogical approach, but instead of dwelling on them, we need to share practical best practice (and increasingly resources) on how we continue offering our most vulnerable pupils the opportunities they need to succeed. That’s something really worth fighting for.

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