Disadvantage gap

How regional partnerships can begin to reverse widening gaps

The solutions to the widening attainment gap are to be found in the south-west as well as in Westminster, write Dan Morrow and Ed Vainker

The solutions to the widening attainment gap are to be found in the south-west as well as in Westminster, write Dan Morrow and Ed Vainker

22 Jan 2022, 5:00

As school and MAT leaders, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the size of the challenge we face in minimising the impact of Covid on disadvantaged children. After all, even before the pandemic the disadvantage gap was widening again after a decade of gradual progress in the right direction.

In Devon and Cornwall, the gap is wider than the national average at every stage of education. Plymouth, one of the largest cities in our region, has one of the largest gaps nationally. On average, disadvantaged children here finish school the equivalent of two years behind their wealthier peers.

Meeting a challenge of this magnitude requires focused collective action. Collaboration, not competition. That’s why, along with the Ted Wragg Trust, Education South West, Westcountry Schools Trust and Cornwall Education Learning Trust, we are using the pandemic as a catalyst to heighten schools’ focus on supporting disadvantaged children in our region. Our starting point, through the SW100 leadership programme, is to develop a cadre of headteachers whose animating purpose is ensuring all children can enjoy lives of choice and opportunity.

What makes the SW100 partnership special is that it is entirely driven by school and MAT leaders and exclusively focused on the needs of children and schools in our region. We are not responding to a government tender or framework. Instead, our guiding questions in creating the programme were how to develop school leaders whose core purpose is enabling disadvantaged children in Devon and Cornwall to thrive, and how to help them develop the knowledge and relationships required to achieve this shared purpose.

A focus on disadvantaged children is central to all discussions on the course. In a region where – if we are honest – this has not historically been common, we hope it will help people reframe the nature of being a south-west school leader. One participant has already been heard to say that SW100 is “changing my narrative”, and that’s precisely our aim.

Our goal is locally rooted, nationally connected leaders

Our goal is to develop leaders who are locally rooted. It’s not enough to discuss disadvantage in generic, national terms. The rural poverty we experience here in the south-west looks very different to poverty in other parts in the country. We want our leaders to gain a deep understanding of disadvantage in their local communities. That’s why our programme is modelled on community organising practices such as community mapping, listening campaigns and relational meetings. Our participants are learning to connect with their communities and fulfil their roles as civic leaders.

Of course, we also want them to be nationally connected, to learn from the best schools and school leaders across the country. Too often, that’s out of reach for teachers and school leaders in coastal and more remote parts of the country. So SW100 leaders have termly visits to some of the highest performing schools nationally – from King Solomon Academy and Totteridge Academy last term to STAR, Outwood and Dixons schools this term.

Our virtual knowledge-building webinars always include live discussions with leaders from across the country. The investment of time and money in these school visits is substantial, but worth every penny; the collective knowledge and inspiration flowing into our region (not just one or two MATs) is significant.

Finally, we place significant emphasis on developing strong relationships between our south-west school leaders. Maintaining the rigour, relationships and energy required to close the disadvantage gap is tough; it is even tougher when you are working alone. Recognising this feels especially important now when head teachers are under such significant pressure and many question the wisdom of ‘stepping up’.

We urgently need people who want to take that step, and we are already hearing from participants that SW100 – and specifically its networking component – “reduces the barriers to stepping forward”.

National solutions to closing the attainment gap will always be blunt tools on their own. With locally grown collective action at the heart what we do, we can have more impact on the future of our pupils and the profession. And make the size of the ‘levelling up’ challenge that little less overwhelming.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.