Review by Dan Morrow

CEO, Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust

4 Nov 2023, 5:00


The Conversation – with Dan Morrow

This week has been one of revelations – and not just that many colleagues now appear to benefit from a two-week half term in October.

The Covid inquiry has confirmed what most suspected: ego and hubris dominated the approach to schools, ambition exceeded ability, and what we all felt was the lash of a whip placed in the wrong hands. The disclosure of private messages and their explosive content has resurfaced feelings of anger, disbelief and incredulity that characterised much of the sector’s psyche both during and after the lockdowns.

Respectful scepticism

As the reporters who were in charge of holding the government to account all wring their hands at the revelations of their own failure to do their job, this glorious blog by Claire Harley introduces the concept of respectful scepticism – something they probably should have displayed more off.

But this is no blog about politics. Grounded in the classroom, Harley (inspired by discussion with the inimitable Carly Waterman) posits the need to temper our professional curiosity.

I have often seen this in posts on X (ok, I give in) where people will use the “scout not soldier” phrase to show this form of engagement. Reflecting on educational research’s potential and limitations, Harley offers very practical and real-life examples of how tweaks are needed to accommodate context. While addressing the “niggly bits” may not be the glamorous, conference-booking way to edu-celebrity status, she argues that it will be what makes the real difference for the children we serve.

In the weary-worn debate of autonomy versus standardisation, she makes the clear and compelling case for agency: we follow the best bets but we tailor them based on our individual and collective professional expertise. I loved it.

Postcode privilege

Speaking of agency, this excellent Sutton Trust blog is a call for us all to really look our admissions system in the face. Detailed research shows that the 500 highest-performing comprehensive schools had a lower-than-national-average proportion of children eligible for free school meals, and lower than the average for their catchment areas too.

Partly, this is explained by the 2017 research that showed that a typical house in the catchment area of a top-500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority. I have no doubt that will have widened since, representing a significant barrier to lower-income catchment schools’ ability to offer the same opportunities.

Perhaps more worrying is the failure of these ‘top’ schools to see that the social selection that garners them this advantage is not merely reflecting inequity but driving it. The article does offer a way through, which depends upon casting a critical eye on admissions, genuinely committing to equity, and focusing on social justice as well as social mobility. Admissions policies can’t be there to allow the few to climb the ladder when so many can’t even get on the first rung.

Accepting the unacceptable

And on the theme of structural injustice, this deeply personal and powerful blog by John Tomsett in response to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Destitution in the UK 2023 rightly asks why we have become comfortable with so many people not having enough. 3.8 million people, including 1 million children, experienced destitution in the UK in 2022.

Tomsett recounts the walk of shame his mum had to undertake to put shopping back on the shelf, an experience that resonates with my own upbringing. We seem to believe that poverty is the result of some form of moral lack or fecklessness. Perhaps it’s easier to dismiss destitution from a position of privilege if we can view the distasteful as wasteful.

“They can afford to have their nails done.” “He smokes.” “She has an iPhone.” There has historically been, and appears to pervade, a snidy and sneering approach to the poor as if it weren’t a moral stain on our collective conscience, living as we do in one of the richest countries in the world. Tomsett isn’t just writing here: he is organising, coordinating and using his voice, mind and hands to be part of the difference for his community. Are you?

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