The winners-and-losers way of doing things has taken us as far as it can and it’s time for a radical rethink of excellence in education, writes Kate Chhatwal

Writing my introduction to this year’s Challenge Partners annual report, my second as CEO, got me thinking about excellence. Many representations make it out to be exclusive or elitist when in truth it is neither. What is elitist and exclusive is the idea that excellence is a zero-sum game. The reality Challenge Partners demonstrates day in, day out, is that through collaboration we can all be better than any of us could be alone.

Too many of our children and young people – often the very same who face the greatest challenges to start with – are written off without being given the best chance to achieve, and to demonstrate their unique brilliance. If what we are doing to address the challenge isn’t working for them, it isn’t working full stop.

We analysed the DfE’s own key stage 2 and 4 data on the disadvantage gap for our annual report, and it suggests we have tipped over the top of the sigmoid curve. The gap is beginning to widen once more. Even if that’s a blip (which seems doubtful, given the gap is widening in both primaries and secondaries), we know it has been closing too slowly for too long.

It may be time, then, to call time on our zero-sum paradigm and to rebalance the scales between universal standards and valuing the unique talents of each child. As we design and sequence our curricula, we may do well to heed the words of Professor Mark Priestley that we are educators, not “milkmen” – that our job is to light a fire through pedagogy, at least as much as it is to fill a pail through content delivery.

Continuing to eke out marginal gains is no longer enough

Continuing to eke out marginal gains is no longer enough. Rising to the challenge of achieving inclusive excellence will require creativity and disciplined innovation such as I saw when I visited Apple at the start of the year as part of an ASCL delegation. In Cupertino, we explored some of the hardware and software that has the potential to transform the way children learn and achieve. You only have to look at my battered Samsung to know I’m no edtech evangelist, yet I couldn’t help but be excited by the idea that our near-ubiquitous devices could provide a way of unlocking learning and achievement for children who are not well served by traditional book learning, who disproportionately come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have additional needs.

Some here are already exploring that potential in their schools, and I have been fortunate in this role to see it first-hand. They know as well as the rest of us that technology isn’t a panacea and that implementing it presents its own challenges. But to suggest they are dumbing down is just as ridiculous a simplification. Using the information and technology at our fingertips can enable us to raise the bar, to expect our students to show deeper understanding and fuller application of the knowledge they are gaining.

Moving beyond zero-sum thinking requires us to draw on and combine diverse ideas. For sure, that requires us to challenge ourselves and each other. We need collaboration – as they say at Apple – to be a contact sport. But we must also avoid the macho, gendered notions the phrase conjures up, and which often characterise our education debates. Professional collaboration is about improving each idea, not picking a winner.

Perhaps a better analogy, and one I also picked up in Cupertino, is that we need to put our diverse ideas, experiences and perspectives into a rock tumbler and let challenge – from inside and out – be the grit that turns our rough ideas into so many unique gems.

Bringing together the best of what is thought, said, practised and researched – in education and beyond – and innovating with discipline are how we will secure a truly inclusive excellence. That’s the strength of peer review – challenge and collaboration – and that’s why I’m increasingly convinced it’s just what the system needs to replace the spent zero-sum paradigm.