I grew up in the mining valleys of South Wales in the Eighties and early nineties and my Secondary school had a set of students who were labelled ‘Remedial’ or ‘Rems’ for short. From the first day they set foot inside the school (Year 7 as it is now known) they were grouped together for Form time and followed a completely separate timetable to the rest of the school. All their lessons apart from Woodwork and PE were taught by the same teacher in the same room – they were labelled and essentially tossed on the scrap heap from the age of 11. My school wasn’t unusual – Welcome to South Wales in the 80’s!
Fast forward 30 years and this practice no longer happens (thank goodness) but does that mean the educational landscape is now equal for all? Of course not. Students may not be damagingly called ‘REMS’ any more but that doesn’t mean they all have the same opportunities as they make their way up the educational ladder towards SATS, GCSE’s, A Levels and beyond. And this really goes to the heart of my educational philosophy – Equity of opportunity.
Of course everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and it is absurd to suggest that everyone should come out at the end of their compulsory education with the same, top grades in Maths, English, History, Music etc but surely all children should leave school literate and numerate. We currently have a system that assesses and reports on students progress with almost monotonous regularity but ensured 35% of them (over 190,000 children) left without a pass in English or Maths – the Forgotten third – who are essentially labelled failures at the age of 16.
These numbers rise even further when you look at children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet these are the very children who need our help the most. To paraphrase Geoff Barton ‘ Failure is baked into our system’ and this has to change. As educators, we should be preparing our students for the life they will lead when they walk out of our school gates for the final time. Their school experience should provide them with strong teaching alongside opportunities to both expand their cultural capital and enrich their understanding of what opportunities lie beyond the school building. In addition, it should allow them to develop the skills and confidence necessary to take advantage of these opportunities. Too often this is not the case within the current system and the ‘disadvantage gap’ has been stubbornly difficult to shift.
I am not naive enough to believe that schools and education are the silver bullet for tackling this gap but we must, surely, be looking to make a significant difference to these children’s lives otherwise why are we doing what we are doing or working in the schools we are working in?
Marc Rowland recently said ‘ it is the thousand little moments with students that will make the difference not 2 or 3 grand gestures’ and that sentiment really struck a chord with me and stuck with me. We should be relentless in our day to day pursuit of ensuring that all students feel a real sense of belonging to our school communities, have the opportunities to challenge the status quo and have the courage to make sound moral and intellectual arguments on how to change those social norms that encourage injustice and inequality. Only when students have this toolkit backed up with intellectual rigour that comes from regular exposure to great teaching can we truly say we are making a real and tangible difference to their lives moving forward.
For too long, a child’s chance of success has been far too heavily influenced by the postcode they grew up up in or the economic means of their parents and this must change. The current pandemic has already forced society to change in so many ways. There is new normal in place and the issue of disadvantaged students is probably higher in the national consciousness than at any other time in recent memory (just look at the Marcus Rashford campaign on free school meals) so now seems an ideal time to harness this and push for further and more systemic change within our schools. In other words, a push to ensure all students, irrespective of background or ethnicity have access to a Big Education.