One only has to look south to England to see how political ideology can crush the hopes and aspirations of teachers and the communities they serve, particularly those working and living in the most disadvantaged areas, writes Professor Chris Chapman, chair of Educational Policy and Practice at the University of Glasgow and principal investigator for the Network for Social and Educational Equity.
Fortunately, Scotland has the opportunity to take a different pathway to create a fairer education system. However, in parallel with many other systems, breaking the relationship between poverty and poor educational outcomes – and ultimately life chances – remains the key challenge of our time.
Put simply, the odds remain stacked against children escaping high poverty settings.
Promoting social justice
The Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow was established in 2013 to research and support the development of more equitable education systems; promoting social justice is core to the centre’s mission.
The centre’s approach involves collaborating with academics, teachers, school leaders, local authorities and agencies to research and stimulate change and build capacity at all levels within the system so that all children can achieve their potential, irrespective of their background.
The quality of learning and teaching is closely related to educational outcomes. Studies show that on average the combined school and teacher effect on academic outcomes may vary from as much as 15% to 50%.
The best teachers
Furthermore, research suggests the quality of teaching and learning matters most for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Therefore, there is a strong case for ensuring the best teachers are in front of our most disadvantaged children.
Whilst the reforms outlined in the education governance review may have a positive impact in this respect there are three relatively simple, yet bold further steps we might take to make this become a reality.
First, we should further improve the overall quality of teachers entering the profession and the quality and consistency of in-service professional learning. This could be achieved by establishing a national academy for teacher learning led by Scotland’s leading providers of initial teacher education and professional learning.
A world-class Scottish curriculum
This consortium could develop innovative approaches underpinned by rigorous quality assurance mechanisms to develop a world-class Scottish curriculum for teacher preparation and professional development.
Such an approach would ensure each student teacher had access to a broad-balanced curriculum providing the theoretical understanding and practical tools necessary to become expert practitioners in a diverse range of contexts, including high poverty settings.
An academy of teacher learning could also broker partnerships and school placements on a national basis to provide student teachers with a diverse range of experiences during their pre-service education.
The academy might work with stakeholders – including the new Education Workforce Council, the Educational Institute of Scotland and a revitalised Education Scotland – to develop early career professional development and leadership pathways to support professional learning and career progression during probation, into the first five years and beyond. This could be tailored to individual requirements, school and community contexts.
Second, we should develop a range of incentives to attract and retain serving teachers into these more challenging settings. Financial incentives have been used in the past and may go some way to addressing the issue. However, for most people this is not the reason they choose to teach in high poverty settings.
We need to ensure the conditions within these schools nurture the staff as well as the pupils. These often high-octane environments make demands on staff that are beyond the expected norms of commitment. Therefore, we need to ensure that teachers have structured supportive networks that provide space to refresh and reflect on their experiences beyond what would normally be expected within the profession.
Sabbaticals, study tours and more
These networks should promote opportunities for staff to move around newly established regional improvement collaboratives. The networks should also create possibilities for sabbaticals, study tours and secondments into local authorities and improvement collaboratives, agencies and government to develop policy and guidance to inform wider developments within the system. Such opportunities should be explicit and could potentially be written into contracts upon appointment.
Third, we should create a cadre of ‘teacher plus’ public service professionals. Learning and teaching, leadership and school organisational factors play an important role in securing good outcomes but they cannot compensate for disadvantage by themselves. No individual, profession or agency can solve the challenge educational inequity alone.
Public service professionals must develop a shared language and understanding of the task in hand, recognising the contribution and value of different parts of the system. We need to develop a cadre of expert teachers who can work smoothly across boundaries, providing a holistic approach as part of an integrated multi-agency team from the outset of their careers. It is this type of professional capacity that is required if the system is to level the playing field and create a fairer education system.
Put simply, the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change believes we must develop a coherent approach that maximises the impact of learning and teaching in schools, invests in professional learning and leadership development at all levels and provides a holistic approach to support families and communities.
If we can achieve this, then we shall create an education system where all children can reach their full potential.