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Closing Gaps and Moving Forward

It would seem that education systems across the globe are currently obsessed by similar things, unless you live in Finland. Most are trying to be more equitable and to close attainment and achievement gaps that exist between the most advantaged in society and the most disadvantaged. All are also determined to raise attainment for all. Many see these as laudible aims for education systems and we have politicians staking their reputations on how they are going to close these gaps and raise attainment levels. Not many of them say it outright, but politicians and system leaders across the planet dream of reaching the top of the OECD's PISA rankings, no matter how spurious and flimsy the bedrock of validity upon which these particular measures of performance are constructed. However, this post is not about whether these are appropriate aims for education systems, or whether the achievement should be laid predominantly at the doors of our schools and classrooms, rather than other areas of society. We are where we are and, as a school leader, it is right that I am constantly reviewing my own impact in these areas, and considering what really makes a difference.

The problem for many political and system leaders in charge of education is that they have for too long been seduced by the lure of 'silver bullets', fads, trends and 'Hollywood' fixes for schools and systems. Politicians, and others in the system, want action now, and they want demonstratable impact now as well! Anyone who has worked for any length of time in schools and within systems knows how truly deluded this sort of thinking really is. Every education system, and every school, always has plenty of 'action' happening at any particular time. We are always active. The trouble is, we are often so active, and encouraged to be so, that we don't have the time to properly assess the impact of all this activity. System leaders and their political masters need to see 'impact' and they need to see it quickly. Having to face the electorate every four or five years leads to such short-term thinking, especially if you have splashed all over the media how education is your priority and tell the electorate to judge you on the difference you make on such issues. The fact that you may have painted yourself into a corner before you have had any in depth conversations with those in the profession, who are the only ones who can deliver on your promises, counts for little once you have nailed your colours to this particular mast. So the pressure on schools and the system to 'demonstrate positive impacts' is ratcheted up and more and more are encouraged to 'play the game' and show improvement, when in reality not much might be getting better for the learners within the system. Public money is piled into one initiative after another, new structures and policy are put in place, and the strings attached to this new resourcing are such that you are 'required' to demonstrate impact and improvement before you accept it. There may even be agreement that such funding can be 'recovered' by governments and quangos if no improvements and demonstratable gains are made. Talk about political and system pressure!

There are lots of things that schools and education systems can do that will make a difference in closing gaps. I would suggest throwing money at 'pilot programmes' and headline grabbing initiatives are neither useful nor effective strategies. Nor is producing directive after directive from government and their organisations as the hierarchy tries to micro-manage and mandate improvement. Improvement can only happen in classrooms and with the thinking, support and expertise of the teachers, and others, who work in them. Everyone else should see their role as supporting teachers to achieve this, and this needs to be done in a way that recognises and trusts their professional expertise and their desire to do the best for all their learners. My role, as a school leader, is to create the conditions and provide the support necessary for all my teachers to be the best they can be, and have the greatest positive impacts for all our learners. It is to build on their strengths and to help them to improve where they can. The number one priority in our schools needs to be, and remain, learning and teaching. Every teacher needs to keep working to develop and improve their practice so that the learning experiences improve for all learners. My job is to help them do this. If we have careeer-long professional development as a disposition of all, we will have a relentless process of professional development, which is built on personal growth and not the latest fad or trend. Teachers would really know all their learners and understand their impact on learning, and how they might develop and improve this. Knowing learners well means they would be aware of gaps in their learning, and, understanding learning really well, would allow them to understand how they would close these, not ignore them.

What research is also telling us is that many of the learning gaps that exist between our most advantaged and disadvantaged learners have already developed before they reach us. From the point they arrive at the start of our education system many are behind their more advantaged peers already. Some of these gaps in attainment are already eleven months or more in children who have only been on the planet for four or five years. From that point, we are constantly playing catch up. This is why the second strategy that I think we need to truly engage with is that of 'early intervention'. We have known for many years that interventions with learners and their families are cost effective and Have the greatest impact the earlier they happen. But again, we need to be wary of the problems with short-terminism and to determine that such early interventions should be part of an ongoing and continual process of support offered to families pre-school. This will involve true inter-agency working and a commitment from governments and local authorities to resource sufficiently and consistently so as to make a real difference. Paying 'lip service' to such early intervention, and seeing such provision as an easy cut in times of austerity, should not be tolerated. To make a difference the resourcing of early intervention practices and strategies needs to be a long-term and ongoing commitment by government and society. Where interventions like this fail is when funding and resourcing is under constant threat and is not sufficiently appreciated by those who control purse-strings. We have a role in using research and data to demonstrate why this should not happen.

The next strategy that I feel would make a real difference in closing gaps and raising attainment is in the provision and planned deployment of well-trained support staff. These have various titles in different systems, classroom assistants seems most common, but all can make a major difference for many learners. For the class teacher, especially in primary education, who may have thirty or more pupils and a considerable spread in attainment at any particular time, it is almost impossible to meet all the learning needs, no matter how well they plan and deliver differentiated learning experiences. From my own experience, I am aware that there's often a group of pupils in most classrooms who, with a little more focused support to help them with their learning, could make great strides forward. Some may argue that the class teacher should be meeting the needs of all learners, and the very best are trying to do this every day. But, those pupils who are just not quite there yet in terms of self-regulation of their learning could achieve more with some small-scale targeted interventions, remain a great cause of frustration. At the present time, most such interventions are targeted at the learners who are way behind where they would be expected to be, or are far ahead, and it is that group that lies between these that we could have the greatest impact on. Such resourcing is under severe threat because of the financial difficulties and challenges faced by local authorities and schools. However, I believe they too can be cost effective and bring about long-term improvements for many learners. If schools, especially primaries, had such support available in classrooms for just two or three hours a day, the impact would be great and sustainable. I would argue that the millions of pounds or dollars that are being spent at the moment on massive 'vanity' projects, that grab headlines and attention, could be better spent, and make greater long-term and sustainable differences if they were used to employ more of the right people in schools to support teachers and learners.

There we have it. My three main strategies to really make a difference in closing gaps and raising attainment. Keep learning and teaching as the main focus for schools and their leaders. Prioritise and resource early interventions properly. Increase the availability of well-trained support in classrooms. Of course there are other things that need to happen, especially around leadership, accountability, teacher training and curriculum development, but we have to get away from the idea that the solving of such problems can be achieved quickly and easily. They can't. We need to understand the complexity of what we are trying to achieve. As I heard someone say recently ' if it was easy, we would have done it ages ago.' Easy it isn't, essential, it is!

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