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Are we there yet?

I will provide you with my answer, to the question posed in the title to this post, straight away. No we aren't! However, I do think it is important we keep asking the question of our schools and our education systems, just as often as the young passengers in any car journey of over fifteen minutes.

The 'there' I speak of in education is the achievement of equity for all our learners and families. Our attention span, and desire to answer this question in the affirmative, needs to be longer, but just as relentless, as any inquisition by youthful travellers.  

We have had a focus on equity and social justice in our education system for over ten years in Scotland, and possibly even longer in other systems across the globe. In Scotland we can go back to 2001 to find the Scottish government taking the first steps to address issues for children and their families with multiple needs, which was to lead to Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) a policy and strategy designed to simplify the system for families, and agencies working with them, as well as seeking to make the systems more equitable. 

Since 2007, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained power in the Scottish parliament, and even before that with the previous Labour administration, the issue of equity in our society and in our schools in particular, has been at the forefront of many minds. Since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister in 2014, she has put education at the very top of her priorities. Following her ascendancy to her role she said 'judge me on education' and she repeated that call often in the early days of her leadership. Like everyone else already working in the system, Ms Sturgeon was seeking to improve and develop our education system, but particularly in terms of attainment levels and equity within the system. She appointed Angela Constance as her first Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, and she was replaced by John Swinney in 2016. Both of these Ministers set a busy agenda of policy development aimed at raising attainment and closing 'gaps' that had been identified for the most disadvantaged learners and their families. The fact that they adopted a 'General Educational Reform Movement' (GERM) agenda, whose issues have been well documented by Pasi Sahlberg and others, has not helped their endeavours.

Recently we have had the National Improvement Framework (NIF), Attainment Challenge and most recently the new proposed Education Bill, Empowering Schools, currently being consulted on, but most certainly going to happen as detailed in the consultation documentation. All of these are aimed at structural change designed to address issues identified by our government and ministers, with the explicit aims of raising attainment and closing the 'equity gaps'. These are big pieces of legislation and structural reform, but we in schools have been wrestling with these issues before the current government came into power, and will probably still be doing so long after they have left power. Given this national agenda and focus over many years, and our own recognition of the issues, why are we still not there yet?

There is no doubt the focus at national and government level has been on schools and the education system. However, much of this focus has consistently failed to identify or even recognise the other societal features at play when we consider equity and the barriers that exist for many learners and families. There is no doubt education has a big role to play here, but we do need to get real at times and recognise the stratification that has existed and built up over many centuries within our society, as well as the government and societal decisions that have entrenched such features. Many governments, Scottish and UK, have been very vocal on the rhetoric of equity and social justice and cohesion, but have then adopted policies and behaviours that have re-enforced and deepened these injustices and inequities. If governments are rally serious about such issues then it really is time for them to walk that talk, not just pass responsibility onto others. After all, isn't that what socially-just government should be about? I like the late Tony Benn's expressed view that 'if we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.' Says it all, really.

Anyway, putting those bigger issues to one side, what things can we do in schools to help ensure our provision is just and equitable? We have been aware for many years of what the issues and barriers are for many of our learners and their families, but, taken as a whole, we are far from there yet, in terms of removing or breaking many of these down. There has been some fabulous steps taken, and work undertaken, by schools in Scotland, and across the rest of the UK, but such work is being undertaken by what are often 'outliers' of the system, because the practices in these schools is still not the norm.

Some of the norms that persist were again brought home to me last week on Twitter and Facebook. In my timelines, two common events were dominating. The first was Parents' Evenings, that seemed to be happening in schools across the country, and the second was the annual 'Children In Need' charity appeal happening on Friday. The narrative I was seeing about both of these, brought home to me how far we still have to travel in our systems, and for many of our families.

A Parents' Evening, in which parents have the opportunity to sit down with teachers, and perhaps learners, to talk about their children and where they are in their learning, is a right and expectation enshrined in our school cultures and legislation. They should be a seamless part of the 'reporting to parents' processes in any school. Some schools have developed very creative and innovative approaches to how they configure these in order to make them more meaningful and accessible to their parent body, and learners. Most, however, seem to be sticking to the traditional framework of five or ten minute appointments, which probably remain unsatisfactory for everyone concerned, and to their intended purpose. Such a format also presents barriers for some parents, especially if their own experiences of schools have been characterised by negativity.

Many schools still see such evenings as another chance to tap into the captive audience of parents for book sales, uniform sales, cake stalls and the like. I must admit I was just as guilty as everyone else in this practice, and our book-fair was seen as important in raising school funds or replenishing book stocks, given that there was so little budget available from anywhere else. However, as I approached the end of my time as a school leader, I was becoming more uneasy about our drive to sell books, as I witnessed the pressure parents were put under by their children to buy something, whether this was a book/books, or just pencils or rubbers. Some obviously struggled. I used to see parents ushering their children out the school door and past the fair as quickly as possible, possibly because they didn't have the money to spend and didn't want themselves or their children embarrassed further by this.

There were also the regular parents who never showed up at Parents' Nights. I do wonder how many of these were put off by feeling they would have to buy something, and were struggling already to make ends meet? I had a number of parents who would never come to such evenings, but would then contact the class teacher to see if they could come another time. I am beginning to wonder if there was a connection, and I think all schools should consider possible issues and impacts such as this continuously, if they are really going to get serious about making all that we do accessible to all in our school community. 

Children in Need, like Red Nose day, has become a staple annual charity fundraiser in schools across the UK and actually first emerged from a radio appeal in 1927! It was began to be televised in 1955 and since then has grown arms and legs to become this monolith of asking and giving, which this year has already generated £50million plus! Whilst I have concerns about the whole concept of Children in Need and what it has become, I think it is in schools that we really have to consider how we engage with massive charity appeals such as this, considering the impacts for both the givers and the receivers. 

As a school leader, I was swamped by appeals from charities asking for the school and the children to get involved in fundraising in some way. I could guarantee to get a minimum of three or four requests by post or email each day! You have to manage this aspect of the school's work, remembering that it is to the same people that you are going to each time you are raising funds for any cause. The smaller the school, the greater the impact of this. Also, this is only one of the ways we may approach parents for money over the course of any school year.

There is so much children can learn and gain from engaging with charities like Children in Need, that I would always wish them to be involved in some way. In the schools I led, we a made a conscious decision to only be involved with one charity appeal or fundraiser per term, a maximum of three per school year. This was driven by requests by children parents and staff. We would aim for one charity appeal for the local community, one at a national level and possibly another international one. So we might get involved with something for a local children's charity, one like Red Nose Day and another for some International Relief work, spread across the school year. The children would decide which ones they wished to support. When we had identified which charities we wished to support, then events would be organised and children and families could make a donation, if they wanted, or were able to. Too many time last week I saw schools saying it was £1 to dress up for Children In Need, and there would be cakes and other things to buy, on top of the £1 donation. I wonder if absentee rates went up in any schools last Friday? Probably less likely in England where parents now risk being fined for unauthorised absences. Now, that is a rock and a hard place! I know the funds being raised were for very worthy causes, most are, but I do think it is beholden of schools to consider the parents and learners for whom such events might bring more pressure and stress.

Charities, and appeals like Children in Need and Red Nose Day, also need to consider to pressure they put on schools, children and then families, as well. Too many see schools and children as easy targets and a guarantee of money rolling in. I wonder how much of this year's £50 million has come from schools and the lowest earners in our society? Ironic, given the austerity agendas we are all toiling under at present.

So, no, I don't think we are there yet. These are just two examples from my own timeline on Twitter, and Facebook posts, from one week, but I do feel they are indicative of practices that are still common across schools and systems. Such activity may look good at a surface level, but actually can create unseen stress and barriers for some of our school communities. If we are to address issues of equity and to remove barriers for learners and families, we have to keep considering issues such as these constantly. Not in order to stop them from happening, but so that we can still engage, but in ways that do not isolate parts of our community, but which allow all to contribute when and if they can, in ways that are supportive and non-judgemental.

We should examine everything that happens across our schools, and continue to ask hard questions of ourselves regarding all that we do. It is not until we recognise the barriers we create, often unknowingly, that we can take steps to remove or lower them. No-one should feel that there are parts of what we do that they struggle to access due to financial or social constraints. Our responsibility is to all our learners, and all our families, all of whom should be able to gain from the benefits of everything we do and offer, not just some of it.

When we achieve that, then perhaps we can answer 'nearly' the next time we are asked 'are we there yet?'


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