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Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Inclusive education

Education Really Matters: Social Deprivation and Education

Frank O’Hagan

How far have we progressed?

There is a painting in The Louvre in Paris entitled ‘The Clubfoot’ (also known as ‘The Club-footed Boy’) by Jose de Ribera who is renowned for his depictions of the human condition. It is a portrait of a vulnerable youth and conveys stark observations on both hardship and physical disability. There are differing interpretations concerning this magnificent and moving painting. These range from the view that it expresses dignity and defiance under duress to the opinion that it is a bitter comment on the degeneration of dutifulness and care. For my part, I think that both of these positions are credible and can be reconciled. Neediness gives rise to people displaying distinct features of perseverance and personal worth but also of melancholy and desolation.

Although De Ribera’s painting dates from over 300 years ago, to a large extent it reflects issues and conundrums relating to prevailing attitudes on destitution and misfortune among the underprivileged. It might be felt that we have advanced far as a society and that such adversities are now under control. While it is true that there have been many changes for the better, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that numerous challenges remain. Is it right to feel annoyed at the present state of educational provision for children who are deprived? How can we respond to and build on the capabilities and resilience of juveniles with significant needs?

Addressing poverty and marginalisation

A common misunderstanding is to equate communal affliction simply with financial deficiencies. Deprivation has many guises. It is a complex and intractable phenomenon which also covers affairs dealing with health and welfare, parenting, housing, infrastructure, urban and rural dysfunction, inadequate schooling and unemployment. Ironically, policymakers are generally aware of what should be undertaken to rectify recognised concerns. Mere tokenism occurring in officialdom ought to be treated as unacceptable.

All learners, regardless of age, require to: be well nourished; live in reasonably healthy and safe environments; be able to obtain essential services without major inconveniences; and be actively engaged in educational or training programmes which are aimed at enriching individual circumstances. Breakdowns pertaining to any these factors can result in distress coupled with a sense of hopelessness and, on occasions, of annoyance and anger. Education is a critical route in the direction of amending matters. The burden of responsibility also reaches across a wider spectrum of local and national administrative services.

Recent research and media outlets frequently refer to ‘hard to reach’ families and suggestions are offered on ways in which helpful dialogue can be initiated on their behalf. Though the term ‘hard to reach’ is usually well intended, it can sound rather patronising or even act as a label. If professionals are to use it, then the converse must be conceded: that they themselves also can be difficult to contact as far as needy people living in stressful situations are concerned. It is a two-way problem. One does not have to look too far to find a deep-seated lack of trust regarding specialist practices within disadvantaged groups. Care has to be taken to avoid inadvertently creating or reinforcing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Empathic responsiveness is imperative in ensuring that interventions are not perceived as holier-than-thou interferences.

Actions speak louder than words

It is too easy for the ‘haves’ to reproach the ‘have-nots’ as being lazy and short-sighted. The tendency of some is to assume that the fault exclusively lies with those who are suffering from impoverishment. For those in a privileged position, it is plain sailing to worry less as to the present and to be able to concentrate on long-term planning, for example, in saving for fees to cover the cost of their children’s future education. In contrast, when tackling the ubiquity of poverty, zealous educationalists aim to fix attention on social solidarity and the transformation of ill-fated, lived experiences. They take relevant account of contextual factors and never ignore the tribulations created by environmental tensions. They are fully aware of why their students are distracted by the makeshift and changeable conditions which they have to endure.

So, how can a rich and plentiful – but divided – society accurately take cognisance of and operationally counteract the impact of penury on educational opportunities and achievements? To initiate steps forward, there has to be a sincere political judgement of the hurdles being encountered. Approaches to overcoming barriers in pragmatic and realistic ways require to be both gimmick-free and, as far as possible, evidence-based. Some leaders in education have been going on about ‘closing the gap’ for a considerable time now, sometimes merely with the purpose of aiming ridicule at their opponents. Rather than empty words, no matter how heartfelt they are meant to sound, we need positive and efficient action.

Beware of the myths which surround the new paternalism of ‘up-levelling’. For a start, legislators cannot accomplish any substantial progress without the backing of low-income families, communities, schools and voluntary agencies. Available channels towards obtaining the most suitable kinds of resources and assistance are very limited in times of austerity resulting in a lack of sustainable livelihoods and cut-backs to public services. What is more, there is no single pathway which can overcome all the complications posed by societal ordeals. Without taking proper evaluation of, and responding positively to, the variations across the characteristics of young persons and their circumstances, schedules for improvements will falter.  

Key strategies for development and implementation

The cost of carrying out policies and projects is always an important factor. Additionally, their operation must focus on how to establish and maintain a high standard. Otherwise, devolved finances can be wasted on a valid idea which has been poorly executed. Nonetheless, various options are promising with the following eight proposals being offered for deliberation. Space only permits a very general outline of their content and functions.

1. Early identification and support. When experiencing restrictiveness due to existing in a state of paucity, it is little wonder that parents and guardians have much to deal with – for starters, managing to pay for food, rent and energy bills. As a result, infants can unwittingly receive insufficient attention or even suffer from neglect. All phases of human development are important and, given appropriate intervention, the previous negative effects of privation can be overcome. Inclusion, engagement and enjoyment are pertinent driving forces on the road to success. A nation’s focus must always be on the right of every individual to have the best possible start in life.

The ‘flexible’ mind is sustained by life-affirming opportunities to grow, develop and flourish. In particular, the pre-school years have been highlighted as a key period to help those from underprivileged backgrounds. It is a stage when both free play and organised activities can evoke interest and provide motivation to acquire autonomy, emotional suppleness, creativity and competences. It is also a time when fathers and mothers (a caution: the role of ‘fathering’ must not be side-lined) regularly need updates and are willing to discover more on positive nurturing skills. For many of their children, encouragement in ‘learning how to learn’ will be decidedly gainful while in pre-school provision and beyond.

2. Promoting resilience within family units and communities. The impact of want and malnutrition varies among youths and the influences of parental upbringing are complex. Collaborating with and empowering all residing in impoverished districts are essential. The bolstering of beneficial features – shelter, safeguarding, and compassionate care – can do much to strengthen youngsters in surmounting daily obstacles. Involvement in well-suited programmes should aim at breaking intergenerational cycles in respect of marginalisation, low expectations and academic failure.

Partnerships will be welcomed in connection with the overall enhancement of domestic life and in suggesting out-of-school pursuits, for example, adults and adolescents together profiting from advice on financial management covering topics on budgeting, welfare payments and the avoidance of debt. Unlocking concealed talents and indicating routes out of the entrapment of destitution must remain unwavering aims among all civic commitments.

3. Extending additional educational support. Schools under pressure warrant the means to ensure that they are not receptacles for passive acceptance of failures or shortcomings caused by administrative systems. If anything, it is fitting that they are sustained in a position of having even higher than normal expectations on behalf of their pupils. In the media, there are often tactless references to ‘failing schools’ and, over and over again, these appear to be serving poorer catchment areas. Educational establishments which have to meet with the demands posed by harsh economic conditions merit extra funds and should not be evaluated by the same academic criteria as others situated in more well-to-do locations. They have a claim on planned compensation as regards the allocation of teaching specialists to aid anyone encountering substantial difficulties and designated assistants to promote inclusive practices. The expansion of trained staff for literacy, mathematics and personal, social and health education in primary schools – and also in selected subjects in the secondary sector – should always be kept under review. Above all, it is valuable for the power of education be let loose to counteract misfortune by enabling learners to identify their troubles and, in time, to overcome them through gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to augment their wellbeing. The young have dreams and aspirations which deserve to be recognised and fully endorsed.

4. Developing communal integration and participation. There is a strong case for establishing more efficient and coherent services across health, education, social work departments and voluntary groups. Interventions aimed at alleviating disadvantage are obliged to be dynamic and multi-faceted in providing solutions across an extensive range of predicaments. Unfortunately, collaboration among agencies to develop and enrich distressed zones can be fragmented and time-limited. If information and directives are not competently distributed and understood in neighbourhoods, many may fail to know how best to become meaningfully involved. Perseverance, openness and transparency are indispensable ingredients for the implementation of constructive methods when engaging households in the process of improving the quality of everyday lives.

5. Effective use of public assets. The affluent and well-informed do make first-rate use of accessible municipal assets to supplement their children’s overall educational erudition. However, it would be expedient if there were more openings for everyone living in rundown localities to have better contact with these amenities and to benefit from them in genuinely purposeful ways. In general, insufficient use is made of the nation’s stock of regional resources to advance their chances for stimulating out-of-school learning. Museums, art galleries, libraries having computer-based facilities to counter ‘digital poverty’, historic monuments, science centres, sports programmes, apprenticeship courses, coaching schemes and the like can all be put to good use in reinforcing the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.

6. Utilising the expertise of altruistic volunteers. Another initiative aimed at narrowing the gaps in enterprise and scholarship is the deployment of unpaid helpers, including retired professionals, as mentors or advisers to interact constructively with young people. Thoughtful scrutiny is necessary to recruit from a wide variety of current or previous occupations and to select those who have the proficiencies which can inspire and transform lives. There are many conceivable inputs which committed citizens could contribute: tutoring to upgrade accomplishments in literacy, numeracy and technology; revising lessons during evening sessions; offering guidance on job interviews, employability skills and careers; preparing students for formal examinations in specific subjects; assisting with applications for tertiary education and the world of work; and so forth.

7. Increasing admissions to tertiary forms of education and training. The inhabitants of economically deprived surroundings require greater admittance into tertiary forms of education across colleges, universities, formal vocational courses, and industrial placements. For instance, it is well documented that places in universities for school leavers from the poorest districts remain stubbornly low despite much hullabaloo about this scandalous issue. More radical measures for estimating aptitude and academic ability are urgently needed. These could include better use of holistic assessment processes organised by universities and the commercial sector to gauge hidden flair and talents.  Instead of allowing a slide towards any lowering of standards – a topic which has been raised by some businesses – valid, alternative procedures for determining authentic potential in identifiable areas of instruction and study should be instigated. Of particular disquiet is the danger of teenagers not embarking on the most appropriate courses for entry into future, gainful livelihoods.  

8. Evaluation and accountability in the application of policies. As implied earlier, policy decisions and initiatives ought to have built into them a formal outline of data and predictions concerning the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the official bodies which hold the purse strings. These should include clearly stated targets and measures of what will be achieved with reference to the promotion of collective equality and the enhancement of occupational prospects. As plans are put into operation, they will entail impartial appraisal to ascertain how effectual they are in relation to what they set out to complete. Transparency and the addressing of unpalatable facts are fundamental in bringing forward essential improvements. Everybody has the right to be kept up-to-date on whether undertakings have matched expectations or fallen short of declared objectives.

Concluding remarks – or will we be fooled again? Further action research to identify the most proficient means of delivering and supplementing evidence-based methods would be advantageous. It is crucial to determine what combinations operate best and in what circumstances. It could be argued that all, or almost all, of the eight discussed strategies have been around for some time in one form or another with various levels of realisation. What have been missing are comprehensive, integrated and enduring forms of engagement which effectively eliminate the prerequisites of deprivation in different settings. We owe it to today’s pupils to ensure that promised solutions are fully executed and that they are not misled as were the generations which have gone before them.

How would the youth in Jose de Ribera’s portrait feel about the progress which has been made since his days as a street urchin? While, in general, being pleased with societal and educational developments, he may wonder why they have not been more successful. He may think that as long as there are dog-eat-dog economies – whether capitalist or communist – the poor and dispossessed will always be present. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would call for educational programmes and reforms which place a stronger emphasis on everyone’s worth, efficacy and dignity. He also might wish to highlight the prospective benefits in terms of wellbeing, happiness and economic advancement within a more unified and contented world.

Footnote: Other relevant articles in this series cover: quality in the curriculum; inspirational teachers; the promotion of authentic learning; potential, attainments and achievements; and diversity, equity and inclusion. For some links, please see below at “Related”.

 (Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

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Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Raising Potential, Attainments and Achievements

Frank O’Hagan

Crisis? What crisis?

Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists. 

Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among elements of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.

There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:

  • using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
  • the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
  • altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
  • the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.

Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that criteria are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) standards have never been deemed as high enough; and (2) the requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us!

Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics

Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to league tables, based on published results, for educational establishments. At times, procedures can amount to a series of nationwide humiliations. Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.

Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.

Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.

 ‘Closing the gap’

In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.

An institutionalized, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?

Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.   

The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making  decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.

Towards an agenda for improvement

Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing. 

Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.

During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.

The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.

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The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)

A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!  

Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.

The following points are worthy of further enquiry when the topic of potential, attainments and achievements are discussed:

  • accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
  • thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, particularly when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
  • there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
  • the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
Everyone can be a winner!

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)