Closing or narrowing the gap? Taking a pupil centred perspective

by Carmen Mohamed.

The issue of Grammar schools has reared its head again as politicians argue about the most effective way of ‘narrowing the gap’ between the children of middle income families and those living in low income families or in poverty. Grammar schools have led the rise and fall of political parties since the 1960’s and the privilege ‘gap’ has been a bone of contention since the 1970’s in the UK with government reports as far back as Rampton in 1977. Since then, there have been regular reinventions of policies, ostensibly to promote social mobility, by all political parties. Policies were originally based on ethnicity and race such as ‘Contextual Value Added’ and ‘Every Child Matters’, and later on poverty such as ‘Pupil Premium’ and most recently ‘Ever 6’. Over the time of these circulating debates there has been no evidence that there has been any increase in the percentage of children from low income families attending grammar schools in regions where they have continued to exist and certainly no evidence that grammar-school-educated pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds did better in exams than those in local comprehensive schools. This continued pretence by elitist Government’s to offer a helping hand to those less fortunate than themselves is both patronising and unscrupulous.

As the generation from the tripartite system of education, many colleagues of working class heritage tell their own life stories of the impact of a Grammar school education. These stories offer rich diversity of experience and could provide evidence of any potential narrowing of a gap between them and the secondary modern pals they left behind. My own story is completely contrary, a close primary school friend opted for a grammar school education whilst I refused to follow, preferring, at that age, to stay with those I knew and understood. She is now an unemployed single parent living on a council estate and claims that was her biggest regret in life. I wonder how many of these stories remain untold, how does identification as an outsider (the Other) limit your potential once you are allowed entry to a different social strata through merit. Much is written about the way we respond to accents, vocabulary, social and cultural capital, these notions name us and sort us into groups ‘just like us’ and ‘not like us’. My own PhD drew on the work of sociologist’s discussions around how the ‘Pygmalion’ effect (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968) is perpetuated through pedagogies employed in classrooms and investigated what we in ITE could do to mitigate this during the training year.

John Dewey argued that the ‘problem with so many discussions is that they articulate different positions within the same set of assumptions’ (Biesta, 2014). If we are serious about ‘closing the attainment gap’ between those with social and cultural capital and those without, we might require a new perspective. Bernstein (1977) argued that the way we educate pupils in schools dictates how we are able, as a society, to reproduce the status quo or to transform our social structures and practices. This may well provide an answer, rather than changing the school structure and ‘allowing’ a few poor but clever kids into elite schools maybe we should be giving serious consideration to the way we teach, to our pedagogic practices. State education suggests that every child is capable of profiting from education. However, we all realise that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same schedule. The routinisation and standardisation of education has meant that every child has to be equipped to learn something presented in just one of many possible ways. This one size fits all method of teaching and evaluating teaching inevitably leads to a belief that it is the best way to guarantee universal results. Rather than asking why particular methods haven’t worked teachers are expected to attribute the difficulty to the learner and provide more focused interventions within a limited curriculum of maths and English, reducing the pupils’ education as well as their self-belief. This reduced educational practice is most regularly employed in schools with a high ratio of pupil premium funding so in reality the most disadvantage pupils receive the most limited education.

NCTL recently funded a series of ‘test and learn’ research projects to identify effective ways of ‘Closing the gap’. In the final summary they conclude that ‘there is potential for a micro-enquiry approach in ITT, supported by good research design and analysis skills’ (NCTL; 72). They suggest that teachers engaging with research should be focused on developing a curriculum which allows all pupils to make the effort in their learning with positive encouragement, this will be a cheaper, more effective way of closing the gap than any grammar school system.

Recently there has been a groundswell shift to talking about the pedagogies involved in ‘Mastery’ approaches to teaching and learning. Mastery is attributed to Bloom (1968) whose work signified the importance of children developing a deep understanding of a concept before moving on, to the next part of the sequence or the next concept. He also gave consideration to pupils being afforded the individualised time needed for mastery of the concept to be achieved. One significant contribution to the eradication of the ‘gap’, I would argue, is a move away from labelling pupils as ‘high ability’ or ‘low ability’ in teaching for ‘Mastery’. Isn’t it about time we listened to the research rather than the politicians and gave pupils the opportunity to make the effort needed to ‘master’ a concept or skill with positive teacher affirmation so we can build self-belief and self-efficacy in all pupils? You never know, they may just close the gap themselves.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

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