Climbing The Hill
Poverty Is The Enemy But DfE & Ofsted Should Be Doing Much More To Celebrate The Work Of Schools Tackling Its Impact
The 2019 Measuring Poverty Report provides a detailed analysis on the metrics of poverty for people living in the UK, taking into account income, family composition, availability of resources and the persistence of poverty in certain households. The report headlines the percentage of children living with the impact of poverty has risen to 34% (4.6 million children), with more than 2.3 million classed as living in persistent poverty. A shocking 60% of those children classified in poverty are described as living in ‘deep’ poverty. A higher proportion of young people are experiencing multiple layers of disadvantage which have a direct impact on their education, levels of well-being, quality relationships and connection with the wider world. According to the report, this means that:
- One in five (18%) people in poverty live in a family where no one has any formal qualifications. This compares to 9% of those not in poverty.
- One in ten (8%) people in poverty rarely or never feel close to others, compared to 4% of those not in poverty.
- One in five (21%) people in poverty live in families where adults believe that people in their neighbourhood cannot be trusted. This compares to just 9% of people not in poverty.
- Over two thirds (69%) of people in poverty live in families where no adult saves, compared to 38% of those in families not in poverty.
- The link between poverty and young people’s life satisfaction is complex. But teachers will recognise that poverty and financial strain impact significantly on the mental health and well-being of children in our schools. The Good Childhood Report, published in August makes similar grim reading. Interviews with pupils aged 10 to 15 reveal that childhood happiness has dropped to the lowest level in a generation, reporting an estimated 200,000 young people are unhappy in their lives. The report details that income poverty contributes directly on life satisfaction, leaving children significantly more susceptible to depression.
Poverty indicators also constrain how satisfied young people are with school and the type of school work they are given - see visual below. Reinforced by the Varkey Foundation Generation Z Report of 2017, young people are increasingly disaffected by the nature of test based learning and the relevance of formal education with life beyond school. This could well be a reflection on the impact of recent examination reform and our obsession with test outcomes as the proxy for a good education.
The ‘magic roundabout’ of education policy making makes the challenge of refocusing education priorities even bigger. It is typified by political decision making based on what David Laws described in 2017 as “whim and hunch” and a blindness to the issues facing young people in a modern, complex society. Most DfE reference groups or policy think tanks consist of the education privileged, (the education VIPs), who did not grow up in poor households and spend the least amount of time in schools serving disadvantaged students. Typically, they view education through the lens of their own past experiences, imposing an education bias, conscious or otherwise, which does little to address the real challenges faced by families living with more limited resources. If this sounds harsh, the visual below published by the Elitist Britain Report published jointly by The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission makes interesting reading.
There is also a worrying time lag between political decision making in UK politics and the need to be future orientated. We are continuously running behind the highest performing school systems in developing a world class education system. Take curriculum reform as an example. The OECD Future of Education and Skills report highlights the importance of knowledge within the context of social awareness, environmental leadership and financial literacy. The report provides a blueprint for school age pupils entering the workforce in 2030 which values the need for education to concentrate as much on building agency and relationships as it does building knowledge and skills - see visual below. Student agency, collective efficacy and relational learning are critical to the success of our future learners.
By contrast, we are still locked in to retro-fitting the quality of education and classification of schools to an accountability framework which is largely based on testing, curriculum coverage (not depth) and data as the measurement of a school's worth. We also suffer from conformity bias where schools strive to create the education experiences perceived are important because of accountability. We have stopped asking how can we best serve children and focus instead on how students can leverage test scores. In other words, we teach pupils nonsense phonics words because this is what is valued most. This has led, over the years, to schools constricting curriculum, narrowing learning experiences and replicating strategies for improvement that are instructional rather than innovative. Even with changes to inspection, the fear is, inspectors will find a new metric to link quality of education to narrow outcomes. School accountability pressures have unwittingly created a generation of teachers as ‘task managers’ and ‘deliverers’.
Ofsted needs to play a bigger role in actively promoting innovative and transformative practice in schools serving our poorest children. This is exactly what the Social Mobility Commission highlighted in their annual report earlier this year. So too should Ofsted take greater responsibility in ensuring all schools are inspected with equity - which means working much harder to understand the barriers schools overcome to ensure pupils enjoy learning, develop strong affective domain as well as cognitive domain skills. Poverty plays a big role in how students feel about themselves and formal learning. Teachers working in our poorest communities need very different skills to those serving communities where privilege affords greater cultural capital, language and confidence.
There are wider benefits of recalibrating inspection values too. Reducing the fear of accountability will encourage schools to become more innovative in how they address specific, practical barriers of poverty. There are schools up and down the country achieving remarkable things against the odds whose work the system has much to learn from - the anti poverty initiative at North Denes Primary School in Great Yarmouth shown on Panorama recently being a good example. Within our partnership, removing the limiting focus on pupil outcomes in performance management has enabled staff to be far more creative in how they meet identify and meet pupils learning needs. Shared below are some examples of staff leadership projects that are making a real difference, giving staff the autonomy to become concept builders of learning rather than task managers of learning. They are a great example of the 'bottom up' innovation we talk about so much in our schools. See examples below:
Staff in Early Years are also striving to close the vocabulary gap through the development of an oracy initiative that is having a significant impact. We have published a blog about this here. These examples of classroom led leadership are exactly what we need to encourage in all schools. This can only be achieved if we learn to value more than an Ofsted judgement as the definition of our success. And this can be achieved if we are brave enough, future orientated and ethical leaders. Shared below are six key policy initiatives that could help us grow the kind of schools and education system which would benefit all students, including those at most risk from the impact of poverty.
Six key policy reforms that would ensure we better understand the impact of poverty in our schools and pay more attention to celebrating the amazing work taking place in schools tackling its impact:
Every HMI compelled to spend 2 weeks per year shadowing school leaders in successful schools with a track record for tackling disadvantage and poverty to share with inspectors and school leaders
Ofsted given a specific requirement to ensure education excellence in schools operating within the constraints of poverty is published and championed for other schools to learn from
DfE creates a tackling disadvantage in education reference group, which includes serving school leaders working in our most challenged schools to provide training and guidance to inspectors / schools
Each DfE education policy reference group or policy think tank required to include a minimum of 1 school teacher/leader working in the constraints of poverty and disadvantage
Inspection evaluation of curriculum to include specific focus on citizenship and social awareness as part of the drive to ensure curriculum meets community needs
All schools required to publish a language, communication and oracy strategy ensuring minimum expectations are developed with regards to proficiency in language construction and communication skills