Quite rightly, the education system concerns itself with aspiring to ensure that all children get an equitable opportunity and that irrespective of their background they should have the chance to achieve and indeed attain at the same specified level as any other child.
To achieve the required improvements within the education system, we often see the use of policy levers to try and affect change, such as the Pupil Premium. This approach has led to significant amounts of money, and indeed attention, being focussed on those children who qualify for this type of support.
It is also interesting to see that the way we use language within education has evolved during the period since the Pupil Premium was introduced. Disadvantage has come to be defined in predominantly socio economic terms despite the fact that there are numerous other ways in which children can be disadvantaged either permanently or indeed temporarily.
As a result of this characterisation of disadvantage, focussing so visibly on one particular group of children, and holding schools accountable for the progress of this group through the inspection process, we risk drawing attention away from others also at risk of lower attainment. If we want to ensure that we create an increasingly equitable education system then it is also important to consider the way in which the policy decisions potentially work to disadvantage those within the system and as such risk promoting inequality.
In his eloquent and thought provoking book, “Don’t Send Him in Tomorrow”, Jarlath O’Brien highlights the impact of having a learning disability on the individual. This analysis is characterised by catastrophically low rates of employment, greater risk of permanent exclusion from education, more likely to be living in poverty or end up in prison and likely to die fifteen years earlier than the average life expectancy. However, the main investment in the education of children with Special Educational Needs or Disability (SEND) has focussed on the systems which govern access to provision. Less attention appears to have been given so far to the quality of the education on offer or indeed the impact of that education on later life. Yet there is limited value in having world class administration if we are still struggling to provide consistently good provision.
To this regard, it is worth noting that if a school performs poorly during inspection in relation to their pupils in receipt of free school meals, and as such in receipt of the Pupil Premium, then they can be compelled to participate in a Pupil Premium review. Yet no such mechanism currently exists for those schools whose pupils with SEND are identified as receiving a low quality education, or those with English as an Additional Language, to name just two other groups who may benefit from greater attention being focussed on the education they have access to.
We also need to be mindful of the transient nature of some vulnerabilities, the turmoil that children can be exposed to unexpectedly and the impact that it can have on them. One example of this can be found in the debates around mental health and the broader wellbeing of the children in our schools that are highlighting a perceived change in the needs of the children we work with. We need to consider the extent to which we are able to meet emerging disadvantages and vulnerabilities and what may be happening to affect the changes that we seem to be seeing.
We find ourselves in a situation where there are systems of accountability that draw attention towards particular groups and it requires strong moral leadership to ensure, that in responding to these pressures, schools do not find themselves distracted from the needs of pupils who do not fall within those categories. To fail to do so, risks allowing a system to flourish where some pupils’ disadvantage is seen to be more important than others.
School leaders need to ensure that they have the clarity of vision necessary to be able to drive improvement for all pupils, irrespective of whether the quality of what their schools offer as a result addresses the political priorities of the time.
It would be a dereliction of duty to focus only on the needs of policy, when every child deserves the very best from their education. When every child has the potential to be vulnerable sometimes.
Director of Education at the National Education Trust
This blog is an edited chapter from NET’s upcoming book Learning without Labels due for publication by John Catt books in the New Year.
The theme of vulnerable learners will be explored in NET’s upcoming event in partnership with the Teacher Development Trust on January 17th, details of which can be found here: