Making schools fairer: a close-up look at practice


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Authors: Jacky Lumby and Marianne Coleman

A great deal has been written about equality in education. There is general agreement that deep disadvantage persists for some groups of learners, and leaders look for support to change this. Above all, they are interested in the experience of practitioners in schools that face similar challenges to their own. This was the starting point for research we undertook, locating schools and leaders who had changed things in ways that were interesting or successful, or in some other way offered useful lessons. The results are reported in our new book, Leading for Equality: Making Schools Fairer.

With the help of colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales, we identified a range of practitioners, most commonly headteachers, but also union officials, inspectors and other school leaders and interviewed them about their experience. We were interested in how people approach the issue of inequality and what choices on the ground had been made and to what effect. The results were instances of action that might have been expected and others that were less so.

One example is children allowed to read the Qur’an during Mass. The headteacher grappled with how religious equality could be understood in a faith school that welcomes children of different faiths. How to in ensure inclusion and to navigate tensions between religious law and the laws of the state were difficult challenges, not least because of the strong preferences of parents. Leaders of both faith and community schools must find answers to such questions on a daily basis and inevitably face the approval of some and the disapproval of others for the choices they make.

Leading change is often assumed to be the headteacher's task, but in a Scottish primary, children have taken a key role in working with parents and the regional authority to ensure their school is equally welcoming for children, families and staff of different sexualities. Some argue that primary children are too young to deal with issues of this kind. As the headteacher points out, not dealing with the issue may leave single sex parent families, gay staff and, above all, children who are questioning their sexuality feeling a less valued part of the community. The impact can be more than emotional discomfort. The statistics on the attempted suicide of gay children when they reach secondary school are truly shocking.

Notification each week on Friday that migrant children will arrive on Monday is becoming an ever more common experience. Schools must address the trauma of many new arrivals, while refusing to see them as a 'problem': easy in theory, difficult in practice. Many migrant children need help recovering from horrific experience. They also often bring positive attitudes and excitement to take up new opportunities to learn. Headteachers in our research detail some of the ways they ensure all of the children in their school do well, rather than primarily focusing on lack of English language in particular groups. In one of our case schools migrant children are routinely placed in the top set. The deficit, if any, is seen not in migrants, but in staff in meeting diverse needs. Supporting staff to meet needs is the school's ongoing and first order priority.

Socio-economic inequalities underpin and intensify all other inequalities. Headteachers talked about the fundamental obligation to turnaround disadvantage and the multiple strategies needed long-term to achieve even partial success. Action included both tried and tested methods and startlingly original ideas such as transforming a staff room to be a VIP area for students meriting reward.

On occasion, headteachers outlined their experience of lack of progress as well as success and achievements. While national guidelines and normative texts may offer templates for action, these leaders detailed the inadequacy of tidy, pre-packaged action plans. Their experience was of a daily ongoing challenge to make choices that would be both applauded and decried. They generously contributed to the book in the hope, not that others would replicate their practice, but that the trials and experiments of their own experience would provoke thought and then action in others.

Leading for Equality: Making Schools Fairer, by Jacky Lumby and Marianne Coleman is published by Sage

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