I have been doing a lot of reading recently about inequality and education. It’s all pretty discouraging stuff: social mobility is falling; school exclusions are rising, often due to social inequalities beyond a school’s control; GSCE performance is rising slightly but there are concerns about the costs to pupils’ health. Are we teaching the pupil or teaching to the test? Although the relationships are complex, this is all happening at a time when the full effects of austerity-based policies have yet to be felt. Community resources and resilience are declining at the same time that budgetary controls limit the ability of schools to respond personally to a student’s needs.
Two ideas have cheered me when thinking about the long term changes that Cambridge Commons might influence. The first was presented by Danny Dorling in his Imagine 2027 lecture on education (https://bit.ly/2EADSJe). Danny is a demographer who looks at geographical patterns of inequality. The distribution is not random: areas of inequality and poverty are areas of low aspiration and achievement. The inference is that without major social change that division will persist.
His solution? To bridge the social divide by bringing all the schools in his home town (which is Oxford) into a single system which spans the inequalities within geographical boundaries. Pupils would not belong to individual schools. Rather, all schools belong to all the pupils. They may choose which subjects to study, where; which recreational and sporting facilities to access; and be able to pursue a wide range of artistic interests. There is for example already an Academy in Oxford that excels in poetry writing!
Such a radical change takes time and is not achieved in a single step. However Danny emphasised how the change of thinking can drive parallel social changes. For example, moving between educational premises demands safe pedestrian and cycle routes. It would help promote car free city policies: keeping children safe is a forceful political motivator. In Cambridge there is a developing range of transport options between University and healthcare sites.
Schools can be drivers of social integration. However competition – for example league tables – can reinforce segregation of the disadvantaged from the advantaged. Some consider that this division has become so entrenched as to be a threat to our democratic processes. As for example, the fallout from the Brexit vote.
David Runciman, who is professor of politics in Cambridge University, has recently suggested – and this is the second idea (link to podcast) – that the voting age should be substantially lowered even as far as six! If you can read you could vote, is his proposition. So all children of school age would become voters.
Now put the two ideas together: a city-wide schooling system with pupils and students having a major democratic input into how it is designed and run.
Could it be done?
The Open University had to be invented. In Hereford a new university for Engineering is being designed. A cohort of school pupils who are potential students are formally part of the design process from campus layout to curriculum design. Maths is not a requirement but skill in a creative field is considered a bonus. Learning will be in practical settings rather than theoretical classrooms.
Initiated by the last Labour government, the London Challenge which ran from 2003-2011, turned around many poorly performing London schools focussing on raising standards and narrowing the attainment gap between schools. It took many years, as many as until 2027. A key driver of change was co-operation between schools and sharing of expertise and leadership.
More than 800 schools in England are participating in co-operative networks as co-operation becomes seen to be a more effective route to raising standards than competition and league tables. Co-operative values can inform and support the curriculum design, teaching and structures for accountability and democracy. One such network is already established in Cambridge.
So just imagine a future Education Minister or members of a Council Education Committee for whom engagement with and understanding of the issues around inequality was a major part of a rewarding educational experience.
Worth striving towards? We have until 2027.