Closing the Educational Attainment Gap

Last week we published a report by Professor Chris Day on the role of Continuing Professional Development in closing the attainment gap.  Today, Professor Tommy MacKay offers his view.

Breaking the link between educational attainment and poverty has come to centre stage not only in Wales but in other parts of the UK. Currently it is front page headlines in Scotland following the announcement of a new drive to achieve this goal by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. That it is a worthy goal none would deny, and it has become part of the established political rhetoric both of the left and of the right. It is not a new rhetoric, having been echoed and re-echoed since the idea of ‘breaking the cycle of deprivation’ was first proposed. Half a century ago the work of the Plowden Committee on the attainment gap fuelled the impetus towards comprehensive education. There have been some notable initiatives and successes, but the gap still remains, and some of the evidence suggests it is widening.

The report by the Public Policy Institute for Wales (PPIW) focuses on the role of continuing professional development. As the author Chris Day makes clear the debate on attainment goes very much wider than education, but as he makes clear education plays a crucial role and within that CPD occupies a position of central importance. The first three of the PPIW’s ten ‘messages’ on what works are CPD messages, and the first of these is that ‘High quality continuing professional development works’.

 When we set up our West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative we embarked on what we described as being probably the longest, largest and most ambitious project of its kind in the world – a 10 year research programme with a sample of over 60,000 children and with a stated aim of achieving what had never been achieved before: the eradication of illiteracy. We too had 10 messages or ‘strands’. None of them in fact made reference to CPD. However, we acknowledged from the start that CPD was absolutely central for any of these strands to be developed and delivered.

For that reason our CPD programme was highly structured, centrally planned and as comprehensive as possible in its application to every aspect of the intervention. A package of training, training materials and support was made available; a standardised approach was taken; we targeted head teachers, class teachers, classroom assistants, specialist teachers, parents and volunteers as appropriate; and we monitored our training to ensure that it was being translated into practice and supported where necessary. Also, we did not just make training opportunities available to those who were interested or to representatives from the schools and other participating sectors: it was organised for everyone involved in the programme, differentiated according to the part they would play in delivery. There was therefore a significant resource implication.

Nevertheless, as the PPIW’s report makes clear, CPD, however central, is only part of the picture. No matter how high its quality, it will only ultimately be successful in any long-term, ambitious project if it operates in a particular context. For our West Dunbartonshire project, in addition to our 10 strands, we had five ‘context variables’: vision, profile, ownership, commitment and declaration. Without ideas like these, embedded as being integral to programme implementation, the most ambitious project will fail – and most of them do.

The relevance of the context is the subject of Message 10 in the report – ‘system leadership works’. For a project to succeed at any level of the system, it needs leaders at every level – at national level, area level, school level, classroom level. When we set out our five context variables, each of them had to be applied throughout the system. The vision had to be everybody’s vision. Only when it was being applied in reality as the vision of the Council leader, the Director of Education, the area specialists, the head teachers, the class teachers, the classroom assistants, would it become the personal vision of the children and young people themselves. So also with profile, ownership, commitment and declaration. Our project was to be a flagship policy for the whole of West Dunbartonshire and for every educational establishment; it belonged to everybody; it required the commitment of all; and all joined in a bold declaration that it would succeed.

The report has a welcome emphasis on high quality, dedicated head teachers and teachers who have a specific, unrelenting and exclusive focus on raising the expectations and achievement of pupils from low-income homes. That unrelenting dedication must be galvanised throughout the entire system, from the highest national level to the chalkface of the classroom.

The final PPIW recommendation focusses on evidence-based change models, to ensure the movement over time from high external resource dependency towards self-improving, self-sustaining models. Few things could be more crucial. But if the project is to succeed there must be a total commitment to being in it for the long haul. Most projects lack any reference to models of change. They focus on what we do rather than how we do it and how we sustain it. Sustaining success includes the need for caution in the timing of progression from external dependency to a self-sustaining model. The limits to devolved management of resources at school level must be recognised. Training, resource allocation and methodology are of such importance that they require a centralised element at a higher level than the school and ongoing monitoring over the long term no matter how self-sustaining and embedded programme delivery becomes.

Many hazards lie in the path. The West Dunbartonshire experience provides a perfect illustration. Over the 10 years of the project we had six changes of Director of Education, three changes of the education officer responsible for the project, three changes of project leader, a 90% change of staff in our specialist early intervention team, five changes of Council leader and four major political upheavals in the Council.

Nevertheless, the project was successful, and after 10 years in 2007 we announced the achievement of our goal. Wales too can be successful. However, it will take much longer than 10 years to address the wider challenges the report identifies, including the social and cultural challenge. We began our Herculean task in West Dunbartonshire with a bold declaration: ’10 years and we will eradicate illiteracy’. If Wales can begin with its own bold declaration, then perhaps it will be the first country in the world to break the link between educational attainment and poverty.

About the author: Professor Tommy Mackay is recognised as one of the UK’s leading psychologists. He is also the  Architect of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative and author of its final report, Achieving the Vision.


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