Creative Teacher Support

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The Disadvantages of Disadvantage

I have a dissertation to write. It’s not a boast, it’s more of a foreboding admission at a time when I can’t remember the last time that I published a blog. Making time for writing, amidst some more still recent, let’s say, negative experiences of the ramifications of blogging, left me less than motivated. Despite making notes regarding my ideas, the shine rather dulled. Now, especially after a year deferred, the prospect of fitting it all in feels a little daunting.

After an inset last week, I’m reminded of a love I have for writing but more so the aid it gives me in determining and ordering my thoughts. When asked what job I would ideally do if not a teacher, I replied, I’d like to write.
I downloaded an app a while back now as part of a moment of procrastination that allowed me to record ideas when they come to me on my phone. There’s a Dropbox link and I can speak them into the phone…I was procrastinating, what can I say? Anyway, I came up with the idea of writing short blogs to start to help me to crystallise my analysis of relevant research for my literature review. This is really the first one of those. Hopefully, with a few of these under my belt, I’ll be closer to actually putting (metaphorical?) pen to paper to actually submit a research design proposal and get cracking on some writing.

I’ve sat through one “Saturday school” and, I have to admit, I missed the second – so will have to make that one up but, between that and an application for some funding towards the dissertation, I’ve come up with the following titles:

“To what extent does effective leadership of learning impact on improved teacher quality and improvement in a school in challenging circumstances?”
“A small scale study investigating the impact of CPD in a school which Requires Improvement”
“What is the nature of effective leadership of learning in a school judged to Require Improvement and in challenging circumstances?”

The likelihood, as always with things like this, is that someone academic (for want of a better word) will get hold of these and break them down into their constituent parts before suggesting something more interesting or radical in terms of research. For me, the non-negotiables, the aspects that need to be there are: “leadership of teaching and learning”, “challenging schools and circumstances” and the “impact and/or design of CPD” or possibly the difficulty of measuring impact of CPD. Whatever the combination, in order to make this worthwhile to me and my institution, these have to be there in some incarnation.

I’ve started my reading around disadvantage and education. It’s in the forefront of mine and my colleagues’ minds every day. The necessity to reach national average in terms of progress and achievement is continuously balanced and counter weighted by socio economic disadvantage and the knowledge that research says, despite some shining lights, that this will more than likely result in entrenched “under” achievement. I started with three journal articles (see references) each exploring this issue.

In many ways this start to my reading was both reassuring and depressing. I recognised almost all aspects discussed in the research I’ve initially focused on – this was reassuring in terms of the day job – but depressing in the sense that the same issues identified in and around 2004 are still endemic in schools in challenging circumstances. The premise of each paper begins with the assumption that, “schools in the poorest neighbourhoods are consistently adjudged to provide a lower quality of education than those in more advantaged areas.” (Lupton, 2005) In this context, “quality”, can be defined as, “school processes, such as the standard of teaching, rather than the aggregate student test results” (Lupton, 2005). This circumstance is further compounded by Ofsted findings in terms of the worst inspection grades and their correlation to schools with high levels of FSM and a further correlation when studied in relation to area deprivation scores. So far so what? We’ve heard this all before in a number of forms.

For me, the cognitive dissonance comes when we analyse education policy and its impact upon particularly schools in challenging circumstances. School effectiveness and school improvement research takes the position that, “all schools have the potential to improve and that there are certain internal conditions that are conducive to raising performance” (Harris & Ranson, 2005). However, when policies and their fallout are examined, what we actually find is that, “the structural relationship between poverty and underachievement is often being reinforced rather than dismantled” (Harris & Ranson, 2005). Policy has made things worse, not better, for schools in areas where high quality educational experiences have been at a premium for decades at a time. Partly due to context, partly due to policy, “in order to achieve and sustain improvement, such schools must exceed what might be termed as “normal” efforts…research has shown that teachers in schools facing challenging circumstances have to work much harder and be more committed than their peers in more favourable socioeconomic circumstances” (Mujis et al, 2010). It is different working in a school in challenging circumstances and in an area of socioeconomic deprivation.

A decent or “no brainer” way at least to start considering my own research may well be to consider what constitutes “challenging circumstances”. The research proposes a number of familiar issues: “many pupils with low prior attainment”; “evidence of widespread material poverty” manifesting itself in terms of students’ diets, health and lack of equipment or parental engagement; “a charged emotional atmosphere” as a result of higher numbers of students displaying symptoms of anxiety, trauma, unhappiness, jealousy, anger and vulnerability; low attendance; low parental participation (Lupton, 2005). Many of us will recognise at least aspects of this list as creating what Lupton (2005) refers to as the “unpredictable school”.

Themes begin to arise in each article regarding approaches to school improvement in this context. A focus on teaching and learning and the importance of effective leadership to mention only two, as well as creating positive cultures and “data rich environments” within a “learning community” (Mujis et al, 2010). Although fine pursuits and already in existence in many school improvement plans, there remain contradictions in these areas. Mujis et al (2010) suggest that pupils in the contexts discussed here “need more structure and more positive reinforcement from the teacher, and need to receive the curriculum in smaller packages followed by rapid feedback”, they need “more instruction” and lessons should be “teacher ledand practically focussed, but not low level or undemanding” (Mujis et al, 2010). However the danger exists in that “by offering them an impoverished curriculum social divides could be exacerbated rather than diminished” (Mujis et al, 2010). This is the necessity to create cultural literacy that I have written about before. The contradiction continue and therefore compound the complexity of the eduction of students in schools in challenging circumstances.

If, as in many of these schools, so called “national” standards are in fact aspirational, there must be a contextual consideration and, perhaps, measure of achievement by levels of progress may indeed support this consideration of context. However, the tendency for schools of this type to be faced with a higher number of students with low prior attainment creates a situation in which, in the “race” for achievement, students start considerably further back than the “start” line and don’t necessarily hear the starters pistol at the same time as the rest of the competitors. The suggestion though, that “local accountability systems and forms of governance are required, particularly in communities in poverty, to safeguard and protect educational interests and aspirations of those least able to do so” (Harris & Ranson, 2005) could be seen to be patronising and contradictory given that research concludes that the education policy of the last fifteen years has further compounded educational disadvantage. Creating top down structures in the a veign of “we know best”, unless balanced against and empirical understanding of what is really needed to facilitate improvement may only restart cycles of decline.

What is certain is that not all challenging schools are the same, despite sharing many similar symptoms such as: difficulty in recruitment and retention of quality staff, teaching staff underperformance (particularly linked to issues of maintaining high expectations) and pressures on management performance particularly given that senior leads in these schools are routinely “diverted to activities that would not be needed to the same extent in schools in more affluent neighbourhoods” (Lupton, 2005). Further complications are considerable, for example, the difficulty of using homework “takes longer in a school where many of the children struggle with basic literacy and where they do not have support with homework at home” (Lupton, 2005).

If I am to effectively traverse the dissertation, balanced by the “day job” in a school not dissimilar to those described above, I need to consider carefully the focus want /need around leadership, CPD and disadvantage in light of the fact that, “quality will not be consistently achieved in these circumstances by improving measures which concentrate solely on upskilling and motivating staff, since there is a limit to which better management, monitoring and training can secure good practice in the face of systemic constraints” (Lupton, 2005). Is the research effectively telling me that no matter how good my CPD programmes and the quality of my teachers, that improvement will plateau as a result of our context? I really hope not.

I want my research to give me some areas that I can see improve teaching and learning and achievement. This “triangulation“has become very important to me. Let’s hope that the next bout of reading supports the fact that there are some areas which will have impact. Even these papers acknowledge that there are some schools which have “done it”, transcended their context however it is measured.

If you read all the way through, thanks for sticking with it!

Lupton, R, (2005). Social justice and school improvemen: improving the quality of schooling in the poorest neighbourhoods . British Educational Research Journal. 31 (5), pp.589-604

Mujis, D. Harris, A. Chapman, C. Stoll, L. Russ, J., (2004). Improving schools in socioeconomic ally disadvantaged areas- a review of research evidence . School effectiveness and school improvement: an international journal of research, policy and practice. 15 (2), pp.149-175

Harris, A. Ranson, S, (2005). The contradiction of education policy: disadvantage and achievment. British educational research journal. 31 (5), pp.571-587