Equity in Education is as its subtitle states ‘a manifesto for the reform of education in England’. It makes no use of the terms special educational needs or disability, and makes only a single reference to inclusion (social inclusion). However, it seeks to address problems that have a significant impact on the education of disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people, including those for whom SENCOs have a direct responsibility.

An intrinsically unfair system
The report argues that the education system in England is unfair and that children from different social backgrounds have access to different resources, have different experiences of education and achieve different outcomes. Rather than improving life chances for all children, the system, despite deploying policies and interventions designed to equalise these, reinforces advantages and disadvantages. This is most noticeable for the most marginalised children but the effects are ‘endemic’ and experienced by a much larger group.

Education reforms designed to address issues of unfairness and to improve educational standards have been implemented time and again for over 20 years. Despite some gains, the report claims they have not had any real impact on the inequitable nature of the education system. Government efforts to ‘narrow the gap’ have not sought to address fundamental social inequalities. They have also been hampered by policies that:

  • foster competition between schools
  • operate highly centralised and punitive accountability regimes
  • target failing schools and underachieving groups through a series of initiatives.

Underlying problems have not been addressed so these efforts have largely been wasted.

Too often, the report argues there has been a misplaced belief in the imperative that ‘if only the right initiatives can be found, and ‘structural solutions’ put in place, problems of inequity will be resolved.’ These initiatives, or potential solutions, even when they have some positive effects, fail because of a singular emphasis on standards.

A chance for real change
The only way that that the education system can be fairer and more equitable, argues the report, is if education policy is reconceptualised to focus on equity rather than raising attainment. This will require change that is as ‘significant as that marked by the 1988 Education Reform Act and, before that, the 1944 Education Act.’ Whether such change is on any politician’s agenda currently is very doubtful. However, the report notes that some features of a potentially successful approach are already known to us (see box below) and could be regarded as working principles.

Working principles of an equitable approachAn equitable system would:

  • be founded on a detailed and in depth understanding of the social contexts in which education takes place, both locally and nationally. It would:
    • recognise the link between social and educational inequality by tackling both simultaneously
    • develop a broader notion of the purposes of education, linked to what children and young people, their families and communities, bring to the system and want to gain from it.
  • create new learning opportunities and in doing so it would:
    • recognise education as something that happens not only in schools and colleges, but also in families, communities and workplaces
    • open up multiple pathways through the education system and multiple definitions of educational success, linked to a wide range of valuable future destinations.
  • also create new governance and accountability arrangements and in so doing, it would:
    • replace the current fragmented, competitive, institution-focused system with one based on collective responsibility and collaborative approaches
    • recognise the need for coordinated action at local level by all those capable of having an impact on locally grounded inequities
    • recast the role of the state as an enabler and critical friend, rather than as a central controller
    • establish a dialogue between local and national concerns to act as the basis for accountability.

Adapted from Equity in Education: Creating a Fairer Education System, p3

Although the implementation of these principles would require a major shift in political thinking about education some developments in recent years indicate that this is possible. For example:

  • unease about the current nature of curriculum and assessment, and attempts to modify these
  • an attempt to develop diverse pathways through the 14-19 phase
  • a shift away from the ‘lone school’ model and an increased emphasis on school collaboration
  • the broadening of the education agenda to touch on child, family and community wellbeing
  • the strengthening of links between education institutions (especially schools), and other organisations and agencies at local level
  • the establishment of formal mechanisms to promote area planning and collaboration.

These developments are too often ‘piecemeal’ or ineffective because they operate in competition with an all powerful standards agenda. Nevertheless, the report argues that as first step in a new direction, these initiatives – where they have been successful – can help us to move towards the creation of a more equitable education system.

Equity in Education: Creating a Fairer Education System. A Manifesto for Reform of Education in England can be downloaded.