A Word on “Educational Inequality”

The phrase ‘educational inequality‘ has crept quietly into England’s edu-policy lexicon and displaced the previously much-used phrase ‘educational disadvantage‘ – but we need to be careful. There is a crucial difference between the two and I’m concerned that the first is being horribly misused.

Educational inequality is a salient concept in the US and rightly so. Schools in the US are predominantly funded via local property taxes. Ergo, schools in poor areas harvest far lower amounts of funding than in wealthy areas – e.g. in Chicago the richest area provides $24k per child, in the poorest just $7k. Given that schools in poorer areas usually serve more complex populations and need to pay higher wages to recruit quality teachers, it is quite ludicrous that the poorest areas get the lowest amount of funding because it means inequality begets inequality.

In England the inequality is not the same, at least in terms of inputs. Schools with the most complex needs have typically been given the largest amount of funding, and since the introduction of the Coalition’s Pupil Premium students from lower income families go to schools that are systematically given greater amounts of money. The inequality is therefore in favour of poorer students.

None of this means that inequality of outcome does not exist in education. When students in poorer families are still achieving significantly lower GCSE results than wealthier counterparts it is clearly the case that there is a difference. But the phrase ‘educational inquality’ makes it sound as if poorer students are getting a worse education which isn’t necessarily true.

It is this kind of language issue which partly* caused the upset over TeachFirst’s recent charity campaign. The US sister company, TeachForAmerica, uses “educational inequality” in its funding drives because in the US it makes sense. Some areas really do have far less funding and struggle to recruit and retain excellent teachers given the low salaries they can pay. In the UK, when you say that students are ‘suffering educational inequality’ it makes it sound as if some schools in poor areas are merely ‘choosing’ to do a terrible job even though they have the same funds as others and that TeachFirsters are going to swoop in and try harder. Which isn’t true, and I honestly don’t believe is what the organisation intended to portray.

The second problem of the term “educational inequality” is that it seems to set groups against each other and conjures an image of poor children being ‘saved’ from a poor education at home by their school, even though a growing body of evidence shows that many poorer families do a great job of supporting their children’s abilities and aspirations. The term ‘educational disadvantage’ isn’t as easy obvious to grasp because there isn’t the ‘inequality’ visual, but for me it meant I thought about the disadvantages that individuals or groups faced. For example, a student may come from a reasonably wealthy family but if her mother is an alcoholic and her father doesn’t believe in girls learning, say, maths or science – then that child has educational disadvantages in a way that ‘educational inequality’ doesn’t seem to capture. Arguably coming from a home where your family is not supportive of you is a type of educational inequality, but somehow that nuance has been lost in an argument about ‘poor’ and ‘wealthy’ families when the reality is more complicated.

I will end by again pointing out that I do understand inequalities of educational outcome exist. Inequalities in educational input also exist. Some students will have less access to books, the internet, parents who talk to them, etc,. But we need to be careful that we don’t use ‘educational inequality’ as a shorthand for ‘poor children go to worse schools’ which is what that phrase can fast be taken to mean, and which isn’t useful at all.

* I know this is not the totality of the reasons why people are upset about TeachFirst. Those are too numerous for here. What I will say on the matter is that I was a TeachFirster between 2006 and 2008. I have also worked on numerous projects with the organisation ever since, and I know the phenomenal work it does providing extended CPD for its ambassadors way after the programme has finished and for providing mentoring/extra-curricular/internship opportunities to the students in the schools that TeachFirsters work in. It was those projects and CPD that kept me excited and involved in education and I think the charity is an important, useful, pathway for people who want to get into teaching. For those who disagree I am happy to answer any questions on this matter in the comments below, or on twitter.

Categories: Accountability Reforms, Philosophy of Education

5 replies

  1. That’s really interesting, thank you. I didn’t know that about the way schools are funded in the US. I’m afraid that I do have a big problem with the way that Teach First is currently being run. I’ve just read this evening that they are now planning to get involved in early years. I’m sorry but I simply cannot read this any other way than as a suggestion that our wonderful EYP is simply ‘not good enough’. This despite the fact that she went to uni as a mature student, re-sat her GCSE maths, and got through the EYP course, whilst bringing up her family. I’ve got a first class teaching degree but I know for a fact that she runs our setting better than I ever could. The 2 reasons we can ‘afford’ a graduate leader are (a) because she works for peanuts and (b) because I help her run our setting, but as a volunteer. I fail to see how parachuting in ‘high fliers’ is going to change outcomes for the children. Ratios are what matter.

    • Sue…. I empathise entirely with the viewpoint that TeachFirsts messaging sometimes gives the impression that *only* “top” graduates can do a job well. If that is the impression, I certainly don’t think it’s the intention – either of those in the organisation, but certainly of people who do the programme and go on to work with/for it afterwards.

      Across the Early Years sector there are many incredible leaders and I think the pay for the work done is, frankly, crazy. You mention about your colleague working for peanuts, which has been a long systemic problem with all types of care work (though the reasons for this are slightly aside). That said, I think there is benefit in making early years a ‘career choice’ for a broader range of people, particularly those who have all the great attributes of someone who would work with young children but for whatever reason have never considered it as a career or have been actively discouraged. One of the things we’ve found in TeachFirst is how many people – particularly from professional families – are brought up to believe that teaching/caring are ‘lowly’ professions and their parents would normally be very disappointed if their son/daughter picked to do this. The “leadership” element of Teachfirst – the selectivity, the prestige, the continuous training – often works to assuage those parents’ concerns and means that people with great skills who would otherwise have been forced into accounting or law are now working with young people who benefit from them. This is one of the reasons why TeachFirst is so strict about entry requirements – actually, they are less strict on ‘academics’ than expected, a 2:1 from anywhere will suffice – but they are very very fussy about competencies. I don’t think there’s been a single year when TF has hit its recruitment targets because they simply won’t take “intelligent but unsuitable” people.

      For me then I’ve often thought as TeachFirst as a way of *broadening* the people who are involved, and not as a way of replacing or denigrating anyone else already in the profession or who wants to enter through an alternative route. And I think this diversity is a good thing as long as there is no dip in quality.

      That said, I still have some reservations about how the shift will work: the training, how it will be advertised, how quickly the programme grows, how they will be mentored and monitored, etc. These were all vital to the success of TeachFirst teachers in initial cohorts and will be the same. I also agree that the ratio issue cannot be ‘displaced’ by yelling “BUT WE BROUGHT IN TEACHFIRST”. Those are two separate things that the government needs to justify independent of one another.

  2. Thank you for your detailed response. I’m sorry, but I’m still not convinced because I know what it’s like to actually RUN an early years setting, which I’ve been doing as a volunteer for 4 years now.

    I have a few other questions/issues. I would love to know how they are going to pay these TeachFirsters coming into early years? Do you have any info on that? I cannot afford to pay our EYP the equivalent of a teacher’s salary (unless, of course I were to use those wonderful 1 to 13 ‘flexible working arrangements’ that Liz Truss so admires). However, at our setting we are committed to a ratio of around 1 to 5 because we believe the most valuable thing we can offer children is adult attention, and especially the chance to build language skills (which incidentally I believe is at the heart of the literacy issue, not poor teaching). This means I can only pay our EYP a fairly low wage, and that I have to do a kind of manager’s role for nothing. If we parachute in a TeachFirster, but then put the ratios at 1 to 13, there is just no way that the children can get the experience we demand for our local kids. (Plus our parents would be HORRIFIED!)

    I also have an issue with the timing of this announcement, so close on the heels of what Liz Truss has been saying (‘chaotic nurseries’, ‘flexible working arrangements’). I have my suspicions that she is slapping the sector around a bit so that they feel obliged to use 1 to 13 ratios. You have to remember that this is a sector where there are a real mix of providers – many private nurseries, LA run nurseries, but also voluntary run charitable settings like ours.

    I would also be very wary about employing someone at our setting who only decided to come into early years because of Teach First. If you truly see it as a vocation (which is has to be, surely, to be a teacher?) then you would ignore your parents’ disapproval and train in it right from the start. I trained to teach 3 to 8 year olds, and did a 4 year degree course (at the time those still existed). I fail to see why a 2:1 and being deemed ‘suitable’ by TF is a magic bullet. I also fail to see why ‘prestige’ would matter if you are dedicated to helping children. It’s not about your ego, surely, it’s about the KIDS.

    Interestingly, many practitioners come to early years through the parental route. This is what happened with our EYP. It took her years of hard work and study to get to where she is now (that GCSE maths was a big hurdle for her, but she got over it eventually with our support). She is truly inspirational and totally suited to her role. So, I cannot see how this new TF scheme can be anything other than an insult to those like her who have strived for years to get where they are, because of their dedication to young children. I’m sorry but that is just how I see it.

    Anyway, it’s great to hear from someone TF who is clearly so passionate about education, rather than leaving after the ‘2 year stint’ is up. Education is a vocation, not a lifestyle choice.

    You may find this of interest:


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