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.