I should be completing my next evidence-based post but, 24 hours on from reading this evidence-light Guardian article by Laura McInerney, I am still incandescent.
I find I cannot return to normal business until I have shredded these flimsy arguments. So this post is by way of catharsis.
McInerney’s core premiss is that political parties of all colours focus disproportionately on ‘the smartest children’ while ‘ignoring lower ability learners’.
This poisonous ideology seems particularly prevalent amongst Teach First types. I imagine they are regurgitating lessons they learned on its courses,
Ideologues cannot be persuaded by evidence, so there is no hope for McInerney and her ilk, but I hope that more open-minded readers will be swayed a little by the reasoning below.
What does she mean by ability?
McInerney distinguishes learners who are ‘smart’ or ‘bright’ from those who are ‘lower ability’. This betrays a curious adherence to old-fashioned notions of fixed ability, dividing children into sheep and goats.
There is no recognition of ability as a continuum, or of the capacity of learners to improve through effort, if given the right support.
The principles of personalised learning are thrown out of the window.
Education is not a matter of enabling every learner to ‘become the best that they can be’. Instead it is a zero sum game, trading off the benefits given to one fixed group – the smart kids – against those allegedly denied to another – the lower ability learners.
There is also an elementary confusion between ability and attainment.
It seems that McInerney is concerned with the latter (‘get good marks’; ‘received a high grade’) yet her terminology (‘lower-ability pupils’; ‘the smartest children’; ‘gifted and talented’) is heavily redolent of the former.
What does she mean by focusing on the top rather than the tail?
According to McInerney’s notions, these ‘lower ability’ kids face a sad destiny. They are ‘more likely to truant, be excluded or become unemployed’, more likely to ‘slip into unskilled jobs’ and, by implication, form part of the prison population (‘75% of prisoners are illiterate’).
If we accept that low attainers are preponderant in these categories, then it is logical to conclude that programmes focused on tackling such problems are predominantly benefiting low attainers.
So governments’ investment in action to improve behaviour and discipline, tackle truancy and offer Alternative Provision must be distributed accordingly when we are calculating the inputs on either side of this equation.
Since the bulk of those with special educational needs are also low attainers, the same logic must be applied to SEN funding.
And of course most of the £2.5bn pupil premium budget is headed in the same direction.
Set against the size of some of these budgets, Labour’s commitment to invest a paltry £15 million in supporting high attainers pales into insignificance.
There are precious few programmes that disproportionately support high attainers. One might cite BIS support for fair access and possibly DfE support for the Music and Dance Scheme. Most are ‘penny packages’ by comparison.
When the national gifted and talented programme was at its peak it also cost no more than £15m a year.
Viewed in this way, it is abundantly clear that low attainers continue to attract the lion’s share of educational funding and political attention. The distasteful medical analogy with which McInerney opens her piece is just plain wrong.
The simple reason is that substantial investment in high attainers is politically unacceptable.
Even though one could make a convincing case that the economic benefits of investing in the ‘smart fraction’ are broadly commensurate with those derived from shortening the ‘long tail’.
Of course we need to do both simultaneously. This is not a zero sum game.
Deficit model thinking
McInerney is engaged in deficit model thinking.
There is no substance to her suggestion that the government’s social mobility strategy is disproportionately focused on ‘making high court judges’. Take a look at the Social Mobility Indicators if you don’t believe me.
McInerney is dangerously close to suggesting that, because low attainers are predominantly disadvantaged, all disadvantaged learners are low attainers. Labour’s commitment is a sop for the middle classes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But high-attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will not succeed without the requisite support. They have an equal right to such support: they are not ‘the healthiest’, pushing in front of ‘the sickest’ low attainers. Equally, they should not be expected to go to the back of the queue.
There are powerful economic and equity arguments for ensuring that more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds progress to competitive universities and professional careers.
As and when more succeed, they serve as role models for younger learners, persuading them that they too can follow suit.
McInerney has made that journey personally so I find it hard to understand why she has fallen prey to anti-elitism.
Her criticism of Labour is sadly misplaced. She should be asking instead why other parties are not matching their commitment.
According to her there was a golden age under Blunkett ‘who really believed in helping all children, not mostly the smartest.’
Guess who was Secretary of State when Labour first offered support to gifted and talented learners?
He fully appreciated that the tail should not wag the dog.
[Postscript: Here is the Twitter debate that followed this post. Scroll down to the bottom and work upwards to read the discussion in broadly chronological order.]
.Tweets by @giftedphoenix