Levelling up in education will demand some major changes in the school system

  • Living standards and Levelling up

Professor Ruth Lupton, Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester  

Here Professor Ruth Lupton suggests that some fundamental changes must be made to the school system for levelling up to be effective.  The piece explores issues such as cross-governmental education strategy, redistributive funding, and the ways we currently hold schools accountable.

Levelling up in education– yes please!

The government is right to focus its ‘levelling up’ agenda on the uneven economic development that has accompanied our transition from a largely industrial to a largely knowledge-based economy. We aren’t going to tackle big inequalities in life expectancy, health, education, civic engagement and hope unless places across the country have solid economic foundations and aspirations.

But this won’t do on its own.  We also need social policies which respond to, mitigate, and help to redress current inequalities and which build economic participation now and in the future. Social as well as economic levelling up is required.

In education policy, we are used to hearing policy pledges to equalise opportunity, narrow attainment gaps and/or increase social mobility. But the truth is that even before the pandemic progress was very slow.  In 2019, the Education Policy Institute projected that, at current rates of progress, it would take 560 years to close the ‘disadvantage gap’ in GCSE attainment.  COVID-19 has made this worse.  Geographical patterns in educational attainment are now well known. The strength of the school system also varies by area.

This is why, in our recent book, Debra Hayes and I argue for the need to look again at the role of education policies in addressing inequalities.  The school system has not adequately responded to the growing economic, social and spatial inequalities that have characterised the last thirty to forty years of economic transition.  It needs to now.

What does history tell us?

We asked some simple questions in our book: have education policies since the 1980s made education better and fairer, and if not, why not?  Researching this demonstrated to us the need for better synthesis in social science research, and for more conversation between disciplines. There are mountains of academic studies covering every issue, making it hard to see the wood for the trees.  But big lessons can be learned, if we are willing to look at ethnography as well as statistics, classroom observation as well as economics, sociology as well as psychology.

Focusing on schools rather than early years education, post-school vocational or higher education, we argue that the evidence points to five major ‘policy wrong turns’ that, together, have meant that our education system hasn’t been able to respond sufficiently to the challenges of our divided society and indeed have effectively ‘hardwired’ inequitable outcomes into policies and practices.

The key one, in relation to the current agenda, is not sufficiently reflecting in policy design and funding the ‘social determinants’ of education – family income and wealth; physical and mental health; housing and neighbourhood conditions and so on. And this is despite multiple studies showing that only 10 to 20 per cent of the differences in educational outcomes are down to schools, and clear evidence of a causal relationship between poverty and worse outcomes.  This has led to a lack of integration between education and other social policies, insufficiently redistributive funding formulae, and an over-reliance on what schools and teachers can do. Pressure on schools to narrow an attainment gap largely caused by ‘upstream’ inequalities has produced practices such as narrowed curriculum, limiting pedagogy, and ability grouping, which have actually contributed to the problem rather than fixing it.

The effects of this limited approach have been compounded by other mistakes. A major one is relying on market models of school provision.  There is some evidence that competition can lead to improvements in results, and that autonomy can lead the locally-tailored practices which produce success in the most difficult settings. But the problem is that school markets also produce practices which exclude and marginalise the most disadvantaged and vulnerable learners, promote social sorting and leave some schools residualised. They can lead to standardisation rather than diversity of practice, while autonomy can produce efficiency, but doesn’t necessarily do so.

Alongside this is the problem of letting numbers and targets drive education policies – becoming the reasoning arguments or ‘logos’ of education policy, as policy sociologist Bob Lingard has put it, as well as the central device for managing the system and holding schools to account.  Combined with increasingly divorcing policy-making from educational research and practice and relying too much on limited quantitative evidence, this has created a situation where we have lost sight of aspects of education that are harder to measure.  A fifth big ‘wrong turn’ has been the tendency to over-prescribe teachers’ work, so that they are less able to use their knowledge and professional judgement: something which is particularly important in areas of high poverty and difference and where engagement with education cannot be taken for granted.  The government’s recent review of initial teacher training signals another worrying step in that direction.

None of these policies and their consequences are limited to ‘left behind’ places.  But they have contributed to uneven geographies of educational success. Partly this is because some of the negative consequences of policies of marketisation and test-driven accountability (such as curriculum narrowing) are most prevalent  in areas where schools face the biggest challenges, organisationally and in reaching the required targets.  Partly, it is because it is more difficult to do education well in challenging contexts.  Policies which see equity as just a matter of quality – getting a good school in each area – miss the point about the extra work and the contextualised approaches that are needed to equalise outcomes.  So geographical inequalities persist.

Policy priorities

My priorities for a government concerned with educational levelling up would therefore be as follows:

i)  Develop a cross-governmental strategy for equalising childhoods, incorporating family income, health, housing, transport, culture and leisure, as well as education.  In so doing, include educational outcomes as just one element of a shared set of goals for children, for which local organisations would be jointly responsible. This would promote collaboration and limit the damaging effects of competition.

ii)  Do what it takes to make sure the very best schools are in the poorest areas. This will mean much more redistributive funding, but also recognising the different organisational models, skills and practices that might be needed: multi-agency support; professional development for teachers and heads; different staffing structures and career pathways.

iii)  Decouple school accountability from tests and exams, so that schools are judged on what they do, not on test results. Along with broader goals and collective accountabilities, this would minimise many of the damaging and limiting practices that disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged pupils.  Practical proposals for how this could be done are emerging.

These would be major system changes. Over the next year or so, we are going to hear a lot more proposals of this kind, as various independent commissions on education and childhood report their findings*.  I hope DfE will be scrutinising these for their ‘levelling up’ implications and responding accordingly, firmly linking the two agendas in a more substantial way than we have seen to date.

*These include the Times Education Commission, the IPPR/Big Change Co-Mission on the Future of and Purpose of Education, the Independent Assessment Commission, the Pearson review on the future of qualifications and assessment and the Children’s Commissioner for England Childhood Commission


Photo Credit: CDC on Unsplash

About the author

Ruth Lupton is Honorary Professor at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Professor Lupton works on projects related to educational, social and spatial inequalities. She was previously Principal Research Fellow and Deputy Director at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at LSE, and a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Education at the UCL Institute of Education.