More gap gazing
This is taken from the first paragraph of the four-page executive summary of the CentreForum annual report on education:
Since 2005, average performance at the end of secondary school has improved by just over half a GCSE grade. Primary pupils are also achieving about a fifth of a National Curriculum Level higher than ten years ago.
It makes for a very depressing read, but not because of what it is supposedly telling us.
Firstly, whether it is based on reliable data or not, the report is barely comprehensible - what does a 'fifth of a National Curriculum level' represent? It is full of percentages about whether this region, or that class of people, or this race, have met this or that benchmark in this or that qualification. It is full of the usual mix of political-data-speak that we have come to expect - 'a world-class education', 'benchmarks', 'good passes' - whilst the language of levels is alive and well (what happened to life without levels?). There is of course no mention of wider educational aims.
Secondly, I am more depressed by the narrative it produces. It presents a deficit model of education, and society as a whole. There are sections entitled 'closing the disadvantage gap', 'pupil characteristics' and 'regional trends'. It is the worst of what Gutierrez terms a 'gap gazing fetish': a focus on 'achievement gaps' that arise a result of unhelpful data aggregations, thereby producing/reinforcing static social, economic, ethnic, or geographical categories, which in turn supports deficit thinking and leads to the creation of negative narratives, whilst perpetuating the myth that the solution is a technical one.
At a classroom level, we teachers help whichever students need our help, when they need it. What is the benefit in knowing that, on average, a this child from this (say) ethnic group might perform less well on their GCSEs than another child who is not of the same ethnic group?
Who are the losers in this discourse? Well, nearly everyone involved in education: the children, parents and teachers who fall under the gaze of the subsequent media 'outrage'.
The media chose to focus mostly on white British children (why?). White British children lose by being positioned as 'low-achievers' and labelled as 'lagging behind their ethnic minority peers'. Parents and teachers lose by being blamed for their lack of support. Non white British families lose by being blamed for taking away educational opportunities from 'poor white British children', for example in these words by Professor Alan Smithers at Buckingham University:
So the spotlight is currently on the deficits of the white British working class - all of them. With this 'knowledge', how might we move forward? Perhaps the report offers some guidance on this? And more importantly, how can we alter the narratives that the report has reinforced?
A way out?
The conclusion of the report, if you make it to page 79, looks like this:
78 pages, for this. What are we to make of this?
Since the report, there has been much written on Twitter about what it means to come from the white British working class, such as this from @jarlathobrien and this from @debrakidd. What is important about these accounts is that they are personal stories about what it is like to face (and overcome) adversity by whatever means possible. I too have scrabbled my way 'up' from the working class to the middle classes, but this isn't about telling my story.
These accounts suggest a way we might counter-act the negative effects of gap-gazing provided by this report. Instead of producing a narrative of deficit, could we instead amplify other people's accounts who are finding ways to change the narrative?
The hashtag #pushthepositive was created by @edifiedlistener with this in mind - to divert the gaze on the deficits of *this* group, and instead amplify positive words and actions of *all* of those people who are being oppressed.
We can all contribute to this by elevating the voices of all those who are fighting to overcome oppression, by: listening (not talking), acknowledging what power and privilege we have (and the effect it has on others), and celebrating and amplifying others through our words and actions.