Educational Gap: focus on the school, not pupils, to reduce inequalities

Educators should now be focusing on closing the product gap (the way in which schools fail to cater for certain populations) rather on the idea of helping low-achieving groups to somehow catch up with the others. Investing in changing the low-achieving system rather than changing the pupils whose achievement is limited by the way the system operates, will result in bigger educational dividends for a greater proportion of pupils.

I was recently listening to a highly engaging podcast from UCL about whether children were learning under lockdown. The participants made numerous references to the ‘educational gap’, and discussed the likelihood that this gap would be widened during the current coronavirus crisis. The language being used around this gap started to bother me. It reminded me of the adage about education being not the filling of a bucket but the lighting the fire. All the talk about catching up, making up for lost time, children being behind and so forth suggested a highly bucket-filling agenda. It got me questioning what I think is meant by the term ‘educational gap’.

It seems that despite the efforts of the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Pupil Premium initiatives, there is still a substantial gap between the educational outcomes of poor children and their relatively better off peers. Maybe one of the problems is that we need to take another look at our understanding of the gap we are trying to close.

To date, it does seem that the focus for resolving the gap has been on the pupils rather than the school; that there is something about these pupils or their home background that needs fixing by giving them more of something which I’m going to call ‘filler’. The EEF put a great deal of work into identifying and specifying what this filler might be made of and not only came up with some very plausible ideas but also provided schools with cost-effect analysis. Follow-up research by the EEF found that despite all their recommendations, schools were still using the pupil premium funding in much the same way they were beforehand, and so their recommendations made little impact on school practice.

Maybe we’ve misunderstood this whole Gap thing. Maybe the gap is more to do with the way that schools design their educational offer in such a way that they just cater better for a certain sector of the population. In business, this is referred to as the ‘product gap’.

Wikipedia describes it as follows:

The product gap—also called the segment or positioning gap—is that part of the market a particular organization is excluded from because of product or service characteristics. This may be because the market is segmented and the organization does not have offerings in some segments, or because the organization positions its offerings in a way that effectively excludes certain potential consumers—because competitive offerings are much better placed for these consumers.

This segmentation may result from deliberate policy. Segmentation and positioning are powerful marketing techniques, but the trade-off—against better focus—is that market segments may effectively be put beyond reach. On the other hand, product gap can occur by default; the organization has thought out its positioning, its offerings drifted to a particular market segment.

The product gap may be the main element of the planning gap where an organization can have productive input; hence the emphasis on the importance of correct positioning.

Research carried out by Dennis Mongon and Christopher Chapman in 2008 into Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class boys suggested that we need to question to what extent their culture and family values are embraced and incorporated into the school culture. Professor Diane Reay, a Cambridge don from a working class background, identifies ‘A growing devaluing of the working classes in English society’ (Reay, 2017,p.12), and Pedro Portes describes how ‘The main obstacles to excellence and equity in education depend, in great part, on grasping the complex nature of how social inequality is socially organised and sustained.’ (Portes, 2005, p.3).

So, the next time you are reading about or discussing a gap in educational (or health) outcomes, take a minute to ask yourself, do we need to focus on changing the population or the product?

What are your thoughts? Do you have another viewpoint? Do you agree that a gap exists? How would you define that gap? Please leave a comment below and start a discussion.

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