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Bloops and bleeps: closing the wrong gap

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.

I’m going to tell you a story.

The country of Gap consisted of two main groups of citizens, Bloops and Beeps. Bloops and Bleeps could both understand each other’s languages although each group had its own dialect and culture which they felt most comfortable with, and which were most valued in their respective homes. Because the school system in Gap was originally created by Bloops, most teachers were from the Bloop community and lessons were delivered in the Bloop dialect. It became clear to the Gap Ministry of Education that Bleep children were not doing as well as Bloops, so they set about rectifying this. They set up programmes to give Bleeps extra lessons. All these programmes were designed by the Bloop teachers and delivered in the Bloop dialect. The achievements of the Bleeps remained problematic, and it was therefore assumed that Bleeps just weren’t up to academic success. Sometimes, clever Bleeps were picked out and sent to ‘very good schools’. They found that if you were the only Bleep in a good school, you did less well than if there were many Bleeps in a similar school.

One day, a new head teacher arrived at one of the Gap schools. She came from a Bleep family and had managed against all the odds to gain academic success. She started talking with her staff and found that although most of them acted like Bloops in school, some of them came from Bleep families like she had. Some of them said that they felt they had to put on an act when they came to work, to fit in with the Bloop culture. They decided to ask pupils what school was like for them and found that much more value was being placed on Bloopiness than Bleepiness. In fact, Bleeps were sometimes made to feel ashamed of their culture, and their dialect. Teachers started listening more closely to pupils, Bleep and Bloop alike, and involved them in deciding what went on in school, and how things were done there. They found that the decisions that were made by staff and pupils together worked better for all the pupils, and for staff as well. Pupils all did better academically, but the changes were biggest for the Bleeps, who now felt as though they were valued for who they were and didn’t feel ashamed of their dialect or their families.

Although this is a fictional account, it does relate to research, such as that carried out by Dennis Mongon and Christopher Chapman in 2008 into Successful leadership for promoting the achievement of white working class boys. Whether the Bleeps are white working class boys, children in care, or children from minority ethnic groups, 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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