Advice for the new education secretary: it’s time to get bold on inequality

Activities outside the classroom which build confidence and resilience are not part of the formal curriculum despite strong evidence that they help children to be the best they can be and grow into centred, productive adults. Government should drop its obsession with grades and embrace a new approach to dealing with educational inequality, says Professor Carol Fuller in a new piece for The Conversation.

Image by bobcox is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Image by bobcox is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Damian Hinds has been announced as the new education secretary in the prime minister’s cabinet reshuffle. He will replace Justine Greening, who is leaving the government.

He received one of the biggest promotions – he was previously employment minister in the Department for Work and Pensions. Before this he was exchequer secretary to the Treasury, and before that, a whip.

As part of his new role, Hinds will face tough decisions on school funding and university tuition fees, so here’s hoping he is up to the job. But given that Brexit is taking all of government’s energy and many considered Justine Greening to be valiantly battling a system in crisis without any support, I am somewhat doubtful as to the new education secretary’s ability to make much difference – an end to the government’s preoccupation with Brexit is not likely to be happening any time soon.

The one gleaming light though is that, as a previous chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, he may just have some understanding of the challenges we now face. To put it frankly, the educational attainment gap between “the haves” and “the have nots” shows no change despite numerous initiatives.

This must surely mean it is time for policy makers to get radical in trying to figure out why? In fact, I would go as far as to say that it is time to get creative and get children out of the classroom altogether.

Research has shown how activities that build confidence, resilience and self-efficacy outside the classroom successfully translate back into the classroom. But despite a wealth of evidence and research, activities like these are not part of the formal curriculum – nor are they Ofsted assessed.

This is shortsighted, because activities that help children achieve and become the best they can be, most surely offer benefits to society as a whole, by producing more resilient, productive adults? Children’s mental health is a key concern of the 21st century so surely this highlights very clearly that a rethink on the role and purpose of education is well overdue.

So, in warmly welcoming Mr Hinds to his new role, I also invite him to be bold and brave by recognising the importance of a bottom up approach to dealing with educational equality – rather than a top down one that remains transfixed with attainment figures and grades. And with this in mind, here are my top tips for the new education secretary.

1. Give the power back

A constant focus on attainment means that heads are too scared to divert staff time and resources from the sorts of activities that promote the skills young people need to develop fully and thrive. This is important because society needs its members to be resilient and confident – as well as literate and numerate – if they are to contribute fully to it.

2. Extend the remit of Ofsted

This should focus on the provision of well-being skills in schools – skills that will help pupils now and in the future. This would allow schools to invest their Pupil Premium – extra funding given to schools for students on free school meals – in the sorts of activities that help develop the whole child and not just the activities that can demonstrate “impact” on attainment in the short term. This is essential in promoting equality and tackling the crisis in well-being facing our young people.

3. Make teachers (feel) great again

Although Brexit is still likely to dominate over the coming year, don’t let it distract you. Our education system is in crisis and we have as much – if not more – educational inequality now than 50 years ago. It is time for a complete rethink on what is important within education and to plan for changes within the system. This should be done with the long term in mind, and not just until the next general election. A big part of this needs to be more focus on giving power back to the teachers – they are key to your success in the new role.

Frankly, I am tired of an educational system that “talks the talk” but doesn’t “walk the walk”. It’s time to get bold on inequality because surely it is the right of every child to achieve their full potential, regardless of who you are? Over to you, Mr Hinds.

This post was originally published on The Conversation, 10 January 2018.

Professor Carol Fuller is Associate Professor in the Institute of Education, University of Reading.

Previous posts on The Conversation by Institute of Education researchers include a piece by Professor Richard Harris on the detrimental effects of spending an extra year drilling for GCSE exams and another by Professor Suzanne Graham on how poorer children are less likely to learn languages in school.