Education thought-leader Professor Mel Ainscow, the keynote speaker at the Teaching & Learning Forum 2020 – hosted by QF’s Education Development Institute – on why individual differences must be seen as “opportunities for enriching learning”.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown new light on the existing challenges facing schools across the world. It has shown how, despite the efforts of teachers and school leaders, those students who are most vulnerable are more likely to experience the greatest impact in relation to their engagement in schools and progress in learning.
Many of these students are from low-income and minority backgrounds, as well as others with disabilities. In the current context, they are particularly vulnerable to marginalization, underachievement, and exclusion. Therefore, plans for recovery have to be inclusive, based on the principle suggested by UNESCO that “every child matters and matters equally”.
Since context matters when it comes to educational improvement, these plans must be driven at the local level. The aim must be to identify contextual barriers that are limiting the presence, participation and progress of some children and young people. We therefore need to know who is included and who is excluded from schooling. Without some way of counting, there can be no accountability for progress. At the same time, the process of analysis will draw attention to effective practices that can be used to address these barriers.
Whilst this process begins with an analysis of statistical evidence, it also requires an engagement with the views of stakeholders, including children and young people, and their families. At the same time, it will be vital to move with pace in responding to this evidence though school-focused developments.
It also has to be remembered that educational policies are made at all levels of an education system, not least at the school and classroom levels. Put simply, teachers are policy-makers
It also has to be remembered that educational policies are made at all levels of an education system, not least at the school and classroom levels. Put simply, teachers are policy-makers. Therefore, inclusive recovery plans will require a common understanding amongst all stakeholders of the intended outcomes of any proposals and the strategies being introduced to achieve these goals.
Evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that countries where teachers believe their profession is valued show higher levels of equity and excellence in learning outcomes. With this in mind, schools need to be reformed and practices need to be improved in ways that will lead teachers to respond positively to student diversity – seeing individual differences not as problems to be fixed, but as opportunities for enriching learning.
School leaders have to be skilful in encouraging coordinated and sustained efforts around the idea that changing outcomes for vulnerable groups of students is unlikely to be achieved unless there are changes in the behaviors of adults
Schools that make progress on this agenda usually have leaders who are committed to inclusive values, and to a leadership style that encourages a range of individuals to participate in leadership functions. Such schools are also likely to have good links with parents and with their communities. In addition, there is a recognition that the development of inclusive practices is likely to challenge the thinking of those within a school. This means that school leaders have to be skilful in encouraging coordinated and sustained efforts around the idea that changing outcomes for vulnerable groups of students is unlikely to be achieved unless there are changes in the behaviors of adults.
There is also strong evidence that partnerships between schools can help to reduce the polarization of schools, to the particular benefit of those learners who are marginalized on the edges of an education system. The aim must therefore be to move knowledge around, crossing borders between districts and school types.
The task of those involved in leadership roles must be to create a supportive climate that will encourage developments to address important strategic goals
Ensuring that all children receive effective support from their families and communities will be essential. In this respect, there are many examples internationally of what can happen when what schools do is aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players – employers, community groups, universities and public services. This does not necessarily mean schools doing more, but it does imply partnerships beyond the school gate, where partners multiply the impacts of each other’s efforts.
None of this will happen by chance; effective leadership is crucial. This will require school leaders to take on the role of system leaders. They need to see themselves as having a wider responsibility for system-level improvement, not just for their own schools.
The major factor in determining the success of such efforts is the collective will to make it happen. The task of those involved in leadership roles must be to create a supportive climate that will encourage developments to address important strategic goals.
Finally, all of this has significant implications for policymakers. In order to promote inclusive educational recovery, they need to foster greater flexibility at the local level in order that practitioners have the space to analyse their particular circumstances and determine priorities accordingly. This means that policymakers must recognize that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation. Rather, these should be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts.
__Mel Ainscow CBE is Professor of Education at the University of Glasgow, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester, and Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology. Examples of his writing can be found in: ‘Struggles for equity in education: the selected works of Mel Ainscow’ (Routledge World Library of Educationalists series, 2015). __