Delivering our new strategy: closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children
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Delivering our new strategy: closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children

A roundtable chaired by Ravi Gurumurthy, Nesta’s CEO, with Leon Feinstein, Assistant Professor of Education and Children's Social Care, Oxford University; Becky Francis, CEO Education Endowment Foundation; Peter Hyman, Co-Director Big Education and co-founder School 21; Gill Jones, Deputy Director, Schools and Early Education, Ofsted; Alice Mathers Head of Research, Good Things Foundation

The circumstances of childhood determine the trajectory of our lives. Children born into disadvantage are far more likely to experience poorer health, lower earnings, a shorter life expectancy and lower levels of happiness than their peers: 80 per cent of the divergence is driven by children’s circumstances between the early years and secondary school period.

One of the three missions of our new strategy is the elimination of the outcome gap between those growing up in disadvantage and the national average by 2030. What challenges will we face in delivering this objective, and where can our strengths be focused effectively?

We know that partnership is key to Nesta’s work. There are three roles through which we can deliver our strategy: as innovation partner – working closely with frontline organisations across the UK to design, test and scale new solutions; creating new ventures and working with early-stage enterprises to generate long-term impact and value; and shaping systems by removing barriers to scaling that we encounter. In education, innovation partnerships and working with groups of schools will be vital. We can’t shift the outcomes by working in isolation.

To scope the way forward, we convened a roundtable that brought together leading figures across education.

What are the major challenges to closing the attainment gap?

The panel agreed that despite numerous initiatives the landscape of secondary education continues to frustrate attempts at universal solutions. They described the system as 'patchy' and 'unbalanced' and pointed to the critical influence of early years, primary education and structural inequalities - racial and economic - on secondary age students. While there are some well-established, effective interventions that can be rolled out along the lines of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), there are probably only a handful of them.

Overall they felt that there had been a shift in focus from the holistic approach towards young people’s futures, as advocated by Every Child Matters, to a narrowed emphasis on academic outcomes. This was often not sensitive to context or individual need. For example, '[when children are] caring for parents with mental health difficulties or are in temporary housing, then being forced through a narrow education curriculum is not sufficient to change their situation.'

'Whatever we do has to support the schools that look after disadvantaged children to help those children navigate their journey to the future - and we probably have to accept that an academic future isn’t for everyone.'

It was pointed out that academic assessment by examination and a knowledge-centred curriculum is popular with both policymakers and the public and so remains (for the moment) a strong indicator of long-term outcomes. On the other hand, there is a growing understanding that this does not necessarily reflect the wider needs of young people nor cultivate skills that employers are increasingly looking for.

Importantly, the panel questioned whether the existing system and its output measures at the end of secondary school currently 'disadvantage the schools that serve the disadvantaged.'

Because schools in areas of higher deprivation lack the supporting infrastructure they will struggle to deliver against current success measures, perpetuating a cycle of perceived failure, although 'many of the issues schools are dealing with are not within their gift.'

In terms of measures that are known to work, it was argued that 'you can ensure equitable quality across schooling through improving teacher and leadership quality'” But this means attracting and retaining strong teachers and school leaders in areas of the greatest disadvantage. This is still a problem. New leaders are consequently often 'parachuted in' to fix failing schools with little understanding of the place or people.

Where are the challenges and opportunities for Nesta?

The panel suggested that it’s necessary to first develop a deeper understanding of the concept of attainment. The roundtable asked if it is possible to enable all disadvantaged children to do better under the present system through improving school environments, pedagogical approaches and teaching quality - or whether we should be attempting to change the system to one that addresses disadvantage through 'unlocking the assessment system' to better reflect a balance of 'knowledge, skills and attributes?'

There was agreement that we should avoid thinking 'that we already know what works' – measures to improve attainment can end up benefiting those who need them least. To avoid this we need locally-focused research that looks at how economic and social disadvantage is taken into school and influences educational outcomes.

'Nesta are experts at design thinking. One of the great things about this is that you dwell on the problem. You don't rush for solutions. We've tried many things over the last 10 or 15 years - Teach First and Brilliant Clubs and more tutoring and boot camps. How much good did they do and what is the remaining problem? So what are the experiments that Nesta could do around wellbeing? Around creativity? Around anti -racism work to see who's been held back. What are the experiments in curriculum design?'

The panel felt that Nesta can promote 'design thinking', through which persistent problems can be reframed and unlocked by trialling innovative solutions, at school level to help identify local solutions to attainment. Nesta’s record of innovation is based on quality research that will be needed to map the systems around children and families that determine educational attainment. Nesta can also mobilise networks to help schools increase their social and cultural strengths and attract quality teachers and leaders.

However, to have an impact across secondary education nationally, Nesta must evolve scalable innovations that can be adapted to different environments.

Place-based approaches emerged as an area where Nesta could make inroads, and have a 'real focus and voice'” For example, drawing on our experience in building local networks we could drive up local capacity to ensure that schools are better resourced.

'The place-based approach and the ecosystem is critical, because schools aren't sitting in a void. If the last year's taught us anything, it is the value of those networks and those interdependencies that the school has with the family, the pupils, the surrounding services.'

Through research and partnership, Nesta could use innovation and evidence at a local level to build a national consensus around what measures are needed to close the attainment gap. The panel also suggested that alongside grassroots work,we can use our influence as the national innovation agency to drive top-down changes in policy.

What next?

'[Our role should be] to question the standard definition of the problem and conventional wisdom on the solution.'

A snap poll of the panel at the end of the roundtable provided five suggested priority areas of work to investigate further. These included building the infrastructure to support schools to be more effective, examining opportunities that tackle the social inequalities stymieing children’s progress, working with families to help improve children’s preparedness for learning and incentivising great teachers to work in disadvantaged schools.

However, the most popular option was for Nesta to use our strengths in innovation and local partnerships to develop place-based approaches to build on wider resources. The panellists added that our initial role should be to 'question the standard definition of the problem and conventional wisdom on the solution'. It is clear that there is a need 'not just to work out how to diffuse innovations, but to undertake work to design and test new solutions.' We are now working on incorporating the panel’s insights into our next steps.