News & Insights 26 September 2019

500 years to close the gap – we need a new approach to make education fair: reflections from the Labour Party Conference

September is always a flurry of political activity and news, as party conference season gets underway. This year, I had the privilege of sharing about Action Tutoring at a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference, hosted by the Fair Education Alliance (of which Action Tutoring is a member) and the Education Policy Institute.  A recent EPI report has highlighted the worrying trend that the rate at which the attainment gap is closing has stalled, especially at secondary level, predicting that at the current rate of progress, it could take 500 years to close the gap[1]. In response, the FEA is calling for a new, collective approach to tackling the attainment issue, the crux of our debate and discussion. Fellow panelists included MPs David Lammy, Tracy Brabin (shadow minister for early years) and Emma Hardy, plus Emma Knights, CEO of the National Governance Association. Excitingly, it was standing room only, with so many people wanting to engage with the topic.

Susannah Hardyman speaking at the Labour Party Conference


Each panelist had five minutes to make an opening statement on the topic. Tracy Brabin kicked off by highlighting the importance of the early years in laying foundations for children, drawing attention to the loss of Sure Start and the lack of a universal offer for nursery hours.[2] She called for 30 free hours of nursery education for every child, re-investment in Sure Start and upskilling of the nursery workforce.

David Lammy shared openly his own experience of beating the odds to become the first black student at Harvard, but expressed huge concern that so many of his peers were left behind, citing entrenched, systemic issues as a key reason for this. He made a strong plea to stop tinkering at the edges on the issues of social mobility and for more radical change, breaking entrenched privilege.

Emma Hardy, an ex teacher, drew attention to the causes and roots of inequality and poverty stating that we can’t just fight fires in education without tackling these. She also highlighted issues in the system of teacher retention and off rolling by schools, as key issues that need urgently addressing. Emma Knights cited evidence from a recent NGA survey about the importance of Pupil Premium funding and that it’s played a key role in focusing governors’ minds on the attainment gap. She expressed concern at crumbling public sector services, when they are so important for schools to be able to work with.

The Action Tutoring story I shared I hope served as one concrete example of a programme that can work to tackle the attainment gap. There was clear surprise in the audience when I highlighted just how many pupils now receive private tutoring,[3] something I believe only exacerbates the attainment gap. I drew attention to other examples of good practice that do seem to be working, including the story of the London Challenge, which saw London’s schools go from some of the worst in the country, to the best. However, my concern is that what’s working is patchy, best practice isn’t being widely shared and the right funding often doesn’t exist to replicate what’s working. However, I’m an optimist, and I do believe that if some of these issues could be overcome, then the attainment gap could be drastically reduced: it doesn’t have to take 500 years to close.

It’s long struck me that for the Action Tutoring programme to work, so many wider factors are in play to ensure success – the support of good link teachers in our partner schools to help with pupil engagement and programme delivery, support from parents to ensure pupils attend sessions and pupils also need to be in a good place to learn when they arrive at sessions. That means having foundations of good nutrition, stable housing, parental support and so on. Sadly, far too often these basic factors are not in place for the pupils we work with. We can’t address all of these complicated issues as one organisation, but we can be a piece of the puzzle that works towards better outcomes. That’s one of the reasons I support the FEA’s call for a collective approach to tackling the attainment gap. I concluded by highlighting the need for that collective approach to include:

  • A holistic approach to the whole child – schools need basic foundations of good nutrition, stable housing and family support for teachers to build on and to give pupils the right footing to engage and learn.
  • High quality, well trained teachers for all pupils, which isn’t happening consistently at the moment but is surely foundational for any child’s education.
  • Specific, targeted, evidence-based intervention for those who need it, put in place early enough to realistically make a difference and ideally to catch issues early.
  • And finally, funding, to enable the above to happen.

At the end of the presentations, there was time to take a few questions from the audience, which included how parents could be better supported, support for SEN children, the importance of raising self-belief and aspirations and school accountability structures. The discussion also considered whether the language of social mobility is helpful, with many preferring to talk about social justice instead. Funding was inevitably touched on, with little doubt that this of course makes a big difference to what can be achieved.

There seemed to be concluding consensus from the panel that complex needs have to be addressed by a range of services and schools can’t do this on their own. Given the complexity of these needs, we have to think more holistically about both children and families, which is where a joined-up, multi-stranded, collective approach can have potential. I certainly hope Action Tutoring can continue to be a key piece in this complicated jigsaw and approach, helping to unlock potential for young people up and down the country, while working closely with others to achieve that goal.

Overall, it was a huge privilege to be part of such a prestigious panel, to engage with such a thought provoking discussion. Thank you to the FEA and EPI for hosting it and for putting such an important topic on the agenda.

[1] At present, disadvantaged pupils finish year 11 (GCSEs) over 18 months behind their wealthier peers.

[2] At present, children aged 3 are entitled to 30 free hours of childcare but only if parents are earning a certain amount, so it is of greater benefit to parents in work.

[3] The latest Sutton Trust research reports 40% of 11-16 year olds in London as having private tutoring and 25% nationally.