Equal Opportunities in English

‘Our education system should be completely remodelled on such a basis as to secure the democratic principle of equality of opportunity’ (Schofield, 1964, p58).

 We all have our own preconceived ideas as to the definition of ‘equal opportunities’ therefore with such a diverse range of descriptions are we actually offering a culturally inclusive environment for young people to develop and learn? R.H.Tawney, as early as 1922, wrote ‘Secondary Education for all’ for the Labour Party’s key party statement. Labour party members at this time were aware that the education system was clearly culturally biased offering an ever increasing divide between social classes.Blair claimed that the three main commitments of the Labour Party in 1996 were ‘education, education, education’. With education at the forefront of the Labour Party’s agenda a significant number of policies were introduced in the anticipation of raising aspirations and offering a far more socially fair society including: Every Child Matters (DCFS, 2003), Higher Standards: Better Schools for All (DfES, 2005) and The Children’s Plan: Building Brighter Futures (DCSF, 2007). However, as a result of the Conservative party Spending Review (2010) we are left to question how many of Labour’s initiatives will continue and the impact this may have on vulnerable groups.Within my setting I am part of a research and development working party exploring reasons for Gifted and Talented underachievement.

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As a result of this there are a ‘core group of seventy four’ students requiring intervention to ensure factors aside from raising attainment are targeted. One aspect that I am now coordinating involves mentoring students within the ‘Reach for the Stars’ group which raises aspirations of first generation potential university students. Most students within this group are in receipt of Free School Meals (fsm) and or on the Special Educational Needs Register (SEN Reg) (Appendix 1).Therefore, by providing mentoring, university visits and other interventions the aim is to ensure that each student feels they are equal to their non fsm counterparts.

At the onset of this intervention students were asked to write a letter about ‘Where do you see yourself going after Year 11?’ and place in a sealed envelope, for Year 11 students this will be opened in May to see if their aspirations have changed. I asked one student ‘what has it been like going through school with a gifted title?’ He responded by saying it has made a lot of his schooling unhappy as he never wanted to be known as the gifted one and all he ever really wanted was to ‘fit in’.This statement has had a profound effect on me and has made me reflect on the titles given to students and the impact this has on them, by labeling them are we actually offering equal opportunities for all, or are we actually squashing student aspirations and ambitions by imposing our own preconceived ideas of equal opportunities upon them.

‘All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents’ (Kennedy, 1963).The implementation of the Education Act (1944) stated that a requirement of Local Education Authorities was to provide secondary schools the ability ‘….to afford all pupils opportunities for education…

…in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes, (Mortimer ; Blackstone, 1982, p.

94). With this in mind I am to explore equal opportunities within the English department within my setting. As a micro study I will use baseline data of Gifted and Talented (G and T) students including: whether they are in receipt of free school meals (fsm); on the Special Educational Needs Register (SEN Reg) and their Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) average scoring to inform my hypothesis that Gifted and Talented students with these profiles are not achieving in line with their Gifted and Talented peers.G and T students who appear on the SEN Register have a range of issues including Dyslexia, Behaviour, Emotional and Social Difficulties and Autism, however, are either gifted and/or talented across subjects or specifically in English.

Although Boaler writes ‘…

schools pay more attention to potential high achievers than other students’ (Boaler, 1997, p.576), I question whether in fact this is the case with high achieving working class students as (DCSF, 2007), states ‘ Pupils not eligible for free school meals perform better than those who are eligible for free school meals in each Key Stage’.Mixed ability teaching in the English department is common practice therefore placing a range of abilities together. Even within mixed ability classes there appears to be a degree of setting.

The sets within the mixed ability class are determined by academic achievements usually through summative assessment such as end of unit tests, written assignments and the use of baseline data such as CAT scores, supposedly a fair way of gauging ability.However these are inaccessible to some learners therefore maybe being an inaccurate representation of their true ability. Research by Gillborn (1997) shows consistently setting a child according to perceived ability does not deliver a net improvement in attainment.

With this in mind why are schools continuing to set according to perceived ability and does this prove that ‘setting and streaming created and maintained inequalities, particularly for working class students’ (Boaler, 1997, p.575)? There appear to be a number of working class G and T students in my setting, yet, due to external factors contributing to a lack of engagement often they are placed in lower ability sets. Are we then reinforcing a culture of low aspirations for potential first generation university students?Out of one hundred and thirty four Gifted and Talented students, forty three receive free school meals and forty one are on the Special Educational Needs Register. Students with these profiles have an average CAT score in the range of 117. A focus on reasoning abilities identifies pupils who may not be found through an analysis of solely curriculum related attainments. CAT also provides a measure of a pupil’s abilities against the national average (120), not just in relation to their peers within the school.

Within my setting Gifted and Talented students are highlighted as being in the top 10% of students relative to the cohort of students admitted.The use of students being on the SEN Reg and fsm as empirical evidence to suggest possible inequality of opportunity could be classed as an unrealistic indicator however with only 15.2% of fsm students in comparison to 43.3% nfsm achieving 5 or more A* – C GCSE grades including English and Maths across East Sussex (DCSF, 2008) this data could be perceived as indicative of attainment according to social class. Moreover, ‘a lack of consensus over social class classifications has made research on education and social class difficult’ (Gazeley & Dunne, 2005, p.2). This may suggest that some families who would be eligible for fsm may not actually be in receipt of them. Yet studying the demographics of the school with the three main areas of catchment being those of significant socio -economic disadvantage I would believe that free school meals and SEN would be an accurate indicator.

In fact I had to choose carefully ten Gifted and Talented students who were not fsm, SEN and possibly lived in an area with indicators of affluent, working, two parent families.I chose ten students who are in receipt of free school meals and ten students who are not to complete a questionnaire (Appendix 2). Out of the twenty students chosen nine are on the SEN Reg.

I informed them that they could complete the questionnaire anonymously, however to ensure a fair representation if they were in agreement to place their name on the questionnaire that would be useful to my study. The students completed the questionnaire during mentor time, a twenty minute session after mid morning break.The students were in a large group seated at individual tables. I explained the purpose of completing the questionnaire and offered to read the statements if they wished, all decided to work independently, putting their hands up if they needed assistance. The first statement ‘Education is important to me’ rendered a mixed response with seven students stating they strongly agree, interestingly six of these are students are not entitled to free school meals.

Eleven students agreed with the statement with the responses being from a combination of fsm and non free school meals (nfsm). Out of the remaining categories: unsure, disagree and strongly disagree, three students were unsure again these were eligible for fsm and are placed on the SEN Reg.