Children facing the greatest challenges need professionals who see beyond targets

Janeen Hayat from the Fair Education Alliance outlines four priorities for creating a more inclusive education system and what needs to happen to achieve it.

As part of a panel at the SSAT Summer Series last week, my fellow panellists and I were asked the question, ‘What makes the biggest difference for children who are disadvantaged, vulnerable, or in crisis?’ As Director of Collective Action at the Fair Education Alliance – a coalition of 250 member organisations working to tackle educational inequality – this question is central to my work.

Our members (who range from early-stage social enterprises to large corporations, as well as schools, think tanks, and unions) agreed four priorities for creating a fairer and more inclusive education system. These are:

  • Developing the whole child, including wellbeing, skills and attainment
  • Engaging parents and communities of all backgrounds
  • Supporting teachers and leaders in the most disadvantaged communities
  • Joining up and supporting all post-16 options

Those of us who work in and alongside schools know that children who face the greatest challenges need an education system that develops them holistically. We all want to see the attainment gap between these children and others narrow. Meeting that challenge, however, is about much more than pedagogy or curriculum in what we’ve come to call ‘core subjects’ – it’s also about building relationships and developing a truly inclusive education system.

So, it was energising to hear from school and charity leaders doing the work, day in and day out, of caring about children who are too often ignored or written off. If we truly believe that every child matters, we must invest in the support these children need.

The current system doesn’t always support or incentivise schools to do this. For example, we know that parental engagement has been shown to have a greater impact on academic outcomes than schooling itself, but new accountabilities focus on pushing information rather than engaging parents in their children’s learning. We know that essential skills are strongly correlated with future earnings and with wellbeing, and that disadvantaged pupils tend to have weaker essential skills. And yet, schools are accountable to standardised test results, not skills development. We know that reading for pleasure is more strongly correlated with wellbeing and academic attainment than a family’s socio-economic status, but primary schools are accountable to phonics screening tests and SATs. If we only focus on the current accountabilities, we will fail to create the change we want to see.

This is a greater challenge than schools can face alone. To engage and support the most vulnerable pupils and their families, schools need the help of partners across the community, including social care, businesses, community structures like libraries and youth centres, and charities and social enterprises delivering specialist solutions. Our Literacy Advocacy Working Group has recently published one articulation of what this approach looks like for literacy – you can read it here.

They also need money. Schools need money to buy the time and space to deliver the holistic education all children need – to develop relationships with pupils and their families, to engage with the wider community, and to allow for a broad and rich curriculum.

But in the current cost of living crisis, school funding will be stretched ever thinner. In the meanwhile, more and more pupils are falling into poverty – we’re set to see the highest child poverty rates in 30 years. There will be more and more pupils who are disadvantaged, vulnerable or in crisis, and they’ll need their basic needs met and more support than they have previously if they stand a chance at learning.

So, what can we do? The challenge can seem immense, but there’s power in our community. We can:

  • Align our messaging and keep shouting together about the change we want to see
  • Share challenges and what’s working, so we can get best practice far and wide
  • Identify the challenges we don’t yet have solutions to and innovate together.

Together, we are a movement speaking for disadvantaged children and young people. If you’d like to join the FEA in connecting, collaborating, and innovating, sign up to receive our weekly bulletin and apply to become a member.

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