An account of the SELMAS annual conference from Jayne Horsburgh –

Equity and Aspiration in Education; The Caves, Edinburgh

Reflecting on the conference I was struck by one particular issue raised by Carol Craig, Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and author of ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’. After the last few months of witnessing the unfolding of the refugee crisis in Europe, 13 November saw two opposite and equally momentous events unfolding. At almost the same time as Scotland welcomed the first group of refugees from Syria and offered a hand of friendship and opportunity, the people of Paris were subjected to a horrific attack on their liberty. I considered how the values of equity and aspiration are reflected in completely opposite ways in these events and Carol Craig raised this very issue in her keynote address.

Carol spoke of the way in which the balance of equality and equity in society equate to citizens’ general sense of self-esteem. She explained to the conference how research indicates that, as these values decline, low self-esteem becomes a breeding ground for the outworking of actions such as bullying and race related violence by those who feel they are at the bottom off the social pecking order as they seek out others whom they see as even lower than they are to blame and lash out at. I contemplated whether or not this might be part of what we are witnessing in the sink estates of Paris?

On a lighter note ….

This year’s conference was organised to take place in a unique venue and at the outset Neil Craik-Collins provided us with an insight into its historical significance. During the 18th Century the Caves were one of the venues used by the Oyster Club whose members included James Hutton (father of modern geology) David Hume (philosopher), Joseph Black (chemist) and Adam Smith (economist). Members engaged in deep thinking and debate about the issues of the day, this we intended to emulate while stopping short of eating oysters, drinking claret, and indulging in communal orgy!!

Neil reminded us that, although Adam Smith is remembered as an economist and is often misquoted in the context of capitalist thinking, his intent was to ensure that an economic system would provide an equitable society where every worker would have the means to “wear a linen shirt”.

Our own Oyster Club namesake, Professor Walter Hume provided the first keynote address .Walter, by his own admission, is well known for disturbing the status quo and did not disappoint!

His amusing and yet incisive comments challenged current political policies aimed at ‘Closing the Gap’ and raising attainment as inadequate since school equality on its own will not achieve social equality while reminding us of the notoriety of politics as a short term game where politicians often use “policy a spectacle” [e.g. standardised testing?] and only add to the problem.

Considering leadership he questioned the current emphasis on school leadership, pushing responsibility (and blame?) onto head teachers while their hands are tied by the policy makers. How would you assess the quality of leadership at the upper levels of the educational establishment?

So…..what impact is all of the policy making, discussion and debate really having on young people? Care leaver, ex young carer and now poverty campaigner, Chris Kilkenny’s (twitter: @KilkennyChris) experience, in a society which prides itself on providing free education for all, provided a real wake up call. As a young boy Chris’s story was used as part of the ‘Wrong Trainers’ series and he explained how his choices at school were limited because there was no money in the family to pay for things like Home Economics, school trips etc.  Without blame or self-pity Chris articulated how it really is and what really can make a difference to a young person in poverty. His solutions were not sweeping policy changes or grandiose schemes but a considered plea to simply care. Care about the young people in your class, school and community. Ask if they are OK? Keep asking even if they reject you, don’t let anyone be invisible, make sure education really is free. Chris challenged us to consider: What one thing could you do to make a difference to one young person today?

Jim McColl has certainly taken that challenge personally and is currently making a real difference to the lives of the young people who now attend Newlands Junior College, Glasgow. Seeking to close the ‘opportunity gap’ for ‘young people who are trapped’ in the poverty cycle, Jim echoed Chris’s plea for relationship building with the young people and their families, challenging the lack of parity between vocational and academic education. While I admire this initiative and am grateful that someone is indeed doing his bit to make a difference, it seems to me unfortunate that Jim has had to develop an independent school in order to achieve this. Perhaps GIRFEC really means that there is a need to provide more appropriate provision to meet the needs of our young people in more diverse ways and not maintain what we have been guilty of in recent years i.e. an interpretation of inclusion which forces the impossible on comprehensive schools, expecting them to be ‘all things to all men’ and recognising that one size will not fit all!

Meanwhile, within the state system, Gerry Lyons was able to provide a positive and encouraging account of his very successful comprehensive school where 67% of the young people live in homes on the lowest 15% income brackets. Using what he says staff affectionately call a ‘Stalinist’ approach his mantra is “never settle for second best”. By applying this to every aspect of schooling from employing the best teachers to assertively encouraging and supporting young people, he described obstacles as things which you can jump over or get around but commented that sometimes you just have to have the courage to barge through them. Schools need to have ‘extra mile’ people who are committed to doing everything they can to help  young people achieve to the best of their ability. For me another reminder that whatever the policy makers decide it’s relationships with the young people and their families that will make the difference. Everybody needs to be doing the right thing Gerry challenged us to consider……….. What is your right thing?

While the Cabinet Secretary for Education reminded us that the government is committed to equity and excellence I came away encouraged that there is a recognition and a will amongst professionals who recognise that equity is not just about school education, it is about the whole system surrounding families and communities and not ignoring the resources the people themselves bring.

Schools can however be the places which make a real difference for young people. Lead by head teachers who have the courage and the conviction to make decisions about budgets, about people, about curriculum structures and about partnership working that will sustain a culture where not only young people, but professionals themselves, are encouraged, supported and given permission to do the right thing.

Jayne Horsburgh, SELMAS committee member

One thought on “An account of the SELMAS annual conference from Jayne Horsburgh –

  1. Pingback: A Curriculum for Equity: Part 1 | People and Power

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