Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Inclusion excluded.

I suppose the short version of this piece is that, despite paying lip service to the principle, very few folk indeed really a give a *&@^ about the many children who have found themselves, for whatever reason, at the bottom of the social pile. It is all apparently too easy to condemn, and way too hard to bother to help. I beg to differ.

The 90s and the first decade of the 2000s seem to be characterised by a dreadful blame culture: set inappropriate and trite targets, then blame people for missing them, resulting in a catastrophic incrementalism and plateauing of performance accompanied by a disengagement and anomie that is palpable and damaging all round,.

Just maybe, the way that this blame culture has jumped back to bite parliament on the bottom with the 2009 expenses scandal, might see the end of this mess. just maybe. Anyway, I wrote this in 2007 for my Guardian column:

I'm currently busy Horizon Scanning for the DCSF, initially exploring technology futures. Undoubtedly the pace of development is accelerating. My new iPod Touch (I hacked it a bit) is currently fully functioning as web-server in my pocket!. At current rates by 2013 a computer will offer the same computational power as human brain; by 2050 a £500 computer should (apparently) outperform computationally, the entire species! The huge challenge for policy, of course, is whether it can develop enough agility to keep up with the potential that technology brings, particularly to the most disadvantaged. Evidence is not encouraging.

In the quarter century or so that I have been exploring the potential of technology in learning a significant change has occurred and it took one of my trustee colleagues on the Inclusion Trust to point it out to me: Policy has become confused with Practice. Previously, a government was judged by what actually happened in practice. That practice took time to embed, through iterative cycles. Today governments prefer to be judged by their policy. It's easy to write policies, tougher to implement changes in practice. Consequently Policy is rarely Practice.

As an example, the government's "6 day policy" says that where exclusion exceeds five days, schools must provide full time education from day six. But in practice our Notschool.net project, for those many excluded from school by circumstance or behaviour, regularly finds children who have been out of school, without any provision at all, for years. As another example the Computers for Disadvantaged Pupils policy offers welcome funding to help e-enable the disadvantaged, but by only doing so through schools the huge army of 100,000 plus children outside of the school system, most urgently in need of that support, are completely missed out: policy is a mile from practice. The policy of changing GCSE Coursework to being under school based supervision only, at a stroke catastrophically destroyed the progress of the many rebuilding their learning outside of schools. Governments say "problem solved; we have our policy", practitioners say "problem remains; look at the practice". Policy isn't keeping up. And the people it is hurting most are the most vulnerable. Ironically these are just the ones technology should offer the greatest hope to.

Raising the age of compulsory participation in learning to 18, says all the right things as a policy. At the Fabian Education lecture, Schools Secretary Ed Balls spoke powerfully of a policy to keep young people learning - but through the systems and policies that are already failing them: keeping them in the care homes they are already absconding from, in the schools they are already excluded and truanting from, writing the GCSEs that have already failed them. In practice the policy's key phrase for young people is this: "if young people fail to take up these opportunities, there will be a system of enforcement...". If the systems are failing, we'll blame the young people - it's easier than reform.

I find all this desperately frustrating. Technology has time and time again shown a way of doing things better: the wonderful Notschool.net project has demonstrated remarkable success in reengaging 98% of its thousands of excluded children full time, on-line. We know it could do even better - an annual target of 50,000 saved is not unreasonable; we know that bespoke on-line workplaced learning for the many that never reached university works; this potentially offers massively increased participation rates, up to 66%. We know ambitious targets matter and have evidenced what successful practice looks like - why then is policy so far adrift?

As a generation technology has offered us the chance to make the kind of difference to social equity that our great-grandparents made through medicine. I have seen that we can inoculate children against poverty through learning. Yet in a world where having a policy is sufficient, regardless of what is happening in practice, these enormous potentials remain unrealised. The huge challenge that technology brings our generation in this extraordinary new millennium is whether we can change our systems quickly enough to transform practice. The evidence thus far is that we can't. I don't think that is good enough.

© Prof Stephen Heppell 2007

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