Area based, multi-agency responses to educational underachievement

Since winning the 1997 general election the Labour government has placed great faith in the use of area based intervention policies in order to address the persistent educational underachievement of children growing up in England’s poorest communities. This underachievement is a symptom of deeper structural inequalities. Diane Reay has effectively summed up both the class-based nature of the problem and the apparent failure of education policy to find a solution thus far:

Against a policy backdrop of continuous change and endless new initiatives it appears that in relation to social class the more things change the more they stay the same. Social class remains the one educational problem that comes back to haunt English education again and again and again; the area of educational inequality on which education policy has had virtually no impact.

Reay’s repetition of the word ‘again’ indicates the seemingly intractable nature of the problem. New Labour’s education policy, at least the elements concerned here, represent a return to the use of area based policy innovations to challenge the glaring inequalities of both opportunity and outcome inherent within the English education system. Education policy has changed its priorities over the last decade but targeted attacks on the causes of underachievement have been consistently present, from Education Action Zones (EAZs) to Children’s Centres. The ministerial foreword to the Children’s Plan 2007 acknowledges the government’s intention to strive for improved educational outcomes for children in these deprived areas. Ed Balls called for

. . .

a new role for schools at the centre of their communities, and more effective links between schools, the NHS and other children’s services so that together they can engage parents and tackle all the barriers to the learning, health and happiness of every child.

It remains to be seen whether this policy is successful. However, it is recognition that, as an educative force, the home and community are hugely important, and engaging parents using typical practices is not enough to enable them to maximize the positive impact they can have on their childrens’ educational performance. Government policy, in part, has been an attempt to generate new partnerships between schools and their community. Research suggests EAZs failed to have any impact on the problems identified because they were premised on ‘inadequate understanding’ of the complex processes of social injustice’. The new partnerships did not enhance democratic participation in ‘governance of the zones’ and failed to ‘influence in any significant way the content and organization of education provision in the zones.

EAZs represented Labour’s ideological commitment to social justice, equality and the reversal of social exclusion. Prime Minister Tony Blair declared a belief in meritocracy that obligated government to develop the full potential of all children. However, as Sally Tomlinson observed, the pursuit of ‘competitive policies in education’ alongside a ‘commitment to social justice [has] created major ongoing problems’. Labour ‘preached inclusiveness . . . and developed palliative strategies to mitigate disadvantage’ yet, at the same time, ‘market and selective forces were demonstrably excluding large sections of the working and non-working classes’. Whether this policy can be considered ‘palliative’ is an important question. Can an approach aimed at empowering individuals, families and communities ‘enable them to move out of poverty, unemployment and social exclusion’ through a, ‘combination of individual responsibility, education, social support and welfare to work initiatives?’ This policy framework appears to demand a reconfiguration of the role of the State, ‘as partner, enabler and provider of frameworks’ in order to generate ‘opportunities for improved outcomes,’ via a regeneration of social capital. It also represents a view that schools could be agents for social change, if driven in the right way, and as part of a broader social and economic reform. Secretary of State Ed Balls declared that

. . .

more than ever before families will be at the centre of excellent integrated services that put their needs first, regardless of traditional institutional and professional structures. This means a new role for schools at the centre of their communities.

This multi-agency approach merits in-depth investigation since it represents the creation of a new institution, operationalising different relationships and (possibly) practices. Does the government’s chosen strategy, criticized for being ‘compensatory’ and driven by a ‘deficit’ view of the poor, represent policy turning full circle?

At the time of writing, in early 2009, an economic recession is unfolding. There have been recessions before, always resulting in an increase in poverty, and if poverty is cyclical can the same be said of government policy? For example, as an economic crisis unfolded in 1973 a raft of area-based, innovative education policies implemented in the 1960s began to see their funding allocations dwindle. Billions of pounds have been invested since 1997: does it follow that this trend will continue during the economic slowdown or might we again see a period of retrenchment? Carpentier suggests the ‘history of educational policy-making may be better understood if we locate policy dilemmas, past and present, in a context that recognizes prevailing economic conditions’ since global economic pressures can advantage and disadvantage educational expenditure accordingly.

New Labour is not the first government to place the link between educational underachievement and poverty at the centre of the policy agenda. The present government, without mentioning the pioneering work of the 1960s, has revived a policy approach associated with the Plowden Report in 1967. Recent policy represents the continuation of a much longer battle to secure greater levels of educational equality and, to use a relatively modern term, ‘social justice’.

The social production of skills shortages in Ireland

Throughout the 2000s it was commonly accepted in Ireland that the economy suffered from skills shortages, especially in the sizeable and important high-technology ‘knowledge industries’ such as software. Hence the explosive growth in immigration from the mid-1990s onwards. This is despite the fact that general (and oft-repeated) claims about the quality of Irish education ignore the specificity of the Irish education system prior to this century: the production of a large volume of technical graduates on short-cycle courses that were relatively cheap to fund and closely linked to the immediate needs of high-technology companies.


In the 1990s there was an abundance of reasonably well-educated and cheap graduates available for employment. By the end of the 1990s this pool of labour had dried up, and there was at this point in time a rationale for the rise in immigration. However, employee numbers never recovered to previous levels after the collapse of the dotcom boom in the 2000-3 period, yet immigrants continued to rise as a proportion of the total software labour force. Therefore, continued complaints by employers about skills shortages could no longer be explained in the same way as in the late 1990s. So what other factors could be relevant?


One example is how spending per person at all levels of education was below the OECD average throughout the 1990s – and indeed fell as a proportion of national income as well. This trend continued into the 2000s. In addition, less than 10 per cent of the Irish population engage in lifelong learning, compared to 35 per cent in Sweden, despite the fact that until recently up to one-fifth of school leavers did not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. Moreover, as in many other countries, the proportion of school students studying Physics and Chemistry fell from the 1980s until very recently. Although there was no equivalent fall in the proportion of school students taking Mathematics, international comparisons (such as the PISA studies) suggest that achievement is probably no better than average for OECD countries.


Given this situation in subject areas deemed of crucial importance for high-technology industries such as software, it is not surprising that the use of skilled migrants to deal with skills shortages became viewed as crucial for their present and future success. Compounding this situation was the fact that although university provision of places on computing courses increased, students have been increasingly unwilling to fill them since the collapse of the dotcom boom. In some cases, the fall was so great that computing courses have been accepting all candidates and/or making minimal entry requirements, a trend which reinforces employers’ unwillingness to use Irish labour. It is thus not surprising to discover that – given the fluidity of skills sets in the software industry owing to rapid technological developments – in Ireland firms have tended to import skilled labour rather than source it domestically and/or train it ‘in-house’.


As a result, by the early 2000s both skill shortages and their perceived solution had become the result of specific relationships between the system of production and employment on the one hand and the system of education and training on the other. Whereas most commentators accept such shortages as a natural consequence of success, the use of migrants to fill the ‘skills gap’ in Ireland tended to reinforce rather than resolve the skills shortages by way of deflecting attention from the inadequacies in the education and training systems.


In policy terms, this draws attention to the possibility that Ireland is less of a role model for other (especially Central and Eastern) European countries than is commonly assumed. In terms of its relevance for Equity in Education, it shows very clearly how education and training systems are inextricably linked to the society they are part of.


Wickham, James and Bruff, Ian (2008) ‘Skills shortages are not always what they seem: the case of the Irish software industry’. New Technology, Work and Employment, 23: 1-2, 30-43.

The social basis for Equity in Education

Dear all,

At the most recent meeting of the Equity in Education RNG, it was agreed to start a process of regular posts based on topics that interest us. So (in theory!) approximately once a week there will be a new post by a member of the RNG, and this will be on a rotating basis so everyone gets a chance to let off steam (which also of course means you won’t get bored of the same person saying the same things!).

This initiative follows the presentation by Linda Dunne to the Research Exchange seminar on 12 February. Here Equity’s outlook was broadly defined as: an interest in the politics of education policy and practice; an affirmation of the notion of social justice; a critical approach to taken-for-granted paradigms in the literature and in government policy; an assertion of the need to connect as closely as possible theory and practice in our research and analyses; and a rejection of the dominant view that only “scientific”, positivist, number-crunching approaches to education are valid and useful.

Therefore, any study of education must be viewed in relation to the education system’s reciprocal and interactive relationship with wider society. Hence all education systems have a social basis, and thus the approach taken by Equity members to their topics also has a social basis.

This shared starting point does not lead to a homogenity of opinion or topic, as hopefully the next few weeks will demonstrate!

Ian Bruff (Research Officer, Department of Research & Knowledge Transfer)

Equity in Education New Improved Blog!

Like Homer Simpson trying to retrieve an electrified (doughnut/donut/Doh!nut)from overhead cables i am often guilty of irrationally repeating actions that do not bring me the results i seek. This inability to think laterally or logically is possibly the result of my ‘schooling’ hence my initial attraction to E in E. However, in advance of the E in E meet tomorrow i thought i’d chance my arm and write these words. Sadly, if they dont appear where i want them to appear it’s quite possible i’ll click on the same links and end up here again. Just so long as they dont end up landing on a (doghnut/donut/Doh!nut) website. Hopefully there will be time at the meeting to identify what this blog can do for the members of the group. If it seves a purpose for us it will certainly be useful to students and staff across the University as others, ‘Scribble and Scribe’ for example, clearly are. A good place to start is Claire Woolhouse’s synopsis of blogging as a scholarly activity (see Academic Reading blog). The Equity blog should be somewhere everyone goes. It is a forum for discussion of research concerned with the pusuit of social justice. What we need to do next is decide what else it can be. See you there


A meeting of the Equity in Education research group took place on Friday the 10th of November at Edge Hill, Ormskirk. The purspose of the meeting was to share individual research interests and to set about developing wider links, partnerships and support networks for people interested in an area that is integral to education. Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in joining or contributing in any way to this developing group.

Meetings of the E in E group provide cakes and biscuits and a mutually supportive, relaxed haven for the perplexed and / or inspired researcher. 

Further meetings are schedules for Friday 9 March and Friday 15 June (9.00am-11.00am); rooms to be confirmed nearer to time. Hope to see you all there – if not before!