‘Finding pathways to equity’: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow and Christopher Chapman

In their new edited book Educational Equity: Pathways to Success (Routledge, 2021), Christopher Chapman and Mel Ainscow and their colleagues, report the findings of an eight-year programme of research carried out in Scotland to find ways of promoting equity. In advance of the publication on July 15th, wespoke with Ainscow and Chapman about how the book came together and some of what they have learned in the process. Ainscow is Professor in Education at the University of Glasgow and Chapman is Professor in Education and Chair in Educational Policy and Practice at the University of Glasgow and Director of Policy Scotland. For more on Ainscow and Chapman’s work, see our conversation with them about their previous book with Mark Hadfield Changing Education Systems.

IEN: Why this book, why now?

Ainscow & Chapman: Educational Equity: Pathways to Success builds on our earlier work on the improvement of education systems. In this book we describe and analyse what happened over an eight-year period when a team of researchers from the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow worked within the Scottish education system to find ways of promoting greater equity. The accounts we present are unusual, if not unique, in that they involved an engagement at all levels of the system, from the offices of government ministers and officials, through to those involved in classroom activities and the many others who have a stake in the work of schools. Another unusual feature of the book is that, although individual chapters are written by particular groups of authors, it develops a single overall argument. This was achieved by intensive cooperation between members of the team, a process that included mutual reading of draft texts and occasional meetings to agree the ideas to be presented. All of this was built on a tradition of partnership working at the University of Glasgow that has grown over many years.

IEN: What’s the agenda?

A&C: Educational Equity: Pathways to Success focuses on the types of concerns facing schools and education systems across the world on a daily basis as they try to ensure the progress of all of their students. More specifically, it addresses the following questions:

  • What can be done to promote equity within education systems?
  • What are the barriers to progress?
  • How might these barriers be overcome?

With this agenda as our focus, the book presents a series of recommendations as to the actions that are needed in order to find pathways for promoting equity within education systems. We also examine the sorts of barriers that make it difficult to put these ideas into practice.

Our intention is that the information generated in relation to this agenda will be relevant internationally. With this in mind, extensive use is made of detailed accounts of practice to illustrate the argument. In this way, our aim is to make the ideas we present meaningful and relevant to a wide audience of readers, including, senior staff in schools, policy makers at the national and district levels, and post-graduate students who are focusing on using research to analyse educational improvement. Whilst the text has a strong emphasis on practice and policy, it will also be relevant to those in the research community who are focused on the improvement of schools and education systems. With this in mind, strong links are made with evidence from international research. 

IEN: What did you learn in working on this book that you didn’t know before?

A&C: The research was carried out in Scotland during a time of intensive efforts to improve the national education system. Building on the much-quoted adage, ‘the best way to understand an organisation is by trying to change it’, our analysis of these experiences led us to conclude that there is massive untapped potential within Scottish schools and their communities that can be mobilised to address the challenge of equity. It also describes how local pathways can be created in order to make use of this potential. The book shows how university researchers can contribute to the development of such initiatives. In particular, it illustrates the kind of relationships that have to be created amongst practitioners, policymakers and academic researchers for this to happen. Where this works, it can lead to the development of new, context-specific knowledge that can support change processes.

successful educational change requires the coming together of different perspectives in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings

In these contexts, we saw our role as being that of ‘engaged researchers’. This involved us in stimulating professional dialogues, within relationships that were concerned with the joint production of knowledge. In this way, our aim was to make direct contributions in the field, whilst at the same time drawing lessons that will have wider implications. All of this leads us to argue that successful educational change requires the coming together of different perspectives in a process of social learning and knowledge creation within particular settings. Researchers who get involved in such processes must expect to face many difficulties and dilemmas. Consequently, they have to develop new skills in creating collaborative partnerships that cross borders between actors who have different professional experiences. They also need to mobilise personal support in dealing with the pressures this involves. Hence the value of working as a team.

IEN: What’s happened since you completed the book? 

A&C: As we write, further significant barriers exist within education systems across the world in relation to the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. We argue that these new challenges point to the need for an even greater emphasis on the sorts of approaches presented in our book. There has therefore never have been a more important time for people to get together in order to ensure high quality educational opportunities for all children and young people. With this in mind, members of our team are currently working with colleagues in various parts of Scotland and in a number of other countries to take this thinking forward. We are particularly excited by a new project we are carrying out in the city of Dundee. Known as Every Dundee Learner Matters, the initiative involves a two-year strategy to improve the quality of education for all children and young people. This builds on the established reputation of Dundee as a hub of innovation and creativity. This led it to be recognised as a UNESCO City of Design the first in the United Kingdom to be awarded the honour, which puts it in the company of Berlin, Beijing, Buenos Aires and Montreal.

The guiding vision is of a high performing system that is at the forefront of developments to find more effective ways of ensuring the progress of all students, particularly those whose progress is a cause for concern. Central to this vision is a system that is driven collectively by school leaders and involves practitioners at all levels in taking shared responsibility for improving the quality of education across the city. Using a design-based implementation research approach, the strategy is guided by a series of design features based on lessons that emerged from the research described in the new book. Underpinning these features is a significant adjustment in the way that decisions are made regarding efforts to promote educational change. This approach has significant implications for the roles of local authority staff. It requires them to adjust their ways of working in response to the development of improvement strategies that are led from within schools. Specifically, their task will be to monitor and challenge schools in relation to the agreed goals of collaborative activities, whilst senior staff within schools share responsibility for the overall management of improvement efforts.

Local authorities task will be to monitor and challenge schools in relation to the agreed goals of collaborative activities, whilst senior staff within schools share responsibility for the overall management of improvement efforts.

IEN: What’s your hope for the future and what do you hope this book will contribute to it?

A&C: As we take our work forward – in Scotland and other parts of the world – the impact of the pandemic continues to be a major concern. At the same time, we are conscious that schools have demonstrated remarkable flexibility in response to these unprecedented challenges. This has meant that they have had to find different ways of carrying out their core business of teaching and learning. At the same time, many schools have developed new ways of working with other agencies in supporting families and local communities. The logical implication of these developments is that much of the best expertise regarding ways of providing support in the new context lies amongst practitioners. Therefore, in moving forward with the recovery of education systems, use must be made of this largely untapped knowledge through the sorts of collaborative processes reported in this book. If this thinking is to be implemented, however, there are significant implications for national policies. Put simply, there is a need to foster greater flexibility at the local level in order that practitioners and other stakeholders have the space to analyse their particular circumstances and determine priorities accordingly. This means that policy makers must recognise that the details of policy implementation are not amenable to central regulation. Rather, these should be dealt with by those who are close to and, therefore, in a better position to understand local contexts and develop pathways to success.

One response to “‘Finding pathways to equity’: A Conversation with Mel Ainscow and Christopher Chapman

  1. Pingback: Finding pathways to equity – nsee.online

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