Using Film Boosts Literacy Development

Scottish Film and Literacy Festival


Click on the image for more details of the festival programme.

Just as I am making final preparations for next week’s inaugural Scottish Film and Literacy Festival, brought to you in conjunction with Rob Smith of The Literacy Shed and Scottish Film Education, another independent report appears to show that the use of film in education can significantly increase young people’s attainment as well as engaging reluctant learners.

A team of film educators spent the last academic year working with teachers in Leeds to show how film can be used to improve attainment and progress in reading and writing. Leeds Partnership Project: Improving Literacy Through Film (2014/15) recorded a number of improvements in pupils who were regularly engaged in film watching and filmmaking, including:

96% improvement in average points’ progress in reading
60% improvement in average points’ progress in writing
75% improvement in attitude to learning

The report tallies with the education charity Into Film’s own findings, in which 96% of teachers using film in class said it increases pupils’ levels of engagement, 74% said it improves their critical thinking skills and 70% said it boosts literacy.

“We’ve used film clips previously to support subject teaching but not to meet specific objectives; the CPD has enabled us to use film to develop language and comprehension. Our SATs results this year were great: both progress and attainment in reading and writing have improved compared with last year which we feel has been largely as a result of integrating the Into Film strategies into our teaching.”

Roxy Prust, Park View Primary School, Leeds

Although the report focused on the use of film within the English and Literacy curriculum, participants were encouraged to think about using film in other curriculum areas and subjects. It also demonstrated that, while teachers were generally enthusiastic about using film in the classroom, they were often unaware of where to find the best resources.

It is a fortunate coincidence therefore that the report comes as Into Film launches a number of topical new resources to help teachers use the accessible and immersive medium of film to support the curriculum.

19th Century Novels on Film. Created in partnership with NATE, using A Christmas Carol as an example and offering a range of generic approaches which can be applied to all 19th Century Novels.
Macbeth–Power Players. English Language and Literature resource marking the release of STUDIOCANAL’s new film adaptation of Macbeth, with five activities themed around the film to encourage GCSE students to respond to the text critically and imaginatively.
Malala Youth Voice. A programme of resources inspired by the release of Fox Searchlight’s upcoming documentary film He Named Me Malala, designed in collaboration with National Schools Partnership to enable young people to develop their own confidence, public speaking and campaigning skills.
Suffragette – Social Changers. A resource supporting citizenship, history and politics, focussing on Votes for Women and using upcoming film Suffragette as a springboard.
Anti-Bullying on Film.  Created in partnership with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, using films including Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Cinderella, About a Boy and The Color Purple to start discussions about bullying and related issues.

Into Film will be featured at the Scottish Film and Learning Festival. It is an education charity that seeks to put film at the heart of children and young people’s learning and cultural experience. Supported by the BFI (British Film Institute) together with funding from the film industry and a number of other sources, it has recently announced its latest programme of free educator training sessions in film literacy, and has opened bookings for the Into Film Festival 2015, which returns for a second year from November 4-20 with its UK-wide programme of free screenings, workshops and teaching resources for 5-19 year-olds. Into Film Clubs, providing access to over 4000 classic and popular films, are available free to all state funded schools and colleges.

See also:

Time To Get Into Film

Film Shorts as Literacy Texts

Ten Tools For Reading Film

Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.


All Of Us First

5This is an initial working paper of a Common Weal Policy Lab on education (see previous post). It will be developed further based on feedback from those involved in the Lab and others, and it is presented to you in the week when the Scottish Government announced its plans to re-introduce standardised National tests in literacy and numeracy for young people in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

“We do not need another policy paper. We need a manifesto for change”
Participant, Common Weal Policy Lab on Education, 7 August 2015

AT the Common Weal’s first ever Policy Lab on 7 August, a group of academics, experts, educators, pupils, and parents spent the day discussing and debating four specific issues chosen by the group:

– What should education in Scotland be for?

– How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

– What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

– How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

While the group recognised the impossibility of holistically tackling each of these issues in one day, a broad consensus on several ideas and methods for addressing them emerged.

This report summarises these ideas, while offering possible avenues for innovation in education in Scotland.

What should education in Scotland be for?


> universal free education

> comprehensive system, from beginning to end

> enabling a true, ‘community’ education by preserving catchment areas

> involving universities in teacher education, in both thinking and doing: the theoretical advancement in the field of education needs the chance to take root and grow in our schools

> a democratically developed curriculum

> providing children the tools to participate as a citizen in society

How can we change?

We need a system-wide change if we truly want to innovate our education system. We need a sustainable collaboration between politicians, civil servants, the educational leadership class, the institutionalised profession, local authorities, pupils, and parents. While we can continue to change ‘easy’ things, we must be dedicated to considering ‘big’ ideas for systemic change. Real democracy should be at the heart of this ongoing conversation, where curriculums adapt to changing democratic decisions, and children learn participation from their interaction in the school system. We need mechanisms which connect the incredible and exciting work in education in our universities with teaching professionals in our schools in order that children benefit from new ideas and methods, and that this research realises its potential.


In its current form, Scotland’s Education system tests too much. While recognising the need for our students to gain specific skills and knowledge to gain access to higher education, the role of assessment should be marginal in our education system, instead of its primary goal. This will be elaborated further in section 2.

Democratic Participation

‘Tings’ as a methodology for creating citizen forums emerges as an answer to our lack of democracy in education. Decision-makers and service users should regularly come together to assess development, implementation, and strategies for education, at both a local and national level. This will be an opportunity for our universities to also participate, bringing new ideas and expertise to develop a robust conversation on the standards and practices of our schools.


A ‘great’ school can often be traced to one or two dedicated individuals who pioneered and made a lasting impact on a school’s system/infrastructure/community/culture etc. These ideas are powerful because they are location-specific: local knowledge and understanding affords the ideas an organic grounding. In Scotland, with some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe, in both urban and rural locations, we cannot assume that a one-size-fits-all education system can work. By encouraging these schools to share their experiences in Innovation Forums, we can value their enterprise, and facilitate connections with other schools who may learn or improve as a result.

New teachers leave graduate studies armed with ideas and methodologies which could benefit their respective schools and communities. However these ideas are often discouraged as they begin their teaching career, without access to time, position, or resources to facilitate change.

A dedicated Education Development Fund could encourage these new teachers to be bold and brave with their ideas, gain respect from their peers, and use vital expertise from their teacher education. New professionals would have the opportunity to apply for funding for their project, and dedicate time to realising them. This would encourage new teachers to see long-term connections with their communities, and would serve as an ecosystem of new ideas and change for education, which could be fed into the Innovation Forums.

How can we ensure the goals of Curriculum for Excellence are achieved?

While the foundational principles and goals of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) are still the blueprint for a future education system, we must assess why we still fail to achieve our goals. Why have so many apparent changes in Scottish education resulted in so little difference in terms of outcomes for young people? What are the missing ingredients that would secure that sort of change?

There needs to be a concerted effort on behalf of the educational leadership class to communicate the principles of CfE to both teaching professionals and to the pupils directly. This should be part of the process of redefining education not as an endless scramble for more grades via assessment, but instead as a process of betterment with various interpretations of success. This could be achieved within the local and national education ‘Tings’ set up in order to address the lack of direct democracy in our education system.


With an education system which measures itself on attainment via assessment, we lose grasp of the founding goals of education. Teachers are pressured to achieve certain grade proportions in their classrooms, which drives their energy into delivering grades instead of well-rounded learners. Learners lack the bigger picture of their learning, as lessons are crafted in response to assessments rather than the pragmatic and individual needs of the learner. And this affects expectations of success: attaining a university place via achieving a certain roster of grades becomes the highest form of success, which is at best unrealistic in terms of employer’s needs, and at worse reproduces and legitimises inequality. How can we ensure that any ‘exam system’ is not a barrier, but a gateway to success?

We must consider and design alternatives: What use do online or on demand exams have in our future? Why do we need to annually assess? How can we credit ‘experience’ or ‘projects’? How do we design an assessment not simply based on retaining content? What would replace qualifications if they were to be abandoned? And how do we involve parents and pupils in this conversation?

These are difficult questions, but they must be addressed if we are to achieve the Curriculum for Excellence goals.

This would have a dramatic effect on the wider structure of our education system including:


With increasing evidence in support of project-based learning, we need to begin to move subjects into a marginal position in the global learner experience. Subject-based learning removes the content from its pragmatic context, which could have an integrated and comprehensive approach via a diversity of projects. Subjects could provide focussed, individual learning possibilities for students who wish to attain specialised knowledge (for example for university admission), but the majority of learning should be around projects and experience. Finland recently decided to limit subject teaching, and it is rated as having one of the most educated populations in the world.

Age Groups

With an acceptance that subjects should play at least a minor role in our education system, project-based learning makes the issue of age-segregation an interesting point of analysis. While separating children into age groups is necessary in some contexts, it can enforce abstract differences and comparisons of ability that are not helpful. Rural schools in Scotland have pioneered, out of necessity, systems which integrate older pupils with younger pupils, facilitating the learner experience as a give and take between a diversity of age groups. This is something that could be modelled in more urban school settings.


What does a timetable for a school with mostly project learning and less age segregation look like? Imagine students could learn empowerment and agency by designing their school days in such an environment, where their education provides them the pragmatic tools for competency after school? Thirteen-year-olds should not feel that their education choices will go on to define their careers and lives. We must pay credence to our concept of Lifelong Learning, and ensure that our students realise their potential through a diversity of activities and projects throughout their school careers. To achieve this, we need to redesign our timetabling models to account for this, and to afford schools the options to implement a variety of models to fit their needs.


We need to hold our universities to account for the undue influence they have on high school students. The blunt instrument of a roster of necessary grades leaves many students feeling helpless, and means the most privileged have easiest access to achieving those grades and the requisite personal statement (whether through private tutoring, parental investment and guidance, better learning materials etc.). Instead, we need to focus on ‘skillsets’ and how we can use our innovation in assessment to guide students into better higher education options after school.

Work Experience

Pupils attending the lab expressed an interest in more work placements and valuing work as an integral part of an education system, whether in the evenings or at the weekend. Students said they felt better prepared for the working world because of regular, part time employment, which, on top of the job-specific skills, provided them experience to manage their time effectively and budget their personal finances.

What role can the education system play in attenuating inequality?

Education in Scotland is currently a combination of training and coaching. Since families from more privileged backgrounds will always be able to invest in more coaching, it becomes very difficult to level the playing field, and in fact assessment in its current form in Scotland serves to legitimise the existing inequality. This is a problem facing all teachers in Scotland, as it is increasingly evident that it is not the school you attend, but your family’s economic background which has the biggest impact in your chance of success in the current system.

With this knowledge, and the understanding that teachers are under more and more pressure to deliver certain grades from their classrooms, our most vulnerable children are continuing to lose out. What role can our school system and teachers play in attenuating this inequality?


One step to reducing this inequality would be to remove unnecessary religious segregation from our school system, and remove the charitable status of private schools, with the ultimate goal of rendering them redundant. Further, reducing unnecessary labelling between children (for example into the ‘best’ subject set etc.) has proven to encourage holistic attainment for all children. In the spirit of all desegregation, one student shared her experience of mentoring and caring for a disabled peer. If we encouraged such a programme for all of our school children, co-mentoring a peer in their community whether disabled or not, we would see lasting impacts on tackling discrimination as well as more well-rounded, worldly, and empathetic students.

Early Years

Evidence has proven that investment in early years education has the biggest impact in the long term attainment of young people. We could invest in this early education by having a robust, universal free childcare system led by professionals, which leads into a comprehensive and equally accessible early years system. The emphasis of early years should be on play rather than formal education like writing and numeracy, so that children learn the necessary social skills and relationship with their environment which acts as the right base from which school education can be built upon.

PSE Syllabus

As part of a strategy to attenuate the impact of discrimination, we need a revised PSE syllabus which enables students to engage in vital discussions (for an example, look at the work of the TIE campaign). Currently, the PSE syllabus has an unnecessary focus on career prospects, and should instead delve into the multifaceted way that we interact in society as citizens. A fundamental part of this is recognising inequality and how it functions in society on both a structural and everyday way. Schools should demonstrate their dedication to human rights as the foundation of all of their teaching, and thusly, new developments in learning, like empathy education and conflict resolution, should be incorporated.

Developing an Infrastructure of Care

When we arrive at any NHS service, we understand the chain through which our information is passed and the routes through which we will receive care. There is no such robust infrastructure within our school systems, despite the fact that they are the state institutions most visited by most people. We need to design better services for parents and pupils to interact with the school system, and return our schools to their rightful place as assets and ‘commons’ of their communities. This involves not only using our schools for more community events and as a local hub, but also directly engaging parents in the progress of their children and the school as a whole.

How can we ensure success after school for all of our students?

Ensuring after-school success should not be simply a bureaucratic process in the last year or two of high school. We need to reframe the conversation from ‘I teach [subject]’ to ‘I teach children’. Success is not a linear process, and it should not be taught as such to young adults, who feel pigeon-holed into following certain career routes/university courses without the requisite tools to recognise the totality of options available to them. Fundamental to this is redefining what success is: Is it happiness? Valuing and contributing to our community? Love and compassion?

This will be an ongoing process of change to peel back our engrained system and the assumptions it has worked into our collective psyches, possibly delivered through the democratic methods developed around our school system (see section 1), and through building partnerships and local relationships between teachers, parents, pupils, and our universities (see section 3).

The cornerstones of a strong education system which delivers young adults prepared for the world should include:


Young people should be helped to understand themselves and the role they play in wider society. For example, this could come in the form of understanding local politics and their routes to the levers of power and participation, or perhaps through the various mechanisms discussed in section 3 to remove segregation from our school system. Each student should be made to feel valued in this process, recognising that there is no one way to contribute to society or to achieve success.


Not limited to the bullet points in a subject syllabus, a focus on projects and problem solving will provide learners the capacity to be resourceful and enterprising. This involves a holistic approach to their interaction in the school: whether in helping develop budgets for classroom equipment, cooking food for school lunches, or aiding janitorial staff in building management—all examples of vital skills for after school success.


Through a revised syllabus with an emphasis on projects and problem solving, a better-developed democratic infrastructure in schools, and the ongoing conversation to resolve assumptions around after school ‘success’, education should be emancipatory in its intentions, helping to develop resilient citizens. Moving away from social ‘mobility’, to social ‘change’, learners should recognise that education as a process should be connective across society, with the ultimate goal of benefitting the whole local, national, and international community.


We recognise that there is the will to see an innovative education system in Scotland, but we must be brave and accept that there are risks in the journey towards such an enlightened system, where children are empowered and engaged in an active learning, and develop as thoughtful, compassionate, and skilled citizens. We need a manifesto for real change, not another policy paper. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?


It is acknowledged in the paper that Scotland has some of the largest and smallest schools in Europe (the latter, for obvious reasons, located in rural communities). While wishing to preserve the idea of the community school in these areas, my personal preference would be for authorities to re-define catchment areas in towns and cities to ensure secondary schools had, other than in exceptional circumstances, no less than 600 and a maximum of 800 students.

Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?

What If Exam Results Were Less Important?


It’s that time of year again. Across Scotland this week, 16-18 year-olds are finding out how they performed in their National Qualifications, something which will determine their futures to a great extent, though not always in the way that they – or we – imagine it will.
These qualifications have always been seen as the hard currency for entry to Higher Education and a successful career, but we all know it doesn’t always work out that way, so perhaps it is time to re-consider what we think schools are for, and to look again at whether learning, schooling and the examination system, while having many features in common, are really quite different animals. In this typically insightful and thought-provoking blogpost, Martin Robinson considers the implications of moves to lessen the importance of formal qualifications in career recruitment, and wonders whether both schools and the ‘world of work’ might benefit from the changes. It is an idea I have supported for many years, but I would go even further. Remove the burden of major end-of school exams from learners and teachers and let them focus on the development of the four capacities as set out in Curriculum for Excellence. At the same time, shift the burden of selection for Higher and Further Education courses to the institutions themselves. In that way they can be more confident that the right students are taking the right courses, and drop-out rates will fall. Everybody wins.

Originally posted on SurrealAnarchy:


The Times reports that Ernst and Young will “no longer consider an applicant’s qualifications, school or university when selecting trainees for interview.” In pursuit of a ‘level playing field’ the firm will use online tests to assess the ‘potential’ of an applicant. Only at thefinalinterview will a candidate’s academic record be revealed. The main drive behind this move seems to be the desire to increase the diversity of its workforce and that the firm has a: “social obligation to break barriers that in part exclude people from certain backgrounds.” The online test is accessiblehere. PwC no longer considers A levels when selecting people to become graduate trainees and I attended a meeting where someone from recruitment in Barclays mentioned they were (thinking of?) doing something similar to E&Y.

Should schools start teaching children how to take online multiple choice ‘business’ tests and answer numerical reasoning questions or should…

View original 386 more words

What Would It Be Like To Be A Duck?

daffy_005_copyYesterday I had the pleasure of doing nothing for quite a long time, sitting in the sun beside Lake Banyoles, or L’Estany de Banyoles, here in Catalonia. It was the site of the rowing regatta at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it really is quite a spectacular setting. An excited group of children, probably around the age of four or five, were chattering about the prospect of swimming in the lake, which they were just about to do, and throwing the odd scrap of pizza and chips to the ducks which were plentiful along the edge of the lake. ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ asked one of the children, eliciting a few giggles. Yes, what WOULD it be like to be a duck. What a great question! Not, ‘Oh look at those ducks, aren’t they cute?’ but ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ She may as well have asked ‘What is it that makes us human?’ because essentially that is what they set about discussing. What do they eat? How do they eat it? Can they feel cold? What do they think about? Do they get bored? I was reminded of the episode in The Catcher in the Rye when the hero, Holden Caulfield, is walking in Central Park, and he speculates about where the ducks go in winter.

Children always ask the best questions. Which is not to say that they always know what needs to be learned, or that the formal curriculum should be just one big extended session of sitting around reflecting on the nature of the universe, but rather, that as teachers we should reflect on our role and the relationship between learning and enquiry, and remember that real learning comes out of a need and a hunger to know stuff. Good teaching is often about providing young people with the best experiences or texts you can find, asking THEM to ask all the important questions, then setting out together to learn as much as you can.

Further thoughts on kids and questioning from a previous article: More Questions, Fewer Answers

If you are looking for some great questions to stimulate discussion, the following sources will provide you with an endless supply. Don’t blame me if you get lost in them for ever.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.

L'Estany de Banyoles

L’Estany de Banyoles

Creating A Level Playing Field


“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).