Inclusion and attainment: can our research help ‘bridge the gap’?

The University of Manchester’s annual Inclusion and Inspiration Conference is a chance for teachers and academics to share their experiences of working in diverse schools with student and recently qualified teachers. This year, I went along to give a talk about my PhD work, focussing on pupils learning English as an Additional Language and how they might process language differently to their peers.

As well as presenting my own work, it was a great opportunity to hear about research developments on the important issue of inclusion in education and to hear first-hand about teacher’s views of best practice in the classroom. It also prompted me to reflect on what AQA’s research team does in this area and this acted as a catalyst to find out more from my colleagues.  

Addressing inequality

Dr Carl Emery opened the conference with an engaging keynote talk about the impact of poverty on educational attainment that really felt relevant for those of us working in assessment.

Carl highlighted many of the challenges facing schools and teachers working in high poverty areas, with some stark examples of how widespread poverty has become in recent decades. A rise in the use of foodbanks, the number of people in fuel poverty and the impact of reforms to the benefit system all appear to have had an effect in the classroom.

Supported by figures highlighting the disparity in attainment between the most affluent pupils in our schools and pupils living in the most deprived areas of the country; the effect of socio-economic background was hard to dispute (and at times hard to hear). An apparent gulf seems to be developing between pupils from different social and economic backgrounds.

How all of these factors influence the assessment process seems a prominent and relevant question. How do we ensure our assessments are accessible to all candidates, regardless of socio-economic or cultural background?  How could we prevent the gulf from widening further?

Making assessment accessible

The notion of accessibility within this context refers to a pupil’s ability to engage with a subject on a level playing field with their classmates, whether that is through the book they are reading in English or the events they are learning about in History.

If a specific group has less familiarity or experience of the content being covered because of their background (linguistic, cultural or socio-economic, for example) they may find accessing the subject more difficult and issues of fairness arise. Is it fair to systematically teach or assess content that gives some pupils an advantage over others because of their family’s socio-economic or cultural background?

As a relatively new member of the research team, I began to consider what the team has already been doing in this area. With the concept of fairness and accessibility in assessments much discussed in our recent journal club meetings and a topic frequently highlighted at the last AEA-Europe conference it seems to be an appropriate area for further exploration within our team.

My first thoughts were that carrying out data-driven research might be problematic. Access to fine-grained data on individual pupils is not easy to obtain and blanket generalisations about an area or cohort could skew conclusions. Therefore, post-analyses of performance based on detailed, accurate background information may be difficult.

However, speaking with colleagues I have learned that statistical analyses and access to large databases can give us some really valid insights into how a pupil’s background influences their performance. Work being carried out using the National Pupil Database, data from JCQ and Understanding Society data for example, can all highlight areas of disparity in attainment.    

Research for societal impact

With Carl Emery’s talk in mind, I also wondered if there was anything else we were doing as a research team to help AQA respond to these issues before candidates sit their exams?  

Recent work by Clare Jonas analysing the choice of source texts in GCSE English Language seems like a great example of work we can do. Her findings have helped produce guidance for Lead Examiners in choosing texts that are accessible to a wide range of candidates, regardless of their background. This type of work seems like it could have a real societal impact by ensuring our assessments are accessible and improving the student experience of our exams.

With inclusion high on the academic research agenda and widely discussed within the teaching profession, I am sure the AQA research team will have further involvement and contributions to make in this area in the future. Work I hope I can be involved with.

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