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

By Katy Finch
Published 05 Mar 2020

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 recently qualified and student teachers. This year, I went along to give a talk about my PhD work, which focuses 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 learn about research developments on the important issue of inclusion in education and to hear directly from teachers their views of best practice in the classroom. It also prompted me to reflect on what AQA’s research team has been doing in this area.

Addressing inequality

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

Dr Emery 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 food banks, the growing 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.

The question of how these factors influence the assessment process seems both prominent and relevant. How do we ensure our assessments are accessible to all students, 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’s 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?

The concept of fairness and accessibility in assessments has been much discussed within AQA’s research team and it seems an appropriate area for further exploration.

As a relatively new member of the 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, through speaking with colleagues, I’ve 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 data from the National Pupil Database, the JCQ or Understanding Society, for example, can all highlight areas of disparity in attainment.

Research for societal impact

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

A great example is work by fellow researcher Clare Jonas, who has been analysing the choice of source texts in GCSE English Language. Her findings have helped produce guidance for lead examiners in choosing texts that are accessible to a wide range of students, 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’m sure our team will have further contributions to make in this area, and I look forward to being involved.

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