To many educational practitioners, especially those who work with younger children, ZPD is one of the most widely-recognised acronyms. But I was recently reminded of another ZPD, which, although it is unlikely ever to rival Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, should make us think. In his A Year with Swollen Appendices (p. 301), Brian Eno identifies the ‘Zone of Pragmatic Deceit’, a ZPD which he describes as:
the social and mental inventions that exist to ease the friction between what we claim to stand for […] and what we actually have to do to make things work .
When the Coalition Government came to power in 2010, it was careful to express a concern with ‘vulnerable children’: there are numerous references in the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, for example. But the White Paper was implemented alongside a range of pragmatic policies which undermined the effectiveness of initiatives like the Pupil Premium, the Coalition’s flagship education policy for combatting socio-economic disadvantage. As Lupton & Thomson (p. 17) have recently emphasised:
Post-election debate around socio-economic inequalities in education has largely focused on whether the new Conservative government will stick to its pledge to retain the Pupil Premium. A more important question is whether the Pupil Premium can be expected to have any meaningful impact as part of a suite of education and social policies likely to work in the opposite direction.
In Vulnerable Children: needs and provision in the primary phase, a research review commissioned by CPRT which will be published shortly, Sharon Vincent and I examine policies supporting and affecting vulnerable children since the Coalition Government took up office in 2010, and we explore the extent to which changes to policy and practice in this period have had any meaningful impact on the wellbeing and education of vulnerable children. As such, the report directly addresses the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s first two priorities: to ‘tackle the continuing challenge of social and educational disadvantage, and find practical ways to help schools to close the overlapping gaps in social equity and educational attainment’ and ‘advance children’s voice and rights in school and classroom’.
Our review relates closely to Mind the Gap, the CPRT report by Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen, published in September 2015, which examined the evidence associating social and economic inequality with unequal educational outcomes. Inequality and poverty are primary causes of vulnerability in children. A growing body of evidence demonstrates the strong relationship between vulnerability in childhood (including abuse and neglect and exposure to domestic violence) and issues such as mental health, school underperformance and poor physical health in adulthood. This means that schools have a much broader role in relation to children they identify as vulnerable than merely focusing on educational attainment. In the report we take a dual perspective to approaching the still contentious and under-defined area of vulnerability in children, combining an educational perspective with a social welfare approach in order to shed light from allied but different angles.
One of the challenges we faced in writing the report was to define ‘vulnerable children’, for vulnerability remains a contested term. In 2010, the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review (p. 60) found that:
There is still a risk of ‘vulnerable’ becoming a professional euphemism, couched within a deficit model that views disadvantaged children as a ‘nuisance’, ‘incomplete’ or somehow ‘insufficient’.
Taking as our starting point Ainscow and colleagues’ assertion in one of the CPR research surveys that ‘difference in the primary school population is not so much identified as constructed […] and that implications for policy and practice flow from these constructions’, we review five different taxonomies of vulnerability in policy and research. Their variability was their most striking feature. Our analysis leads us to propose a needs-based definition of vulnerability, influenced by the more rights and assets-based approaches common in countries such as Scotland, in which vulnerable children are regarded as having special educational, complex and/or additional needs, caused by a range of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Schools and other agencies working with children need to take such factors into account in an ecological and holistic approach that puts the child and their needs at the centre of support.
In reviewing national, local and in-school policy initiatives relating to vulnerable children, the deficit perspective feared and highlighted in the quotation above is all too evident in policy since 2010. The Troubled Families programme, instigated after the riots of 2011, is a case in point. Families and local authorities have criticised the use of the word ‘troubled’ and the willingness of politicians like Eric Pickles when Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to assert when discussing the programme in 2012 that ‘we have sometimes run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame. We need a less understanding approach’. Such language contrasts sharply with the long term, universal approach adopted in the Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) initiative which was introduced in Scotland in 2005. We also discuss a number of policies and initiatives focused on supporting vulnerable children and families and involving school. These include the Pupil Premium, local authority policies such as Liverpool’s families programme, and in-school initiatives such as nurture groups and resilience programmes.
We conclude our report by noting that although there is a growing evidence base relating to the effectiveness of pre-school interventions, far less is known about the effectiveness of interventions during the primary phase. Some of the factors that have been identified as key to the success of interventions in the early years, such as targeting multiple areas of need and multi-agency working, are likely to be equally effective in the primary phase. A body of evidence suggests that early intervention across the age range and focused on the whole family improves wellbeing, protects children and makes financial sense. Evidence also shows that narrowly-focused programmes attempting to address single issues are unlikely to deliver the desired outcomes for vulnerable children.
One of the implications for policy and practice with which we end the report is that a strengths, assets and solution-focused approach is necessary to build resilience in children and families to equip them with coping skills so they can sustain progress once formal supports have been withdrawn. As the current furore over the proposed cuts to tax credits – which will disproportionately affect vulnerable children – indicates, it is difficult to see how this could be effected as long as pragmatic needs and deceits encourage policy makers to take with one hand even before they give with the other.
Michael Jopling is Professor of Education at Northumbria University and CPRT’s Regional Co-ordinator for the North East.
The CPRT report on vulnerable children by Michael Jopling and Sharon Vincent will be published in late December or early January.