Extra curricular: Providing equitable education

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

This is part five of a 5-part series. Catch-up with Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four.

To conclude this series, this time we will consider how to target extra-curricular activities at those who are most in need and how we can ensure we provide equitable – which is not always synonymous with equal – access to extra-curricular provision in order to “level the playing field” by offering more to those who start with less…

If extra-curricular activities are important, then surely we want all pupils to access them. I believe we should offer more not less, but crucially, not the same either to disadvantaged pupils. In other words, we must extend the curriculum for disadvantaged pupils in order to ensure equity as opposed to equality.

Equality and equity

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, equality is “ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents” whereas equity is about “giving more to those who need it”.

Equity is not the same as equality nor – crucially – is it the same as inequality; it’s simply giving more to those who need it proportionate to their own circumstances to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities. 

Though it may sound oxymoronic, it is by treating people differently that we can achieve true equality. 

Thus, we need to provide the same ambitious core curriculum to all and then complement it with additional opportunities for those whose starting points are lower or for whom opportunities are more limited. And this is where extra-curricular activities can help ensure equity of experiences and equity of outcomes, especially if these are targeted at disadvantaged students.

The purposes of extra-curricular provision

Professor Dylan Wiliam (2013) set out four purposes of education which may be useful in terms of articulating the goals of our extra-curricular programme. These four purposes are:

  • Personal empowerment: Arguably the most important aim of education is to allow young people to take greater control of their own lives, perhaps best exemplified by the work of Paulo Freire. The idea is that rather than simply enculturating young people into the existing systems, education is the means by which people “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Shaull, 1970).
  • Cultural transmission: Another reason that is often given for educating young people is, in Matthew Arnold’s words, to pass on from one generation to the next, “the best that has been thought and known in the world” (Arnold, 1869). Those who do not know what people are expected to know are regarded as ignorant – not stupid, but simply lacking the knowledge expected of them.
  • Preparation for citizenship: Democratic citizenship arguably works only if those who are voting understand the choices they are given, and education therefore has a vital role to play in preparing citizens so that they can make informed decisions about their participation in democratic society (Council of Europe, 2010).
  • Preparation for work: As a number of reports from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have shown, more educated workers are more productive (e.g. Hanushek & Woessman, 2010). Educational achievement is therefore inextricably linked with economic prosperity.

Meanwhile, Professor Michael Young in his 2014 book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and social justice, says that the purpose of education: “Is to enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience. It is knowledge which many will not have access to at home, among their friends, or in the communities in which they live. As such, access to this knowledge is the right of all pupils as future citizens.”

Understanding the barriers of poverty

At the time of writing, the number of children living in relative poverty after housing costs in the UK stands at 3.9 million. The figure represents 27% of the UK’s children and compares to the 3.6 million children who were living in poverty in 2010/11. And things are expected to worsen as the impact of the scrapping of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit is felt.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group and Children North East pupils experiencing poverty in England are financially excluded from full participation in a wide range of school subjects and activities, including PE, music, swimming, and art and design.

Their recent report – The cost of having fun at school (2022) (2022) – emphasised that there is “nothing for free”.

Day-to-day practices in England’s schools often – albeit unintentionally – draw attention to family incomes and make children feel embarrassed and different. These, say CPAG, include expensive uniform policies, non-uniform days, and requirements to bring in material possessions like pencil cases. Some policies and practices relating to food in school often mean that children experiencing poverty do not have the same options as their peers at lunch-times.

But of course, extra-curricular activities can also highlight inequalities, particularly if pupils are required to purchase equipment so they can take part.

CPAG recommends that schools plan all teaching, events and activities with affordability and accessibility in mind and, wherever possible, remove or minimise charging for school-related activities – and this includes extra-curricular activities, even when they are voluntary. 

CPAG also recommends that schools explore and review current school costs, take a holistic view of the school year, and determine the cost of full participation in school life. For more support with this, see the CPAG cost of the school day calendar and other resources (SecEd, 2021).

Schools should also provide meaningful opportunities for pupils and families to give feedback on their experiences of school with a focus on school costs. 

This is, of course, where extra-curricular activities are so important: they can help level the playing field for those pupils who start the race behind their peers and are denied access to, for example, arts and culture.

Principal of Havelock Academy in Grimsby, Emma Marshall, believes that “extra-curricular activities should be widely available and should be free wherever possible, especially in deprived areas, to ensure children all have access to a wide range of opportunities”.

Ian Cooke, director of music at Havelock, agrees. Extra-curricular activities at the school are targeted at “everyone and so it needs to be varied in order to be appealing to as many children as possible”.

He continued: “If we were to target specific groups then it could limit the social circles and relationships formed in some of the activities; equally, having talent-based activities that are not open to all can create a divisive culture, which we want to avoid.” 

Mr Cooke acknowledged, however, that “some of the extra-curricular activities that link more directly to the timetabled curriculum are often targeted at certain students, such as those studying that subject at GCSE. But it is unusual for us to limit to a particular group.”

On the other hand, Caroline Barlow, headteacher of Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, said that pupils’ “engagement in extra-curricular experiences is closely tracked to ensure equity of access for all groups, and then pro-active intervention ensures all Heathfield students are able to gain their full entitlement”.

Ms Barlow added that, having analysed data to show levels of pupil engagement in extra-curricular activities, her aim going forward was “to work with the students who do not have these independent pursuits and help overcome any barriers to encourage them to find their passions and motivation”. 

Measuring impact

Finally in this series, it is important that schools evaluate the impact of their extra-curricular provision to be sure it is providing quality and value for money. But how?

When it comes to measuring the impact of extra-curricular activities, Ms Marshall believes that participation rates can be a “helpful indicator”, but not all the time as “some activities are ultra-successful with tiny numbers”. 

Ms Marshall also believes that case studies of children who take part in extra-curricular activities are useful to showcase their commitment to those activities as well as their development of skills such as resilience, and ultimately, the academic impact of extra-curricular provision.

Asked whether she thought it was important to quality assure extra-curricular provision, Ms Marshall said that “quality assurance is important in the sense that we want children to enjoy the experiences and benefit from them, but it must be done in a way that encourages staff and recognises their contribution”.

She continued: “Where staff are paid for it, then an expectation that it will be quality assured should be as standard. But where it is voluntary, any quality assurance needs to be (about) ensuring safeguarding procedures are in place, rather than (being about) content.

“Where something is not as high quality as it could be, helpful feedback can be offered in the right way and perhaps support offered, but staff need to be thanked and encouraged where they are volunteering their own time and where they are paid too, as they still don’t have to do it if it’s extra to their usual role.”

Ms Barlow, meanwhile, said that they “track and monitor engagement in extra-curricular activities through systematic use of registers and termly analysis”. This, she said, allows the school “to evaluate engagement by strand and by groups of students”. 

Pupil voice is also used at Heathfield to delve deeper into any emerging patterns, which then allows staff to intervene proactively and respectfully as appropriate: “These registers and analysis of uptake in part gives an indication of student voice, but more formal opportunities to evaluate the experience are scheduled into the year which allow us to gather the feedback on engagement and enjoyment, but also reflection and application of understanding.

“Increasingly,” Ms Barlow said, “our approach, signposting and structure allows students to see the links to their taught curriculum within and between subjects.”

Ms Barlow said she was delighted that more than 70% of her pupils engaged with extra-curricular activities this year: “Considering how disruptive life has been over the last two years, we are thrilled that students have not lost their thirst for learning outside of the classroom.”

She said her school had identified that, “of the students who do not appear to engage in the opportunities we provide outside of the school day, a large number are already involved with activities we cannot provide, for example horse-riding or, as some have, acquiring a private pilot’s licence”. 

Often coaching and mentoring from older students inspires pupils further, Ms Barlow explained: “Our year 12 students receive an enrichment workshop within the school day and will often engage in leading activities with younger students.”

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