Changing education’s ‘aid’ mindset


We continue to fail young people living in disadvantaged communities. The winner of this year’s £10,000 Teach First Innovation Award, Graeme Duncan argues that a move away from the ‘aid mindset’ is required.

Education is failing young people living in the most disadvantaged communities.

It’s an ugly statement, but while there are of course many wonderful exceptions, the rule is that education is still widening the social divide. 

The fact of the matter is that the aid doesn’t work. Education in disadvantaged communities needs to move to an “investment in outcomes” mentality.

This social divide starts from home, where children raised in middle class families can expect 6,000 more hours of extra-curricular opportunity by age 11 when compared with their peers born into poverty.

Add to this the fact that pupils attending secondary schools in the most disadvantaged quartile are 10 times as likely to attend a school that is “inadequate”, and only a third as likely to attend an “outstanding school” compared to their peers in the most advantaged quartile.

But the blame should not be put at the door of the schools serving low-income communities. The social problems being tackled in these schools – including a higher proportion of pupils with SEN and those with English as an additional language – are significantly different to those in the more advantaged communities.

The sum of these challenges and the related under-performance is that these pupils can then expect to achieve a grade less in every subject at GCSE, are half as likely to attend a university in the top third, and a third as likely to attend a Russell Group university than their more advantaged peers.

Educational inequality remains one of the biggest and most important social challenges that we face as a society, and unless there is a dramatic shift in the way that we address educational inequality, we will only continue to fail young people from low-income communities.

I believe that the solution lies in moving from an aid mindset to an investment mindset, moving away from what we feel we should do to doing what is actually required to make the change.

An example of the aid mindset is the Pupil Premium. It is a fantastic fiscal step in the right direction, and a clear admission that funding for education in disadvantaged communities has been “sub-fair” until now. 

But I would argue that we are putting in what we think we can afford rather than what is required. Even if you were to apply the Pupil Premium wholly to bridging the extra-curricular opportunity gap, it would fall inadequately short.

Furthermore, once that money is in the hands of schools there is neither enough support to enable it to be efficiently spent, nor enough rigour in understanding what worked and what didn’t. It is aid, not investment.

A shift to an investment mindset needs to occur, driven by what needs to be invested to drive outcomes and how it can be most effectively spent. This investment mentality sounds expensive, so let’s focus first on the size of the prize available should we get it right. 

The Sutton Trust estimates that bringing below average pupils in the UK up to the national average for achievement would add 

£140 billion per year in GDP by 2050 through increased salary earnings of former pupils alone. 

To put that into context, the Department for Education (DfE) spent £41 billion on schools last year. How much more should we be investing now to achieve the outcome set out by the Sutton Trust?

At the macro level, this is the investment mentality; investing in education to drive future social and economic prosperity. But the killer questions are how much should we be investing and how should it be invested?

The answer to these questions lie in evidence, but while “evidence-based” education is the current buzz-phrase around the DfE, the actual policy commitment to evidence is only at a rhetorical level. 

As an example, the £120 million investment in the Education Endowment Foundation for a 15-year programme of evidence building is nowhere near sufficient to ensure that £41 billion per annum is effectively spent in schools. It will barely scratch the surface.

We need to get serious about evidence. This will require resourcing the greatest practitioners and researchers within the education fraternity to focus upon projects that address the problems of educational inequality.

These projects need to be large-scale, evidence-driving projects with the capability of producing replicable, scalable and evidence-based solutions.

At Right to Succeed, this is an approach we are trying to grasp, focusing first on supporting challenged secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities to turn around and using the burgeoning social investment markets to resource this bold work.

However, such a systemic change in mindset and approach has to start in government. As the battle lines are drawn between the political parties ahead of next year’s election, the educational challenge is simple: tell the electorate what must be invested in addressing educational inequality and how it will be effectively invested to drive future prosperity.

Whoever forms the next government, they need to put an end to the rhetoric, vanity projects and initiative-itis that have characterised the aid mentality in education. 

Instead they need to be the government that invests in solving the big problems of educational inequality, giving every child the right to succeed.

  • Graeme Duncan is the founder of Right to Succeed, winner of the Teach First Innovation Award 2014.

The Innovation Award
Teach First’s Innovation Award  rewards initiatives that will make a significant contribution to supporting the educational achievement of disadvantaged students and closing the education gap between these students and their wealthier peers.
This year’s winner, Right to Succeed, is a social enterprise bringing together the education fraternity to develop, pilot and scale systemic solutions to the problems of educational inequality. It proposes a revolution in funding for struggling schools, bringing together evidence-based interventions through social investments. The idea is that money from investors is pooled into Social Impact Bonds, which are channelled into schools to deliver improvements. If these are successful, the investors receive a return from the DfE, weighted based on the level of success.
As part of its £10,000 prize, Right to Succeed will receive the experience and support of Teach First to help develop and apply its approach. For more on the Awards, visit and you can follow Right to Succeed on Twitter @Right2Succeed.

CAPTION: Winning formula: Graeme Duncan, founder of this year’s Teach First Innovation Award winner Right to Succeed, pictured after being revealed as the overall winner


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