“Mind the Gap!” by Ken Cunningham CBE


by Ken Cunningham CBE

Visiting with some Texan friends in London the other weekend, I was forcibly reminded of a phrase that you can’t ignore as you travel round the London metro system – “Mind the gap” – spoken and frequently writ large! It all washed over me but to my American friends it was intriguing from several fronts. One because ‘gap’ does not necessarily mean the same to them and, to their added surprise, the gap they had to mind was never constant if indeed it was even there.

You can’t go far in Scotland these days without ‘minding the gap’ either. Hardly a day passes without some reference in education to ‘closing the gap’. Article after article; political volley after political volley; news report after news report. It has become the stick with which to beat a range of backs and upon which the credibility of the reigning powers will depend. Shame on all counts. Like much in politics and education, aspiration is quite a different beast from reality. Like motherhood and apple pie, Named Person and closing the gap, there are few who would disagree with the sentiments. However, many will argue over delivery and probably even definition. A bit like my American friends, there is no defined ‘gap’ as such, well none that doesn’t leave more questions than answers anyway, and the gap indeed is variable, often depending on who’s measuring and what, where you are, who you are and what you are.

And the reason for raising the issue is obvious. Therein lies equity’s greatest challenge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Gary suggested in this first blog (maybe last depending on reaction!), I say something about my background, how that has been impacted by ‘curriculum and equity’ and some initial thoughts around its main challenges (I might have to do a second blog to deal with that…)

I’ve had a privileged and long career in education and every position has been impacted by the recognition of the effect of poverty, background and circumstances on the life chances of young people. And my very working class upbringing likewise. Having passed my ‘qualifying exam’ I was sent to the local senior secondary which delivered a wide range of courses allowing me access to university. After that brief stint at uni (another story), at the age of 19 I had the opportunity of teaching in a local junior secondary where I quickly realised just how big the gap in aspiration and ambition was.

That drove me into teaching as a career where I worked in a range of comprehensives with by far the greatest diversity of opportunity being in the city and including as an Assistant Headteacher in one of the poorest housing estates in Europe. It was a steep learning curve. When I moved into the Advisory service (as it was then), my Headteacher very wisely counselled me to work out quickly in my new post what real difference I would and could make to young people’s lives. That challenge never left me. I have seen it through that post, then in succession, directorate, inspectorate, head teacher and principal, General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland, and also Scottish Qualifications Authority throughout in various guises. But I have also seen it through a range of other third sector roles including as a Director/Trustee of Notre Dame Child Guidance, of Young Enterprise Scotland, of Children’s University Scotland, of the ICAS Foundation and most recently of Children 1st (RSSPCC). Every one of these exists for the main purpose of righting wrongs in children’s lives and improving equity. Different challenges; different issues; different responses; different measures for all of them.

If we get to a second blog, I’d like to explore these issues in their contexts. But let’s leave this with one thought. The biggest single difference ever made in lives were at an individual level, with individual interactions and a huge personal commitment from the teachers and workers who spent hours with each young person. The reinforced message: the quality of the professional at the point of contact makes all the difference. I’ve been blessed to have had the privilege to have seen many in action.

About the author

Dr Ken Cunningham CBE BEd MEd(Hons) DUniv FRSA FSQA is the former General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland. He has spent most of his working life in education having held a range of school posts as well as those of adviser, inspector, Chief Examiner and in local authority directorate. He was appointed General Secretary of School Leaders Scotland in 2008. He has Chaired and been a member of a range of Government Task and Steering Groups as well as Chair of Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland, former Director and Vice Chair of Young Enterprise Scotland and Notre Dame Child Guidance Boards, a member of the Qualifications Committee of SQA and the SCHOLAR Advisory Board, and a Trustee/Director of ICAS Foundation, Children’s University Scotland, and Children 1st. He was for 15 years the Head and Principal of Hillhead High School and its learning community, during which time he oversaw the merger of two large secondary schools. He was awarded a CBE in recognition of his services to Scottish education in 2002.

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