What would it take to make achievement in the classroom more equal?
When a charity recently published figures that showed a 61 per cent achievement gap between poorer pupils and their classmates at 16 the reaction in the education world was telling. Instead of shock, the prevailing feeling was that this was ‘nothing new’.
Disillusion is understandable. Despite successive government pledges and initiatives in Scotland this gap has remained more or less static for six years. But for campaigners, this makes it all the more alarming. More than a stubborn statistic, it’s a trend that’s reproducing inequality and ruining lives.
Modern educational thinking tells us the inequalities in the classroom are a reflection of the inequalities in society. A fair assumption, it would seem. Yet reformers in the US are challenging that belief. They argue that failing neighbourhoods are as much a product of failing schools as vice versa and there is nothing given about the link between poverty and low educational achievement.
Whether you agree with the philosophy or not, some of the results can’t be dismissed. grave
One ground-breaking project in New York has brought its black students’ maths scores up to the city average for white students – effectively closing the gap. Could Scotland pull off such a revolution?
“There’s nothing inevitable about the levels of poverty we tolerate here and the damage that poverty does to children’s education and attainment,” says John Dickie, Head of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), Scotland.
One in four children in Scotland is growing up in poverty. And the statistics offer little hope for their chances at school. By three years of age, poor children can be up to a year behind better off children in their cognitive development. By the time they move to secondary school they are, on average, two years behind their wealthier classmates.
The inequality in Scottish education has even been highlighted by the OECD. In its 2007 review, Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland, it identified as “a major challenge” an achievement gap associated with deprivation that opens up about Primary 5, continues to widen throughout the junior secondary years, and “appears to be very wide”.
“Social gaps in achievement arise from an early age and tend to grow wider over stages of schooling,” Professor Richard Teese, rapporteur for the 2007 OECD review, tells Holyrood.
“Deprivation creates a set of issues which are difficult for schools on their own to resolve.
There is a tendency for disadvantage to be concentrated in some schools, while social advantage is concentrated in other schools.
The intensity and complexity of disadvantage, on the one hand, and the accumulation of social advantage, on the other, underlie persistent inequality.” Such low achievement too often seals these children’s fate for later life. In 2009 22 per cent of school leavers from the most deprived areas of Scotland moved into unemployment compared to 6 per cent from the least deprived. And it’s not just about wealth. Recent research found that 15 per cent of long-term ‘Neets’ die within ten years – prompting the UK Director General of Schools to say the work of schools was “a matter of life and death”.
So what underlies this cycle of deprivation and poor achievement? The answer of course is a complex web of factors. But one is pretty basic as the CPAG head explains.
“The fundamental problem is that too many families don’t have the resources to ensure that their children can take advantage of all that Scotland’s educational system has to offer,” says Dickie.
“We have one in four of Scotland’s children still growing up in poverty and that too often means growing up in cold, damp, overcrowded housing where the chances of getting your homework done in peace and comfort are nil.
It too often means the stresses of just getting by make doing well at school out of reach.
“It too often means growing up in families unable to afford computers or internet access, unable to enjoy family outings, unable to pay for extra-curricular school activities – all the kinds of things that other children take for granted and which contribute to their learning, contribute to their educational development.” Beyond the bread and butter are the more insidious cultural reasons. Young people growing up in poverty tend to have more negative experiences of school. There is also evidence to suggest that they are less likely to have a positive relationship with their teacher. David Raffe, Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Edinburgh argues that the way schools are structured as formal institutions also works to the advantage of more middle-class pupils.
“I think it’s a combination of the way the school system is structured which makes it easier for people from some types of background to fit in than others. The fact that if your parents speak the language, they both know the system in terms of understanding the curriculum and they help you with it. But they also know the system more broadly in terms of what things do and don’t help you to achieve at school,” says the professor.
Indeed the single biggest factor in poor children’s low achievement in school is thought to be their parents. Successive studies show that parents’ level of education and their involvement in their child’s schooling is the critical ingredient in that child’s successful learning.
The problems are clearly deep rooted and complex. Yet campaigners maintain they can and must be tackled. The Scottish Government’s new curriculum, Curriculum for Excellence, is designed to provide more personalised learning and raise attainment for all pupils. Other policies include smaller class sizes and free school meals for the most deprived pupils in the first three years of primary. Children’s charities welcome these initiatives as moves in the right direction but warn much more needs to be done.
As the May election approaches and the Government consults on its Child Poverty Strategy, calls are growing for more targeting of resources. Save the Children Scotland has proposed a ‘pupil premium’. The policy, being implemented by the Coalition Government south of the border and proposed by the Scottish Lib Dems for Scotland, would see schools receive extra funding for every pupil on free school meals on their rolls. The extra cash would have to be shown to be spent on measures to support these children such as intensive one-to-one tuition and engaging parents in their learning.
The quality of teachers is also seen as crucial to pupil outcomes. In countries like England, Australia and the US, the Teach First programme which parachutes high- flying graduates into deprived schools is proving effective at raising attainment. Some have been calling for its introduction north of the border. Last week’s Donaldson Review of teacher education in Scotland said it should be investigated.
However, others believe this is a problem that starts well before school and thus can’t be tackled there alone. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that only 14 per cent of variation in students’ performance can be put down to school quality; most is explained by factors beyond the school gate.
The gap starts to develop well before the age of five and this is where money needs to be targeted, according to Dr Carol Craig, Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being in Glasgow.
“I definitely think we’ve got to be looking at educational spend and spending generally in public services. I think we have to start privileging early years, pre-pregnancy and we have got to provide a better life experience for kids of under five who are living in poor areas,” says Craig.
“If you talk to some teachers who are working in poor areas, as I’ve done, they will go out of their way to say there is a major problem here of kids coming to school impoverished in language; some of them are still in nappies; they have very little selfcontrol or self-discipline because it’s just not been part of their upbringing; they are very difficult to teach. These are good, committed teachers who will do as much as they can but they’re saying, ‘we’re struggling because we’re getting a kid at 5 who’s already seriously educationally disadvantaged’.” Craig proposes an extension of schemes like the Family Nurse Partnership Programme, piloted in NHS Lothian and recently launched in Tayside, that sees nurses working intensively with first-time parents, plus more family centres and play facilities in deprived areas. To achieve this, she calls for a shift in spending from other policy areas, particularly higher education.
“If you look at Scotland’s drug and alcohol figures, there’s a serious problem here. And many of these people with drug and alcohol problems are parents. This is, I think, an emerging national crisis that we are not facing up to. So to me if you want to do something about the attainment gap, it’s early years work that needs to be done.” Harlem Children’s Zone is a project that has taken this principle to the extreme.
Described by a Harvard study as “arguably the most ambitious social experiment to alleviate poverty of our time”, the New York scheme has done what many had thought impossible – closed the gap between black and white students in maths. The equivalent, as one Harvard economist put it of “curing cancer for these kids”.
The unique feature of Harlem Children’s Zone is its all-encompassing approach. In an area covering 97 blocks in the Manhattan district, the non-profit organisation reaches out to children from the very beginning – even before birth – and provides a web of educational and social programmes from pre-school through school to college. From asthma prevention plans to dental, medical and psychiatric care and after-school arts and music, it works with families to deliver a completely wrap-around service. With the strapline, ‘Cradle to college to community’ it is designed as a sustainable model that sees children through their entire education and then helps them back to contribute to the area.
Reaching children as early as possible is one of the key factors in HCZ’s success, Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone tells Holyrood.
“HCZ’s goal is to revive Central Harlem by making sure its children are able to educate themselves and enter the high-skills job market. To make that happen, we start with kids as early as possible – even working with expectant parents – and then support the children through a variety of high-quality programs until they graduate from college.
We are trying to level the playing field, so poor kids have the same opportunities to become happy, productive members of society,” says Canada.
Serving 8,800 children, HCZ reaches almost every child growing up in Harlem.
With this comprehensive approach, it combines educational innovation. As well as Baby College – a prenatal and early childhood parenting class – and the Harlem Gems pre-school, it includes the successful charter school Promise Academy. The school, which is state-funded but independently run, deviates from the conventional public school approach in its longer school day, inspirational teaching and higher teacher accountability.
Crucially, it also operates a culture of high expectations of pupils and ‘no excuses’.
HCZ grew out of the vision of Canada and other committed people working in the area.
Following their frustration with the limited success of their hard work in Harlem they decided to establish something that could address the community’s problems in the round.
“In the 1990s, our organisation – which was called Rheedlen then – was doing some great work with kids and families, but their success was often derailed: they might get sick, get evicted or get shot by a stray bullet.
We also saw that despite our success with a few kids, we were losing the war to save the community. So we began by addressing as many problems as we could in a single building, then a block, and eventually created a business plan to expand what we called the Harlem Children’s Zone to where we are today at 97 blocks, serving more than 8,800 kids and 6,600 adults,” says the CEO.
Raised in the South Bronx in the ‘60s, Canada grew up with a resolve to one day fix some of the problems in his community.
“I was raised by a single mom with four boys in a poor section of the Bronx. My mother struggled to keep us fed and clothed and on track in school, but the neighbourhood was, in many ways, a terrible environment with violence and inadequate schools being the norm. Even as a boy, I realized it was no place for children to grow up. I vowed that if I ever got out, I would come back and try to help kids like me who had the odds stacked against them.” After gaining a college scholarship, Canada progressed to Harvard School of Education and went to Harlem in the early ‘80s to pursue his vision. A truly inspirational character, he is now described by Michelle Obama as “one of my heroes”. Indeed, his work has also attracted the attention of President Obama who seeks to replicate the HCZ model in 20 US cities.
But just how transferable is this project and could it be replicated in Scotland? At a panel discussion in Glasgow last week after the screening of Waiting for Superman – a film that features HCZ – a leading Scottish public health expert said there is no reason why it couldn’t be tried.
Asked if the HCZ model could work in Glasgow, Phil Hanlon, Professor of Public Health at the University of Glasgow told the audience: “The short answer to that must be yes. And we have got a psychological barrier here in Scotland. So if there are people out there who have got the vision to do a Scotland version of this and really make a difference then I think they should have a go at it. If there are early years interventions that people have a heart for and could really make a difference then we should all be supportive.
“Just because you can’t do it everywhere doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to really break through some of those barriers,” he added.
Hanlon cited Linda De Caestecker, Director of Public Health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde as someone who is at the heart of much of the early years work in Glasgow and could potentially take such a project forward.
Indeed Dr John O’Dowd, Consultant in Public Health Medicine at NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde says: “The things we’re looking into in terms of working with parents and children and supporting parents were in many ways the ingredients that went into Harlem Children’s Zone.” The board is heavily engaged in holistic work with children and families including the Parenting Support Framework.
Importing projects wholesale is a risky business, however. Often the success of these initiatives lies in their unique fit to the community they’re in and transferring them elsewhere simply doesn’t work. As it is likely only to work in a contained community, there is also the question of whether it could increase inequalities. Craig also cautions that the strength of initiatives like HCZ is largely down to the force of the personalities of the people involved, like Canada.
If Glasgow was to go down this road it would have to take all of these caveats into account. Trying to emulate the HCZ in full would hardly be wise. However, that is not to say that there aren’t valuable lessons to be learned from the project’s success. Or that a form distinctive to a city like Glasgow could not be developed. Given the scale and persistence of the problem, it is surely worth a try.