The attainment gap can mean anything to anyone

Written by Professor Lindsay Paterson on 18 April 2016 in Comment

Professor of Educational Policy Lindsay Paterson argues the vagueness of the attainment gap is its political allure

The dominant educational theme in this election season is the ‘attainment gap’, which is widely deplored even while escaping precise definition. The vagueness is its political allure.

Does it mean inequality of opportunity? That most generally agreed version was argued for by the Commission on Widening Access, where the attention was on the opportunity to enter university.

Does it mean inequality of process? Giving everyone access to the same kind of curriculum has been an official aim of Scottish education since the 1960s, supported now by all serious political parties.

Or does it mean inequality of outcomes? This is sharply controversial. Is equality of achievement a noble goal or a threat to excellence?


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There are three characteristic policy responses to these interperetations. Only on the first – seeking equality of opportunity – might it be reasonably said that there has been some success without harming the quality of what is aimed for.

That first response is about how we distribute resources. This has the least bad track record, if we define resources broadly enough and take the long view. By concentrating on equality of opportunity through ending invidious distinctions, it has left teachers to decide on courses and outcomes. Thus, creating the same kind of school for everyone – comprehensive education – did widen access to worthwhile learning. That was a change made by a Labour government which became a consensus. Breaking down the distinction between old and new universities achieved similar ends, and also was accepted by all points of view despite having been brought in by the Tories. We agree on more than we can admit.

But merely distributing resources differently does not itself achieve very much unless what is done with these resources is wise. And wisdom on the content of education has diminished as the autonomy of educational practices has been steadily eroded. The gravest problem here has not been political intrusion but managerial hubris, much in evidence in the second and third responses to inequality.

The second approach is to change what is learnt and how it is taught. Hence most recently the Curriculum for Excellence, which embodies the despairing notion that old kinds of curriculum did not suit everyone. Yet the evidence was that the reformed old curriculum was actually succeeding.

Standard Grade democratised access to the best that has been thought and said. Until the Higher Still reforms of the late-1990s, so did the revised Highers. These earlier reforms showed that greater equality of process could be achieved without harming standards of accomplishment.

Standard Grade, too, was introduced by the Conservatives. But widening access to a traditional curriculum was also the dominant principle of Scottish left-wing ideas until the 1970s. Only since then has left-wing come to be synonymous with the belief that the older conception of the curriculum is the source of inequality rather than the intellectual key to overcoming it. Curriculum for Excellence was bred by that belief. With the stagnating of attainment that we now see, it can hardly be said that the curricular reforms since the 1990s have been a striking success.

The third approach is to change what is assessed. This is the most despairing response of all, the social engineering of equality of outcome. It is to abandon all hope that people outside the existing social elites are capable of grasping in any depth our inheritance of ideas, of modes of thinking and of ways of acting. Since no one ever admits to depressing the standards of assessment, the changes are usually invisible to public debate. They are a shift – at all levels of education, not just schools – towards more detailed prescription of syllabus, and thus away from the difficult task of developing autonomous understanding. They are the breaking down of the distinction between subjects, removing students from the need to engage with disciplinary rigour.

And they are the belief that students have to be advised and cosseted at every stage of their learning. To reach these ends, teachers too – also at all levels – have to be monitored and controlled, the agents of the plan rather than free exponents of ideas. From that we are creating, not resilient citizens, but infantilism. 

That, I think, is where we end up when we define our central education problem as an enigma. The ‘attainment gap’ can mean anything to anyone. It can be used to justify whatever we like – spending more, assessing more, intruding and controlling more. It can also then, sadly, mean truly educating less.

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