Scotland is tying one hand behind its - and children’s - backs by waiting too late to address gaps

Written by Dr Jonathan Sher on 19 April 2016 in Comment

Closing gaps is good but preventing them is even better, writes Dr Jonathan Sher

The BBC documentary on closing Scotland’s education attainment gap, Educating Sir Tom, underscored the high priority of this issue. Underneath all the ‘argy bargy’ among politicians in the run-up to this May’s Scottish election, there is extraordinary agreement among political parties on the importance of closing the gap in educational attainment.

They are fiercely competing for votes by offering alternative strategies about how to accomplish this shared goal – and how to pay for it.

But Scotland’s leaders are united in their heartfelt vows to ‘do something’ to close the gap in school success. Study after study, year after year, document this inequality that is beleaguering Scottish children.


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For example, our nation’s internationally respected ‘Growing Up in Scotland’ research identifies that even before children enter primary school (indeed, prior to starting pre-school) there are already stunningly large, and growing, differences in their cognitive development and emotional and social wellbeing.  

It is right for Scotland not only to acknowledge this problem, but also to commit serious attention and resources to solving it. We should take pride in living in a nation where closing this gap is very high on the ‘to do’ list across parties – and where the political debate is about how, not whether, to take effective action.

Unfortunately, there is not comparable priority given by any party to answering an even more fundamental question: What could, and should, be done – right here, right now – to keep Scotland’s educational attainment gap from opening in the first place? This is an odd and troubling omission in a nation with years of cross-party support for preventative spending.

The rhetoric of ‘prevention and early intervention’ is widespread and strong, but its translation into reality is patchy and weak. As the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services pointedly concluded five years ago, Scotland largely waits until problems arise – and ever-higher ‘thresholds’ are crossed – before rushing in to clean up costly messes that could have been prevented.

Scotland touts the virtues of the early years, but disproportionately invests in the later ones. In focusing so heavily on closing the education gap, political parties act as if life and learning begins at the start of formal education. It does not. Waiting until nursery and primary school greatly diminishes the likelihood of primary prevention (that is, nipping the problem in the bud).

While the Scottish Parliament was en route to enacting the Children and Young People Act 2014, I had the pleasure and privilege of coordinating the remarkably influential and diverse coalition of more than 100 organisations and experts seeking greater attention to the first 1,001 days of life (from pre-birth to pre-school). Our collective report, ‘Social Justice Begins With Babies’, made a difference. But it did not correct the basic imbalance between genuinely early preventative action and later catch-up, gap-closing exercises. 

Consider three uncomfortable Scottish realities. 

First, most child maltreatment (abuse, neglect and growing up with domestic violence) begins before a child’s first birthday – and the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences on educational attainment are well-documented.

Second, the lasting damage caused by poverty, health inequalities, homelessness, malnutrition, substance abuse, criminality and other societal problems to babies and their parents ot carers are already wreaking havoc and compromising life chances (and education attainment) long before formal education even gets under way. 

Third, of the one out of every five children in Scotland with significant ‘additional support needs’ (that make educational attainment more difficult to achieve), the majority of these difficulties were predictable and preventable before birth – and very often even before pregnancy.

Closing the education gap is indisputably the right thing to do. It is never either too late, or a waste of time and resources, to help children and young people of any age improve their success at school and enhance their life chances.

Nevertheless, Scotland is tying one hand behind its (and children’s) backs by waiting to close gaps after too little, too late has been done to keep them from opening at all.

It would be far cheaper, more effective and less harmful if Scottish manifestos, policies and programmes would actually ‘do what they say on the tin’ about primary prevention as early as possible. Now is the time to act on the obvious truth that better educational attainment will actually happen when there are many fewer, and much smaller, gaps to close.

Dr Jonathan Sher is the author of two forthcoming publications on improving preconception health, education and care across Scotland 

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