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by Stewart Maxwell MSP
14 April 2015
Attaining understanding - scrutinising the new Education Bill

Attaining understanding - scrutinising the new Education Bill

Scottish politics has seen a renewed and reinvigorated debate on inequality recently and the question of how best to tackle educational inequalities has featured prominently.

This debate will only intensify in the coming months, as we in the Education and Culture Committee scrutinise the Scottish Government’s new Education (Scotland) Bill. It aims, amongst other matters, to raise attainment consistently for all pupils and to progressively reduce inequality in educational outcomes.

The committee has contacted hundreds of schools, pupils, parents and interested organisations to ask their views on the Bill. We would also welcome Holyrood readers’ responses to questions such as: what improvements in attainment, in achievement and in reducing inequalities of outcome do you consider the Bill in itself could deliver? And, what specific actions will education authorities be able to take to reduce inequalities of outcome that they are currently unable to take? Our website explains how to submit your views.

Our scrutiny of the Bill will be greatly informed by the work on attainment we have already undertaken. Our previous inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children allowed us to see first hand the very real impact that inequality of opportunity can have on young people’s lives.

This year we have looked at three other specific issues around attainment. First, we questioned experts on exactly how schools, colleges, universities and employers could work together to deliver better vocational options for pupils. We also examined how the third and private sectors and, separately, parents and schools, could raise pupils’ attainment. The discussions were fascinating, so much so that the committee will hold two further meetings.

With a renewed emphasis on the value of a vocational education, various people stressed to us that going to university should not be seen as the ultimate objective of our education system – we were even told by one university deputy principal that medicine was nothing more than “plumbing”!

There was a strong consensus that schools should be engaging parents far more effectively in their children’s education, and it was also interesting to hear a recurring view that schools should be judged less on exam results and more on their pupils’ outcomes. One witness reported the views of young people, who said it would be interesting if headteachers were performance-managed on how many of their pupils got jobs. We’re not sure, however, that such a proposal would meet with unanimous support from headteachers… 

We have adopted no position yet on such issues, but welcome the consensus that improvement in our education system is both desirable and deliverable. 

We will write soon to the Scottish Government to question how ministers and local authorities aim to drive improvement. We will also seek clarity on such basic points as what ‘attainment’ and the ‘attainment gap’ actually mean; there is some confusion about these terms and, perhaps, a need to redefine them. 

Our work goes on, but we are confident we have helped to put educational inequalities back at the top of the political agenda.

The Education and Culture Committee began its year-long work into the attainment gap in January.

Read Duncan McNeil, convener of the Health and Sport committee, on how it is investigating inequality

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