Mind the gap
It’s no secret that as a school pupil, the greater your level of deprivation, the less likely it is that you’ll leave with good qualifications. It’s a truism that has driven education policy across the UK for decades.
Within Scotland, however, the figures to illustrate that reality have been hard to come by. When snapshots of the true picture emerge, they tend to be shocking and revelatory. In 2012, the Guardian published data obtained through freedom of information legislation which demonstrated how few pupils from the most deprived background obtained the kinds of grades necessary to get into the country’s best universities.
New figures have confirmed that bleak picture. Figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives show that pupils living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland are 20 times less likely to leave school with three or more As at Higher level in a single sitting than their peers in the 20 per cent least deprived neighbourhoods.
The figures published by the Scottish Tories cover the past two years’ worth of results, and vary widely both between the years covered and between Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Edinburgh emerged as having the widest gap between the richest and poorest pupils in 2012/13, while East Dunbartonshire managed the smallest.
The figures are shocking, but not unexpected – least of all to the Scottish Government, which has put educational equality at the heart of its policy agenda for schools. In a 2013 speech, Education Secretary Michael Russell said he wanted “guiding alliance for change” to secure educational equality, and set out six policy interventions that he would pursue in order to close the attainment gap.
Two have already taken shape. The School Improvement Partnership Programme, a twinning initiative between schools with similar demographics but different attainment levels, is up and running, and will be supervised and evaluated by academics at the University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. Russell also identified school leadership as a key factor in driving pupil attainment, and recruitment for senior positions at a new Scottish College for Educational Leadership is also under way.
Other commitments have yet to take shape. Russell said he wanted to renew the dialogue with local authorities over class sizes and teacher numbers. Since then, the extent to which the SNP Government has missed its 2011 manifesto pledge to reduce primary class sizes has been revealed to much collective and personal embarrassment, and COSLA’s internal difficulties have also made any new push on class sizes more difficult. A year after his call for greater parental involvement and more innovation within schools, no new significant announcements have been made; and on Russell’s final point, the need for more and better attainment data, the value of a new senior phase benchmarking tool will only be known after the first round of new national exams have been sat.
However, the Scottish Government is also keen to point out recent signs that the situation may already be improving. Responding to the figures, a spokesperson pointed out that the proportion of school leavers going into ‘positive destinations’ – more education, employment or training – was rising, reaching 91.4 per cent in 2012/13.
There are also hopes that the new curriculum, which aims to engage pupils left cold by traditional teaching methods through a more holistic approach to learning, will also help to improve attainment for all. “We are confident that the continuing roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence, the new approach to learning and teaching in Scottish schools, will lead to greater achievement for all pupils in the years ahead,” the spokesperson said.
For the Scottish Tories, who uncovered the figures using freedom of information legislation, the solution is as clear as their policy – and conveniently, the two are one and the same.
“It is a disgrace in Scotland today that the life chances of our children can largely rest upon whether they are born rich or poor,” said Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, announcing the figures. “Our education system should offer every child the same chance to learn and to achieve, but it is failing far too many of our poorest pupils.
“I do not believe or accept that poorer students are less able – they are simply being failed by a rigid, top-down education system that slams the door on ambition and opportunity for so many. These figures show – in black and white – that bright pupils from poor backgrounds are not getting the education they deserve.”
Davidson believes that devolution of school budgets and decision-making powers, a government policy goal that has been pushed aside by more pressing concerns, needs to be accelerated. The Tories also think that their idea of a ‘school voucher’ system, whereby funding would follow the pupils and parents would have the right to place their children in any local authority school of their choice, will help drive quality.
“The Education Secretary has already admitted that some schools are ‘coasting’ and his blasé attitude to the inherent inequalities in our education system is shocking and shames his office,” Davidson said. “He may lack the courage to reform, but families across Scotland deserve better.”
Teaching unions are well aware of the problem illustrated by the Tories’ figures, but disagree strongly with the Tories’ proposed remedy. “What is surprising and deeply ironic is that the Conservative Party seems to blame schools, and by implication teachers, for the effect of poverty on pupils’ life chances rather than decrying the fact that one in five children in austerity Scotland lives in impoverished conditions,” said EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan in response to the figures.
“Seeking to import Michael Gove-style changes to Scotland threatens to undermine the consensual approach to tackling poverty which exists. Such changes would be deeply damaging to Scotland’s education system and for Scottish pupils.”
The EIS is running its own child poverty campaign, which includes research into the ways poverty manifests itself in classrooms. “Teachers work extremely hard to overcome the disadvantage faced by too many pupils but cuts to budgets, support staff and resources make this more difficult,” Flanagan says.