Comment: School report will tell us nothing new

Councils should deal with the minority of teenagers who reject education.  Picture: Donald MacLeod
Councils should deal with the minority of teenagers who reject education. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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THE ROOT cause of educational disparity is economic inequality, but we’ve known this for years. What we need now is a proper plan of action, writes Hugh Reilly

LONGEVITY, as Martin Luther King stated, has its place. However, an unfortunate by-product of enjoying extended breathing time on earth is that one grows weary of political procrastination. The latest example of the dead-hand of decision-makers taking decisive inaction is news that the Scottish Parliament’s education committee is holding a year-long inquiry into the discrepancy between the average attainment of pupils in the most and least deprived areas. Doubtless, the cross-party group of MSPs will dutifully listen to the views of interested parties, stoically enduring the ennui generated by Groundhog Day discussions of the yawning attainment gap. In time, their report will take its rightful place among the numerous other laudable reports produced over the last 30 years or more on the subject of poverty-related inequalities of education outcomes. Truly, when it comes to tackling the burning issue of social-class differences in education attainment, our MSPs make Nero seem like Red Adair.

For the benefit of any education committee members reading this: SPOILER ALERT! The reasons why children in leafy local authorities outperform the sons and daughters of the sans-culottes are already well-known. Poverty is the greatest pre-determiner of a child’s progress. In 2013, three schools in the same local authority topped the national league table based on exam results. Guess which council basked in the glory? Yes, shockeroonie, it was East Renfrewshire (mean net household income of £32,000). Schools where annual publication of SQA results leads to a spike in sales of hair-shirts to embarrassed dominies are found in the postcodes of Glasgow and Dundee, with mean net household incomes of £22,200 and £21,300 respectively (source: Scottish Government Report 2010 – Relative poverty across Scottish Local Authorities).

One might imagine that a reasonable political response to poverty being the root cause of inequality of opportunity would be some form of redistribution of wealth. This has, indeed, occurred but only in a way that exacerbates the situation. Thanks to attacks on the welfare state and the introduction of family-friendly industrial relations innovations such as zero-hours contracts, the wealth gap has widened. According to an Oxfam report of 2013, the number of workers who live in poverty has gone from 255,000 to 280,000 since 2008. But don’t despair – it’s uplifting that the nation’s elite have managed to ride out the financial storm that has laid to waste the lives of the hoi polloi: in 2012, Scotland’s 100 richest men and women increased their fortunes to £21 billion, up from a combined wealth of £18bn in 2011.

Poverty impacts on education in myriad ways. Poor parents can’t afford tutors to help their floundering kids. It’s an undeniable fact that a shadowy army of moonlighting teachers are in part responsible for the wonderful exam results achieved by our top performing education establishments. Children brought up in a cash-poor environment are more likely to suffer a poverty of ambition. When I was a classroom teacher, it broke my heart when bright kids in so-called sink schools perceived university as a step too far. All too often, they accepted their fate of being employment fodder for the low-paid retail or hospitality sectors.

Schools serving deprived areas encounter problems other schools cannot imagine. I taught in a Glasgow school where the headteacher abandoned parents’ evenings due to the fact that less than 30 per cent of mums and dads bothered to turn up. Instead, parents were invited to call the school and pop in during the day to speak to a member of staff. This initiative fared little better.

For the majority of poor parents, school was not a positive experience and this undervaluing of education is often passed on to their progeny. Schools in poor areas struggle to deal with resistance to education. In many classes, a wolf-pack mentality rules the roost whereby groups of eight, nine or ten recalcitrants actively aim to prevent the rest of the class learning anything. The “zero-tolerance” approach to indiscipline spouted by schools management morphs into “infinity-tolerance” as the school’s leaders seek to avoid suspending malcontents, something that would undermine the council directorate’s attempt to massage exclusion figures. It’s only anecdotal, but a few days after I took up a teaching post in a now-closed secondary school, a pupil told me to “F*** off!” When I related this to the deputy head, he asked me if the teenager had sworn at me “in a hostile or aggressive manner” or had the lad simply been guilty of “social swearing”, a concept I’d hitherto been unaware of. I offered the view that it was the former. My subjective evaluation appeared to disappoint him but, nevertheless, he made sure that my abuser did not get off lightly, issuing the scamp with a “stern warning” regarding future conduct.

Given the verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse that teachers in such schools receive, it’s unsurprising that staff absence levels are higher than in magnet schools. A consequence is that kids in struggling schools have their education interrupted by a conveyor belt of supply teachers arriving to plaster over the cracks. When the SQA results are in, allocating accountability is a fraught business.

It’s not all doom and gloom. For example, early intervention programmes – such as provided by Glasgow City Council – are beginning to make a difference in the life chances of the most vulnerable children. But the attainment gap is only likely to worsen if we don’t take radical action. Having taught in high-achieving and under-achieving schools, it’s nonsensical that class sizes are the same for both. Resources should be diverted into poorer schools to lower the teacher-pupil ratios. Councils must find the political will to create off-site education provision for the minority of teenagers who reject education and seek to destroy the classroom activities of their peers. More must be done to engage the support of disaffected parents as research has shown parental support to be a key factor in the educational attainment of children. The Wood report demanding that vocational learning opportunities be greatly extended is another step in the right direction.

Oxfam claims that Scotland is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. We can change this, but only if we stop putting off the actions needed to ensure that even the poorest of Jock Tamson’s bairns have access to a decent education.