Eddie Barnes: Tory education policy could win votes

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RUTH Davidson went into her big set-piece conference address at the weekend with the focus on her leadership. She finished it with the focus on a bid to tackle the gaping education gap between deprived and better-off parts of the county. By that measure alone, the speech ranked as a success.

The issue is wearily familiar, but no less fertile for that. As Ms Davidson noted, the best performing 15-year olds from disadvantaged homes are more than two years behind the best performing ones from better-off backgrounds. She could also have mentioned a recent Scottish Government literary study which found a 16 per cent gap in reading between the best performing pupils in the posh suburbs and those in the inner city.

A recent study of schools in deprived parts of the city found that all boasted of considerable numbers of intelligent and academically able youngsters. But, given the frequent absence of family support and encouragement, it noted that such children had to be particularly single-minded to succeed.

Then there were other obstacles to pass, the study noted – literal ones. Simply going to college or a work placement often meant crossing gangland boundaries and was therefore deemed off limits.

And none of the five schools which were examined had a single major employer in the locale with which to build a relationship. The effect? Education experts like Keir Bloomer, the Chair of the recent Commission on School Reform, notes that, despite all the effort, the link between underachievement and disadvantage is as strong as it was 50 years ago.

Few things have the potential to needle Scottish ministers more than the suggestion that, with England’s Education Secretary Michael Gove, who is a Scot, having made narrowing the attainment gap one of his main priorities south of the Border, they are lagging behind on this key issue of fairness and social mobility.

Education secretary Mike Russell, having declared that Scotland doesn’t have “failing” schools, only “coasting” ones, has now described the attainment gap as the system’s biggest problem, raising the idea of pairing the coasting schools with the high-flyers to help things along. Ms Davidson’s task now is to needle some more. She raised two ideas at the weekend; dusting off the plan for a voucher system giving parents the choice over where they send their children, and, more realistically, raising the idea of allowing children at 14 to pick their favoured route: academic, technical or vocational.

Also on the shelf is a report by the Commission on School Reform which says schools should get more autonomy to allow leaders to take control of their schools.

The political ground around this issue currently appears to be up for grabs. The question is whether the under-pressure Conservative leader can make it her own.