Hardship ‘no excuse’ for poor exam results

STRUGGLING schools have been told to stop blaming social deprivation for poor performance after figures showed big disparities in exam results at Scotland’s inner-city secondaries.

Scottish Government statistics have revealed that schools with similar numbers of pupils receiving free meals – used as an indicator of deprivation – regularly produce markedly different exam scores.

At St Luke’s High in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, for example, 35 per cent of pupils managed to gain three or more Highers in 2011, despite around 20 per cent of the school receiving free meals.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In comparison, only 3 per cent of pupils at Northfield Academy in Aberdeen got three or more Highers, despite similar levels of uptake for free meals.

Teaching unions and headteachers often claim that poor results in some schools are due to high levels of deprivation among the families of pupils.

But educationalists said there was often a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that pupils attending schools in the poorest parts of the country would fail to gain any qualifications.

Using the Scottish Government figures, Scotland on Sunday compared a number of school exam results with the percentage of pupils receiving free school meals.

It showed marked differences in levels of attainment, despite similar proportions of pupils receiving a free lunch.

On average, just over 15 per cent of all school pupils in Scotland receive free schools meals, although the figure is significantly higher at some inner-city schools.

David Cameron, an education consultant and former head of education at Stirling Council, said too often there was a belief in some areas that pupils were destined to fail.

He said: “It may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy in some situations. Often aspirations are not set particularly high if the child is from a more deprived or challenging background.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I also don’t think all schools and all teachers set the same level of expectation.”

But he said many schools were continuing to achieve good results, despite challenging social factors.

He added: “There’s no doubt some schools do extremely well supporting youngsters in very difficult circumstances. We know there are variations between schools, particularly where schools have a consistent approach internally.

“Where schools have a positive approach to learning and engage young people effectively, you get the best results. The quality of teaching and the quality of support is key, as is the support from the local community.”

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said there had been a temptation to hide behind deprivation when it came to explaining the performance of failing schools.

She said: “If you look at West Dunbartonshire and Clackmannanshire, which have lots of so-called disadvantaged areas, their standards have increased substantially over the past three to four years, notwithstanding the fact that many children are from very poor backgrounds.

“That tells us something about what can be achieved in more deprived areas and that children can flourish with the right kind of teaching.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Figures released by the Scottish Government last month suggested the gap between the country’s best and worst-performing schools shows no sign of closing, with parents and pupils facing a postcode lottery when it comes to securing good exam results.

Three schools in East Renfrewshire were placed within Scotland’s top ten, with St Ninian’s High School in Giffnock scoring the best results of any state school, with 70 per cent of S5 pupils achieving three or more Highers.

Patricia Scott, head teacher at St Luke’s High in Barrhead, where more than a third of pupils managed to gain three or more Highers, despite relatively high levels of children claiming free school meals, said: “We work hard at identifying where pupils are being successful and to identify, with them, the areas where they can improve. We’ll then provide targeted support with the aim of delivering real improvement.”

But Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: “Statistics of this kind are interesting and useful, but they don’t tell the whole story about a school or what young people at a given school should attain.”

Parental engagement and expectations are also important, as are the quality of leadership and teaching, she added.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This government recognises there can be a link between deprivation and educational attainment and we are making significant investment in the early years to reduce the gap in outcomes across the country.”