Jackie Brock: Is further school assessment necessary?

The educational attainment gap is real and has been proven but what must be done to address it, asks Jackie Brock.

Children In Scotland welcome sincreased investment from the Scottsih Government in addressing attainment gaps.
Children In Scotland welcome sincreased investment from the Scottsih Government in addressing attainment gaps.

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has made an impressive commitment to children in Scotland. She has staked her political reputation to the aim of eliminating the gap in attaining qualifications between Scotland’s richest and poorest children. School leavers from the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in Scotland currently do half as well as school leavers from the most affluent areas.

In 2008, just over 2 In 10 students from the most deprived areas of Scotland gained one higher or equivalent. In the last 6 years this has improved to around 4 in 10, but is still well short of the 8 in 10, which is the figure for their more affluent peers.

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This shameful expression of the inequality between the rich and the poor in Scotland has been known and commented on for decades. The Office of International Economic Co-operation and Development stated more than ten years ago that the success of Scottish children as adults was largely pre-determined by where they live.

The First Minister has made reducing educational attainment gaps a priority. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Since then, Scotland has sought, both at local and national level, to improve the environments for all of our children through a programme of targeted services and interventions. The Scottish Government have, over the years, supported programmes which consider health, housing, community development, early years and preventative spending.

In particular, our country’s education system is undergoing a radical transformation. The development and implementation of the curriculum for excellence, with its focus on the holistic education, including health and wellbeing, of the child, is a world leader. It sets out to provide a coherent, more flexible, enriched curriculum for children aged 3-18years in Scotland.

However, despite all this policy focus and investment the attainment gap between rich and poor, remains stubbornly intractable.

Recent data available from the 10-year Growing up in Scotland research study has presented more evidence of a growing attainment gap, showing a difference in children between low and high income households at as young as three years old, widening significantly by the time the child is five.

The gap is real and evidenced. We know it exists, yet we still struggle to address it.

We know that education is the key to generational change. Supporting our young people to grow and achieve academically will ultimately provide them with the skills to succeed in adult life.

Rather surprisingly, however, “standardised assessments” will be “at the heart” of the improvement drive but the evidence of the need to assess children even more than they are at present and indeed the impact on their learning, has not yet been spelt out.

We are all clear that effective assessment is a fundamental skill required of teachers, but whether more assessment of children’s abilities will help eliminate Scotland’s attainment gap is an open question.

If significant assessment already takes place – which many feel it does - but has not led to eliminating the gap, is the answer to assess children more? I would suggest not. The real question is why the education system is not responding to what assessment is already telling us about the improvements needed.

I would also be concerned that this renewed focus on performance comparison will lead to league tables, despite the general agreement across the board that these can be unhelpful. Partial raw data alone does not give a fair picture of how a school and its pupils are doing. Considerable interpretation of different types of raw data is required before you can meaningfully compare an urban school in an area of deprivation to a rural area of affluence, or compare in-school differences in pupils’ attainment.

We welcome the investment and focus of our Scottish Government, and the courage of our First Minister to address the attainment gap. But we need to be mindful that focusing on school-age education alone will not close the gap. Action across the range of inequality challenges is required and must be sustained, including recognition of the massive significance of the early years on later attainment.

We need targeted support for parents and carers at home so that they can provide a stable home environment for children to thrive. We need to ensure that safety nets designed to help families do not suffer, and we need continuity of investment in the local services that many vulnerable and economically deprived families rely on.

Support, both financial and practical, needs to be available across the full spectrum of low-income families- from statutory services, across the voluntary sector, and into the home – where our children, and their families, need it most.

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Children in Scotland. Children in Scotland are hosting a round table discussion, at the invitation of the Scottish Government, to consider action to address the attainment gap