Christine Jardine: School curriculum fails to make 
the grade for disadvantaged pupils

AS A parent no-one warns you that it’s even worse waiting 
for your child’s exam results than it was for your own. But while this year’s Standard and Higher Grade parents welcome the passing of another milestone, a different group is facing the new school year still hoping for some clarity on their children’s educational future.

This autumn the first pupils to be 
educated through the Curriculum for Excellence will begin their third year in secondary school and the traditional two-year countdown to their national exams.

But there is real doubt that the biggest change in Scottish education for a generation is ready for them.

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East Renfrewshire, the most academically successful education authority in the country, has announced it will delay the introduction for a year.

The teaching unions have expressed concerns. Parents fear their children will be the victims of an educational experiment that hasn’t quite come off.

The mystery is how it has happened. How did the introduction of a system that was hailed by parents, educationalists and politicians of all hues as the solution for Scotland in the 21st century get so bogged down in vagueness that it is losing public confidence?

When challenged by any of those with an interest in the new exam system, the government and in particular education minister Michael Russell seem to favour platitudes over leadership. But reassurance that these “are not major problems” is not enough for concerned parents.

Even more worrying is the prospect that this lack of leadership over the curriculum could be indicative of a lack of imagination and ambition for our schools system as a whole.

Change and innovation are vital for our youngsters if they are to leave school properly equipped for our rapidly developing society. It’s important for our economy too that our schools give them the high level of skills and training both for mass manufacturing and for occupations which demand the creativity and intellect to stimulate our economy.

There is evidence over the past five years that our education system is falling short in its own examinations.

In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looked at Scotland’s schools and concluded that they performed well across the board.

But two years ago, the Scottish Government pulled out of two other international surveys – into maths, science and reading achievement – which some academics ­argued were vital tools for understanding how Scotland’s education system compares with others across the world. It was being done, we were told, in the interests of saving money and cutting bureaucracy.

Coincidentally, perhaps, those are the two surveys which had been most critical of our system.

We are still judged by the most important survey: PISA, which looks at achievement in literacy, maths and science. But in its most recent study, in 2009, Scotland was not at the top of the league and other comparable countries were improving faster.

Perhaps the most worrying trend, however, emerges if we go back to that OECD assessment. The OECD stated that while it didn’t seem to matter which school a child went to, as they would get a decent level of education, it did matter what background they came from.

If a child faced social and economic deprivation at home, their education was not providing them with the opportunity to climb out of it.

Just last month, that fear was reinforced by the National Union of Students, which released figures showing an increase of only 1 per cent in the proportion of students from the most deprived backgrounds going to university over the past five years.

That new figure of 11 per cent of all 
students falls far short of our stated 
ambitions for – and indeed our belief in – the social mobility our system offers.

For those of us who were the first 
products of the comprehensive system back in the 1970s, in my own case the first of several from a working-class family to get to university, that figure is much more than disappointing.

While our government at Holyrood has been trying to rescue the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence, they have failed those who need our education system most. Social mobility does not appear to be part of their agenda. Yet if they were to look south, they would see a ­readymade programme to tackle the problem.

The Pupil Premium, which aims to improve educational attainment for disadvantaged children, is a key policy of 
the Lib Dems in the coalition. Its aim, put simply, is to give head teachers the power to help poorer pupils in the way that works best for them.

The funding – £625 million in 2011-12 and £1.25 billion in 2012-13 – is allocated to children entitled to free school meals. Each child who qualifies will be funded to the tune of £600 in the coming year. That money follows the individual pupil and is spent by their school in the way that best helps that youngster.

That’s money that could make a significant difference to schools in Scotland. More importantly, it would begin to tackle the problem which denies children from a difficult background the chance to improve their lot in life through education.

Some of the other policies pursued by Michael Gove, the Scottish Tory who heads the Department for Education, are less likely to be applauded here: free academies and a two-tier system, for example.

Surely the Pupil Premium at least deserves some consideration?

Those of us waiting for results on 
Tuesday know that our children have had the best that both we and the education authorities could offer them.

But with the continuing fog of uncertainty around the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, and serious question marks over the system’s ability to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds, will parents in future years be able to say the same? «

Christine Jardine is a former Liberal Democrat special adviser to the Westminster government