George Kerevan: Harsh lesson is children need to work harder

Dumbing down schools is no way to tackle the education gap. Teachers should ask more, not less, from working-class pupils

Dear Sir, Please consider this my application for the post of general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the nation’s biggest teaching union, on the retirement of the present incumbent, Ronnie Smith, in March. Mr Smith is a former classroom teacher of Latin (a point in his favour) and has been leader of the EIS for the past 17 years.

As to my own experience: I spent the first 50 years of my life in the Scottish education system, either being taught or teaching (albeit at college and university level). I was an active member of EIS for many years. I even met my future wife at the EIS annual conference in Stirling, an institution I remember well for its devotion to Bacchus.

My application is prompted by yesterday’s Scotsman report that the gap between Scotland’s best and worst-performing state schools – in terms of exam results – shows little sign of closing, and that the divide appears strongly correlated with social class and deprivation.

In this year’s exams, 26 per cent of pupils achieved the gold standard of three Highers – a welcome one point rise. Generally, the best attainment was in affluent areas. In East Renfrewshire, which had two schools in the top ten, only 9.7 per cent of pupils receive free schools meals. But adjacent Glasgow, with a third of children on free meals, had four schools in the bottom ten.

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I know we have to interpret these statistics carefully, though I’m not opposed to league tables – truth is power. I’m aware results can be “improved” by teaching to test. In fact, this is one of my beefs. I have a very close friend who has taught English in state schools for decades. She bemoans being forced to teach only random chapters of novels, and the lack of Shakespeare in the curriculum, to get “marginal” pupils through exams.

However, my criticism is not that exams are being dumbed down, but that pupils are. I went to a Glasgow secondary in a working class scheme in the 1960s, Kingsridge in Drumchapel. No-one in my family, or among my teachers, thought that poverty was an excuse for not working hard. No-one thought that children at Kingsridge were dumber than those who went to a “posh” school – we’d claim the reverse.

None of my teachers thought I should be spoon-fed selected chapters of novels on the grounds that was all I could take, or be interested in. Nor was I given “teenage” books to read “about my personal experience”. I read Dickens, Bronte and Austen and studied Hamlet. There were quite a few brooding Hamlets knocking around Drumchapel. .

With free schools, well-trained teachers, and free libraries, museums and galleries, where pray is the cultural deprivation that cuts off “poor” children from education? So why are 16 per cent of our children – most from so-called deprived areas – leaving school unable to read?

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The answer cannot lie simply in poverty, absolute or relative. Since 1971, the real disposable income of families in the bottom poorest 10 per cent of the population has doubled. I remember the first TV arriving in our close. It was the wonder of the world. Today, you’d be hard put to find a home where a child lacks access to a television set, or two.

The problem can be summed up with one example: in too many Scots homes, parents will not turn off the box when their offspring should be doing their homework or reading a book. Mine did.

Scotland’s educational problem is down to a lack of aspiration and motivation on the part of many parents for their children, not lack of public spending. Political correctness then forbids politicians and the educational establishment from pointing the finger. Woe betide the teacher or minister who tells parents to flick the off switch.

I know that family structures have altered, and that for low-income, single-parent families life can be a perpetual struggle. I am well aware that the peer-group culture of modern adolescents – reinforced by consumerism and the internet – makes it difficult for even middle-class parents to flick that switch.

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But it is a peer-group culture that in Scotland ensures 43 per cent of 15-year-olds don’t read for pleasure. This compares with only 8 per cent in Shanghai, where they come top in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development tests of academic performance, despite having an income per head one-fifth of Scotland. Nobody in China blames poverty for lack of individual attainment.

The working class adults of my childhood lived through the Depression and were aspirational for their kids – which meant education. That ethic has disappeared in too many poor families, destroyed by divorce, pervasive consumerism, and the sundering of any link between educational achievement and reward or status – witness bankers, footballers and parliamentarians.

Having said that, other countries face the same situation but still get more working class children up the attainment ladder. There are technical fixes available – Finland gives special education to 50 per cent of pupils and last month, the Scottish Government pumped another £1 million into a fund to buy books for individual toddlers and primary 1 pupils. But I think we need emergency action.

First, politicians in Scotland cling to a model of comprehensive education that is not comprehensive at all. Our schools are split between middle class and poor ghettos. The only way round that is to go back to the model of city high schools drawing kids from different neighbourhoods – that already exists at Jordanhill School, in Glasgow. Then give those schools a specialism to motivate teachers and pupils; eg science, languages, performing arts, or technology.

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Above all, we must not talk down to working class children. Schools need to expect more from them – demand they be the best in the world. Let’s not just improve Scottish education, let’s beat Shanghai and be at the top of the OECD test scores. That means reading whole books, not the odd chapter.

I hope this gives you a flavour of the approach I would take were I to win this post. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours etc.