John Mcternan: Education stats mask inequality

Our once world-class system is consistently failing children from the lowest-income households, writes John McTernan

'The reality is that we have an appallingly unequal education system'. Picture: PA

MY FATHER grew up in Fochabers in Morayshire. His mum was a widow and they lived with his granny in a house that had a beaten-earth floor and an outside cold-water tap. From this home, he became boy dux of Milne’s High and went to Glasgow University in the early 1950s. He rose to the top of his profession, becoming the director of Heriot-Watt’s Computer Centre and president of his union – the Association of University Teachers.

I tell this story not out of pride – though I am proud of it – or as a contribution to the modish debate about social mobility, with its tedious helping of demands for a return to grammar schools. No, I raise it because it is an unremarkable story – unremarkable, that is, in Scotland. It is part of our national mythology – the story of who we are – this idea of the “lad (and lass) o’pairts” who rises through hard work and education. I know we have disabling myths, too – not least “I kent his faither” – but the merit of the meritocratic story of our selves is that it is true. Or, more importantly, and tragically, it was true. But is no longer.

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One of the by-products of devolution is a real-time laboratory for the study of differences in social policy. Few can be unaware of the First Minister’s boast about restoring Scotland’s tradition of free higher education. The beauty of the increased academic study of policy differences in the four countries of the United Kingdom is that we can also discover the consequence of those policies.

The clear implication of the Scottish Government’s claims to connect to a deep Scottish history is that the tradition of working-class achievement through free education is being honoured. But what is actually happening? According to the London School of Economics academic Gill Wyness, something very different. Her studies show that of the bottom fifth of kids economically in Scotland only 220 get the grades at Highers to apply for the best universities in the country. No, I didn’t miss a decimal point – it is 220, that’s 2 per cent.

Now, the Scottish Government is doing something about that. It is discussing – and agreeing – with universities firm targets for increasing access. So, what is happening at Alex Salmond’s alma mater, the University of St Andrews? On the plus side, it is committed to a 45 per cent increase in the number of kids from the lowest-income households getting into the university. On the minus side, that is a commitment to recruit 19 working-class students, yes 19 – once again, I have not misplaced a decimal point.

Two things are happening here. One is that the middle-classes are doing what they are best at – getting more than their fair share of public services. In one way, good on them. They’d be foolish not to take advantage of all the free stuff that is on offer from the Scottish Government. It’s not the fault of middle-class families that their children get a cash prize for winning the education race; it’s the fault of politicians who neglect the responsibility to provide genuine equality of opportunity. This is the second, and by far the most significant, factor.

We have been told for years that our participation rate in higher education is better than England’s – 56 per cent compared to 49 per cent in 2011. We win by seven clear percentage points. But, hold on, breaking that figure down you find that the definition includes those studying for Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates.

Fully half of those counted in the Scottish Government participation rate are on two-year HNDs. I am not against the courses, or decrying the achievement of the students on them. Flexibility and progression from S5 to a university degree may well be provided by this route. I do, though, think that it casts a very different light on our educational record. And neither is this an attempt to blame the universities. Though, if I were St Andrews, I would have been ashamed to sign that commitment to recruit 19 working-class kids.

Democratic Intellect? I don’t think so. The rot starts in our schools. That’s not clear at first glance. Overall results at 16, as shown by Standard Grades, have been pretty consistent – and are still good compared to other countries in the UK, though Scottish results have been broadly flat-lining, while GCSE results in England have been rising. It’s possible that means educational reforms in England are working, but that’s a matter for another article.

Once again, it’s necessary to dig deeper to find out what’s going on. The research of Wyness and her colleagues looks at Scotland against international comparators. Using the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s authoritative Programme for International Student Assessment, they identify the scale of inequality in Scottish schools. At age 15, the richest quartile of our pupils get a score that matches the average score in Hong Kong – one of the best-performing education systems in the world. Horrifyingly, the score achieved by the poorest quartile of kids is around the level of schools in Turkey – the 44th best performers globally. That is the real distance between middle-class schools such as the capital’s Boroughmuir or Gillespie’s and working-class comprehensives such as Castlebrae.

So, the reality is that we have an appallingly unequal education system. This would be a scandal in any country. In one whose success, as well as whose foundational myth, is rooted in education it is inexcusable. What must be done?

First, some honesty is required. Let’s openly acknowledge how bad things are and how much work needs to be done to change the situation. All the facts, however unpalatable, need to be on the table. Second, we need explicit recognition of the choices being made – and the consequences. What Scotland unequivocally has is a system that is failing working-class kids. It equally clearly has one that rewards middle-class ones. Having received a world-class education, those middle-class kids then get free higher education. That is not simply rubbing salt into a wound, it multiplies the social injustice. Free university education is an allocation of resources within the total available to Scottish education.

Third, we need to make different choices. Rather than rewarding those who have done well in life, and at school, we should be investing in those who have the hardest start. The education that works the hardest, and has the greatest effect, is the one invested in the early years. So more childcare for those most in need.

In all, what is necessary is an open debate. Ours was a proud record of all getting on through education; it can be again.