NICOLA Sturgeon has made failing standards in schools a priority, but experts believe only radical, long-term reform can close Scotland’s education gap, writes Dani Garavelli
ONE by one they trooped up to receive their scrolls: 200-odd blazer-clad sixth formers, some straight-backed and confident, some still carrying the awkwardness of adolescence, but all glad to be finished with school and eager to embrace the future. During the graduation ceremony last week, they heard their hard work and integrity praised. Then they clapped as inspirational speaker Patrick Trainer (chairman of Forrest Group Ltd) wished them luck. “May all your dreams come true,” he said.
No-one’s dreams are guaranteed, of course. But these pupils at St Ninian’s High School from largely prosperous East Renfrewshire have a better chance of realising theirs than most. They have spent their formative years in one of Scotland’s top state schools. More than 70 per cent of their year group achieved five Highers or more, with around 50 pupils achieving five As. This is good news for them, their parents and their teachers who were fundamental to their academic success.
Sadly, however, their experience is not reflected across Scotland; in neighbouring Glasgow, there are schools – including Govan High and Drumchapel High – where the number of pupils achieving five Highers can be counted on one hand. Most, though not all, of the schools with the poorest exam results are in areas of deprivation, where parents struggle to get by and a tutor – at £25 an hour – is an unthinkable luxury.
According to Audit Scotland, in 2012, school leavers from the most disadvantaged areas were half as likely to go on to higher education than pupils from more affluent areas (20 per cent compared with 42 per cent) and twice as likely to be unemployed and seeking work (14 per cent compared with 6 per cent). In the wealthier areas, four out of five pupils left school with at least one Higher; in the most deprived the figure was just one in three.
There is growing anger about the country’s attainment gap – or chasm – along with other aspects of Scottish education, such as the falling standards in literacy and numeracy exposed by a recent survey. Last month, under pressure from Labour, Nicola Sturgeon admitted Scottish education was “not good enough” and said tackling educational inequality was a priority.
The First Minister has already announced a £100m fund targeted at the most deprived areas, agreed to learn lessons from the London Challenge – an initiative which raised standards in failing schools in the capital – and pledged to appoint an attainment adviser for every local authority.
On the other hand, the SNP has been in government for eight years, so this action has been a long time coming. The implementation of the much-vaunted Curriculum for Excellence – which was aimed at creating a more rounded education – is currently being reviewed by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), but, so far, there is little evidence it has done more than tinker round the edges, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh has warned of “profound weaknesses” in strategic thinking and action.
Meanwhile, the number of college places has been drastically reduced, leaving fewer alternatives for those who cannot or do not want to go to university.
So what has gone wrong with Scottish education? And what can be done to rectify the situation, given the structural inequalities within the country at large?
First, a little context: Scottish education may be in need of improvement, but overall standards are static as opposed to in free-fall; according to the OECD, the country’s performance is average – though it falls far short of countries such as Australia, Hong Kong and Finland. Attainment increased slightly in almost all local authority areas in the ten years to 2012, but the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing schools and local authorities is wide and shows no sign of significantly narrowing.
So what obstacles are standing in the way of progress? Ask those on the front-line and the answers are many and conflicting: funding cuts, poor quality and/or change-resistant teachers, Education Scotland/the SQA or the EIS, too little testing, too much testing and, in some quarters, a sense that poverty is so entrenched there is little teachers can do to alleviate the situation.
But Sue Ellis, professor of education at Strathclyde University, who co-authored a report on closing the attainment gap for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says much can be done to help raise standards in the poorest areas, and to help the most disadvantaged pupils in mixed catchment schools.
Measures she believes would make a difference include: high-quality, full-day pre-school education, better and more consistent collation of data so resources and initiatives can be more effectively targeted, mentoring, and parental involvement programmes for younger children and homework or supported study for older children.
Some of her students help run a homework club for primary school pupils two days a week at Townhead Village Hall in Glasgow city centre. “We help children whose parents maybe don’t read or write too well themselves,” says volunteer Heather McGee, who is in the second year of the BA (Hons) primary education degree.
The challenge with homework clubs, and other similar initiatives, is making sure they are accessed by those who need them most. “Middle-class parents have the sharpest elbows; anything that gets provided, they’ll make sure their children get it,” says Ellis. But if homework clubs are monopolised by the most privileged children, they may reinforce, as opposed to reduce, inequality.
Ellis approves of assessment, but only if the information gleaned is put to good use. “What’s important is the conversations those tests generate. You need school managers to look at the profile of their school and work out which groups it’s serving well and which groups it’s not serving well and what they’re going to do about that.”
She believes an emphasis on literacy should be the cornerstone of any attempt to raise attainment in deprived areas, and indeed it does seem to be at the heart of most successful systems. In Finland – the Holy Grail for many Scottish educationalists – teachers have successfully fostered a culture of reading. And, Ellis says, an assessment of the London Challenge found the cohorts of pupils who showed the greatest improvement were those who had come through the National Literacy Strategy. Research has shown that the quality of the teaching also makes a huge difference to learning. Another factor behind the success of the London Challenge was its focus on attracting the best teachers to the most challenging schools.
All the suggestions contained in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report involve measures which could be implemented within the existing system, and perhaps that’s sensible given the economic climate. With local authorities forced to make millions of pounds of cuts and teachers threatening to strike over pay and the increased CfE workload, it might not be the best time to suggest another major upheaval. However, some educationalists believe tackling inequality requires more radical action. How can the gap be narrowed, they ask, when the entire system is stacked in favour of those who are better equipped to jump through the hoops?
Whenever deficiencies in education are exposed, the cry goes up for more discipline, more rote learning and tougher exams. But for many in Scotland, the emphasis on exams is the crux of the problem, as it encourages schools to make decisions based on the potential impact on overall results, rather than the welfare of the individual child.
CfE was supposed to give teachers more independence and provide a broader, less exam-focused education, but the number of internal assessments has actually increased. The extra freedom has meant wide disparities across the country, with pupils in some schools sitting five National Fives, and others (mainly those in more affluent areas) eight. With students requiring ever higher grades to get into university and exam results still widely regarded as the measure of a school’s success, you can hardly blame teachers for continuing to focus on them.
Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling University, welcomes government initiatives to tackle inequality, but he wants to see a shift away from the exam culture.
“My worry is that they are persisting in referring to ‘attainment’ and, to many, that means passing exams, whereas what we want to do is produce people who are not just qualified with bits of paper, but educated, critically engaged adults who get involved in their communities,” he says.
“It is actually remarkably easy to raise ‘attainment’ by focusing on results. It can be done by concentrating on borderline pupils, by excluding certain groups from the statistics and by teaching to the test, all of which may make schools look better, but is not educational.”
Those teachers calling for a more radical rethink include James McEnaney, who lectures in English at a Glasgow college. “For too long we have tinkered around the edges of the system and called it revolution while allowing vested interests to hold back not just thousands of children, but our nation as a whole,” he said in a piece for Common Space.
McEnaney says CfE did nothing to change the overall structure of primary or secondary, or the school day, or the way in which children are evaluated. Like many, he is impressed by the Finnish system, where children don’t start school until they are seven and don’t sit an exam until they are 17 to 18.
In Finland, teachers must have a masters degree to practise (competition is so stiff only one in 10 applicants is accepted for the course). Once qualified, they are accorded a high degree of autonomy and status; there is no setting or streaming, no school inspections and teachers are given a large amount of non-contact time when they can swap ideas about what does and doesn’t work.
At 16, the children decide whether to opt for the “general” or “vocational” upper secondaries, with the general students going on to university and the vocational students going to polytechnics or straight into work.
The country consistently appears at or near the top of international league tables for educational performance and its attainment gap is very small. Of course, Finland is a more equal and homogeneous society than Scotland, and you would expect its education system to reflect that. On the other hand, it wasn’t always as it is today; before the 1970s, Finland had a grammar school system similar to England’s and less than 10 per cent of the population went on to higher education. For the left wing, the Finnish system is the perfect antidote to former education secretary Michael Gove’s obsession with free schools and academies (and a model better suited to the country’s culture).
The problem with introducing such radical policies in Scotland, however, is three-fold: it would cost money and take 10 years to institute (for example, if we were to delay the starting age to seven, nursery provision would have to be completely overhauled), it would probably be resisted by teachers and the unions and it would require the kind of long-termism that is in short supply when education is treated as a political football.
Ellis says it has taken successive governments a long time to recognise the impact of poverty on attainment. “When we did the Rowntree report, I went through the advice given to teachers from governments: GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child), How Good Is Our School, all the documents teachers have to work with. They talked about looked-after children, they talked about gender, they talked about disability, but very few of them mentioned deprivation.
“One of the things Scottish government’s anti-austerity agenda has done, however, is to put the biggest focus on the thing that’s going to give the biggest pay-off for the most kids in Scotland, which is getting teaching and learning right for kids who live in poverty.”
Ellis believes that, with the determination and the resources, the attainment gap is bridgeable, even within the existing system. If she’s right, the day may yet come when all young adults – from Newton Mearns to Nitshill – will graduate from secondary school, brimful of optimism and with an equal chance of fulfilling their potential.