Inequality in our education begins at home

Education Secretary Michael Russell. Picture: Neil Hanna
Education Secretary Michael Russell. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Lindsay Paterson argues that policy cannot do much to shape the home life of young children

Michael Russell’s speech on Wednesday evening entitled From good to great: building equity and success in Scottish education is remarkable in one respect at least. Despite the references to the forthcoming referendum, it seeks political consensus, and gives generous praise to his Labour and Liberal Democrat predecessors. That matters more than for the reason that politicians rarely do it. The philosophy which Mr Russell sets out might as readily have come to the lips of Labour and Liberal thinkers as it did to his, and can be summed up as the liberal social democracy that dominates Scottish debate.

The reason that matters is that it suggests what is not in prospect. It is unlikely that Michael Gove’s bold reforms in England will come about here. There are not likely to be free schools, or a new emphasis on core academic subjects, or a rigorous (or, if you prefer, intrusive) structure of testing and measurement. If there is to be variety and innovation in Scotland – and again Mr Russell follows the consensus that there ought to be – then it will be carefully guided by the powers of the state and managed by leading educational professionals. That is the immemorial Scottish way.

Then there is also in Mr Russell’s specific proposals some ideas that try to move the consensus forward. There is the rather daring admission by an education minister that education isn’t everything. What matters – we know from acres of good-quality research – are the structure of the labour market, the insidious effects of poverty, and the patterns of cognitive development that are laid down early in a child’s life. These factors are well beyond the reach of education policy.

Indeed, they evade most kinds of governmental action at all. Taxation and labour-market policy might be useful (as Mr Russell the nationalist also advocates), but, comparing education systems internationally, they can be seen not to have as profound an effect as might be hoped.

Policy can’t do much to shape the home life of small children, or resist the effects of global economic development in destroying some kinds of opportunity even while also making many new ones. Children who are denied the stimulation of a culturally rich home environment because globalisation has destroyed their family’s main income can be helped only at the margins by government policy. The creative economic chaos of capitalism, and the inescapable facts of inherited differences of ability, have always appalled wise and humane social democrats like Mr Russell, but they have also inhibited the rational planning of a fair education system.

Yet a strange contradiction then intrudes into Mr Russell’s otherwise candid speech. Having acknowledged the power of social factors over which no politician has much control, he then offers the Scottish consensus as the panacea. “With Curriculum for Excellence,” he avers, “we have exactly the right sort of conditions and professional infrastructure to create an education system that can drive forward continuous improvement.” Exactly? We might marvel at the magnificence of a Scottish consensus that has achieved such perfection, but we might also search for the supporting evidence, and we find none.

We find none, first, to counter his incisive points about poverty and the labour market. It is not that the Scottish Government is doing nothing. The concentration on the pre-school and early-primary years is evidence-based and commendable. The Education Maintenance Allowances – oddly not mentioned in the speech – are measurably effective in mitigating the dire consequences of poverty.

But these are not central to Curriculum for Excellence, which in truth does not relate in any obvious way to such matters at all. The Cabinet Secretary repeats once again his claim that the new curriculum offers equal opportunities, which it does in a superficial way, but then so too has every curricular policy for the past 30 years. The point – as he says elsewhere in the speech – is the hurdles that children have to overcome to take advantage of the opportunities, and on that the curriculum as such is silent.

It is not that these hurdles are any greater in Scotland than in most developed countries, despite what Mr Russell claims. Inequality of attainment in Scotland is in fact quite average by international standards. The point is, rather, that the problems are as intractable here as anywhere, and are very unlikely to be overcome by curricular policy alone.

On one matter, Mr Russell’s actions seem to have moved in the opposite direction from his words. He says he wants more and better data. Yet the current Scottish Government, and its predecessor Labour-Liberal coalition, have reduced to an unprecedented extent the amount of internationally comparable data that we have on Scottish education – by withdrawing from international surveys, ending the internationally respected series of surveys of school leavers, and not even compiling anything analogous to the system of tracking pupils that is now one of the admirable strengths of school policy in England. It is a rather quixotic interpretation of the national tradition in the land of Adam Smith (and Robert Burns) to say that seeing ourselves as others see us is less important than contemplating our image in a mirror.

But let’s not be captious. This is an imaginative speech of proper leadership, in the sense that – shorn of the rhetoric about the referendum – it is actually an expression of a real consensus. It is not, after all, Mr Russell’s fault that the merely educational consensus has probably reached the limits of what education policy alone can achieve.

• Lindsay Paterson is professor of education policy at Edinburgh University