Blame austerity for attainment gap not schools, says writer

The Scottish screenwriter of the Palme d'Or and Bafta-award-winning film I, Daniel Blake has said teachers and schools should not be blamed for Scotland's poverty-related attainment gap between richer and poorer pupils.

Paul Laverty argues that zero-hours culture has hit children as well as parents
Paul Laverty argues that zero-hours culture has hit children as well as parents

Paul Laverty, whose work includes Carla’s Song, Sweet Sixteen and The Wind that Shakes The Barley, said the disparities between the highest and lowest achieving pupils will never be closed until in-built structural problems, including the welfare system, which have a “devastating” effect on poorer families are addressed.

Laverty, a former lawyer, admits he is not an expert on education policy but said he gained first-hand insight into problems faced by teachers while going round schools showing I, Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, about a man caught up in the benefits system.

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“The teachers I’ve seen show massive commitment and the pupils are full of curiosity. I talked to a brilliant headmaster in the West of Scotland recently and you could see the school was a beacon for everything good in the community, it had dedicated teachers and wonderful students. They were fighting for great exam results but there are many other issues which have to take precedence,” said Laverty.

“Zero hour contracts and insecure work which cause debt and stress have a devastating effect on lives, including children .

“It’s so easy and so stupid to blame falling standards in schools on teachers.

“So you tell me how pupils can study for their exams when they’re not been fed properly or their house is cold, they haven’t got a desk or a computer and a quiet place to work as many don’t, or their parents are on zero- hour contracts? So let’s hear Ruth Davidson [Scottish Conservative leader] talk about that for a change.

“It’s no surprise structural inequality has an effect no matter what educational policy is. Parents are working longer and longer hours with less job security which must surely be central to the school experience. Yet the Tories never join these two things up.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to close the attainment gap. But in February the Sutton Trust highlighted a gap equivalent to over two years in reading, maths and science between Scottish pupils from poorer backgrounds in the top 10 per cent of achievers, compared to better-off pupils.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: “Poverty outside the school gates means poverty inside the classroom. Whilst it is appropriate for education to have a focus on closing the attainment gap, sometimes there’s an unrealistic expectation that schools can do this by themselves. The political narrative is that people talk as if schools can magically compensate for what’s going on outside schools.”

Social Security Minister, Jeane Freeman, said: “I agree with Paul Laverty. If sanctions and employment law were within the powers of the Scottish Parliament, our approach would be very different to the UK government – but so long as they remain reserved, we will be fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back.”