Brian Wilson: Education intervention is the educated answer

THERE IS nothing new about '˜the attainment gap' in Scotland, or the reasons behind it, writes Brian Wilson

Sir Tom Hunters surprise was the only surprising thing about the failings of the Scottish education system. Picture: Neil Hanna
Sir Tom Hunters surprise was the only surprising thing about the failings of the Scottish education system. Picture: Neil Hanna

At what age does educational disadvantage begin, inquired Sir Tom Hunter of Professor Sue Ellis from Strathclyde University? “It’s really before birth,” she replied. “Before birth!”, exclaimed an incredulous Sir Tom. In his home town of New Cumnock, he seemed equally surprised to learn that the “attainment gap” in reading manifests itself by age two.

These exchanges set the tone for BBC Scotland’s half-hour traipse around schools in search of answers to the great enigma of the Scottish educational system – ie that an alarmingly high proportion of its products emerge with inadequate ability to read, write or count, far less gain qualifications.

There was no harm to the programme and I do not doubt Hunter’s good intentions. But I do wonder why, in 2016, anything he encountered should have come as any surprise to anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention for any part of at least the past two decades.

I was reminded of a series BBC Scotland made in the 1970s, called Lilybank, in which the equally well-motivated Kay Carmichael embedded herself in a small Glasgow housing scheme to learn about poverty. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants were none too chuffed to discover they had been the subjects of anthropological research.

This is a small country. Wherever we live is cheek by jowl with the kind of problems that result from educational failure. The idea that any of this requires discovery, as if it was happening in some parallel society, is rather odd. The absolute certainty is that there is nothing new about “the attainment gap” or the reasons behind it.

Scotland is awash with politicians. Is it conceivable that any one of them is unaware that there is a massive problem of under-achievement in Scottish schools by children who have been disadvantaged from birth or even beyond? There is no mystery about these circumstances. The scandal lies in how little priority is given to addressing them.

My personal journey on this subject goes back 19 years to when I became Scottish education minister. I had no professional background in education which made me open to new thinking which I could run with. It was quickly offered on a plate by the late Elizabeth Maginnis, chairwoman of Edinburgh’s education committee, who invited me to a school which had embarked on a pilot programme of Early Intervention – not then a familiar term. To say I was impressed by what I learned would be a mild understatement. Early Intervention recognised that the challenges began in the home rather than the schools. If the parents didn’t have basic skills, how could they pass them on – a cycle which most were desperate to break but needed help to do so. The draw-backs which each child suffered had to be approached from multiple directions at the youngest possible age.

I came away from that inspiring day with two firm conclusions. First, that Early Intervention worked and had probably more potential for social transformation than any other policy we were likely to implement. Second, that to do it properly would cost a lot of money – but would bring massive rewards in overall social and personal outcomes. It was (and remains) all a matter of priorities.

Within a week, I announced a substantial budget for pilots in every area of Scotland. We were, at that point, ahead of England which later introduced Sure Start with similar objectives. Early Intervention was closely linked to initiatives like expansion of pre-school provision, support for Special Needs and the introduction of classroom assistants. Sadly, however, other priorities with louder voices in the education system subsequently prevailed and the focus was lost.

I refer to this history in order to pose only one question. If Early Intervention had been the flagship of Scottish educational policy for the past 19 years, what might the results have been? Anyone who is serious about facing up to questions which Tom Hunter posed has to recognise that talk of closing attainment gaps is pious tosh without a serious, sustained commitment to breaking the inherited cycle which shackles so many of Scotland’s children.

Turning to secondary schools, he visited St Andrew’s Academy in Carntyne which has long been doing a remarkable job. Its headmaster, Gerry Lyons, pointed out that “league tables” tell only part of the story. That’s why, in 1997, we introduced “value added” tables which took account of catchment area characteristics in order to judge how well (or badly) a school was doing against reasonable expectations. That didn’t last long either, because it produced a very different pecking-order. So nothing’s new, Sir Tom!

Maybe a visit to Nicola Sturgeon’s old school, Greenwood Academy, would have brought the point home. Last year, half its pupils did not get a single Higher and fewer than a fifth got five or more. That, as I’m sure she would agree, does not mean it is a “bad school” – only that a high proportion of its intake are predestined to have few educational successes. And, by the way, the door to a “second chance” through further education has now been slammed shut for many.

I do not believe this “attainment gap” is acceptable or we can wait years for gradual improvement, even if there were grounds to assume it will happen. For that reason, I agree that Scotland should be far bolder in allowing flexible approaches to funding and organisation of secondary schools, particularly in areas with high levels of disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the closing pit-pat between Sturgeon and Hunter reduced the programme to the level of PR stunt. This was the moment for hard questioning – not least about damage the latest funding cuts will inflict on exactly the staff and services which currently help ameliorate the attainment gap. There will be plenty of it. Neither was there a word about accountability for lack of progress in the past nine years. Just platitudes.

Finally, a word on council tax and small numbers sometimes tell a story better than big ones. My local authority in the Western Isles was forced by John Swinney to make £9 million cuts this year with £6m more in 2017. The “reforms” announced by Sturgeon, nine years after promising abolition of council tax, will bring in £130,000 a year. Not much room there for Early Intervention.