Schools' attainment gap could take 15 years to be reduced warn experts

The attainment gap in Scottish schools might not see a dramatic reduction for at least 15 years, the government’s international panel of education experts has warned.

It could take 15 years before a real reduction in the attainment gap is seen in Scotland's schools, education experts have warned.
It could take 15 years before a real reduction in the attainment gap is seen in Scotland's schools, education experts have warned.

While they said there had been progress in closing the gap, sustained progress was required before a “sudden growth spurt” would see it substantially narrowed.

And they recommended a focus on investment in additional needs education and bringing parents and communities into the classroom in more rural areas.

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The ten-member International Council of Education Advisers is meeting over two days to discuss poverty and the attainment gap and the curriculum of the senior phase of high school, which is to be reviewed after concerns being raised about pupils’ subject choice and exam pass rates at Higher level.

This morning they met with Education Secretary John Swinney, just after it had been revealed that officials had privately told him of their concerns about the Higher exam pass rate falling to its lowest level in a decade this year. Publicly, Mr Swinney had said the fall was just "annual variation".

Today Professor Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator now based at the University of New South Wales, said that while the government was putting in resources, the experience of Finland proved it could take a long time to show real results in closing the attainment gap.

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“The growth and progress is normally very slow,” he said. “In the Finnish case we talk probably about 15 years. The problem in the past was there was no system in place of measuring it, and so when we look at the past if Finland it’s hard to say exactly what happened, but this type of investment [the Scottish Government’s] and systematic improvement of equity takes a long time.”

He added: “One of the fundamental things to narrow the gap is investing in special needs education, doing it early enough and beyond the school system. There also needs to be a focus on well-being and health in general, investing more and addressing their [children’s] health, particularly mental health, is as important.”

Professor Andy Hargreaves of the School of Education at Boston College said the panel, now in its fourth year, was “just starting to see measures and changes in attainment in numeracy and literacy”.

“So we can compare measures across different years,” he said: “And it’s showing roughly about two to three percentage point gains. But most systems, like Finland or Ontario for example, have historically narrowed the achievement gap and raised achievement levels by making sustained gains over many years.

“Typically what then happens, some time down the road, is you will see a growth spurt and usually that is because many strategies, across leadership, professional development, collaboration, begin to come together and people see how they join up.

“So all things going well you’ll keep seeing those gains of two percent every year and in a few years you’ll see a growth spurt.”

He added: “Poverty and disadvantage is also really significantly alleviated when a school can bring parents, grandparents, community members into the school - so there’s support for children and it’s also jobs and pathways for people in the community. Long term it’s a major way to think about equity.”

The Scottish Government announced earlier this month, that it would continue its investment in the Attainment Fund – the money which is aimed at improving the education outcomes of disadvantaged pupils, including the Pupil Equity Fund that goes straight to schools – at least until March 2022. It also said there would be an extra £15 million to improve the experience of children who have additional support needs.

Dr Carol Campbell, of the University of Toronto, said that the “enhanced funding” for the Attainment Fund was “very welcome”. She added: “As that funding continues and moves forward with more sustainability, it gives the option of looking at poverty in its many different varieties and forms.

“Our hope and advice is that while Scotland has done many things to move forwards, now it’s a case of going deeper, consolidating, supporting teachers parents and children and young people rather than changing direction.”

One of the more controversial measures introduced by the Scottish Government to close the attainment gap were primary one tests, which teachers have described as “a waste of time”.

While the Scottish Parliament has voted they be scrapped, the government has dragged its heels, and today Professor Hargreaves said he believed the government was trying to find a “middle path”.

“Views vary quiet vociferously,” he said. “There are advocacy groups who want no assessment, others who want high stakes standardised tests. Scotland is seeking this middle path where the test simply informs judgements.

“The initial data is that children quite like taking the test. I’ve taken the test, it’s pretty straightforward. It adjusts to your level, you’re doing things at the edge of your competence, it’s half an hour, and there’s no evidence that teachers are teaching for the test though I don’t know quite how they would do it

“It’s one bit of evidence at an early stage but the most important thing is the teachers judgement and knowledge of the child.”

And on the announced review of the Curriculum for Excellence for fourth, fifth and sixth year pupils, he said that subject choice had been an issue since the 1970s.

“I remember a paper written in the late 70s called the Myth of Subject Choice, which is that everyone can choose what they want to do but in practice choice is constrained by which subjects are more important, which go together, who’s going to university and who’s not. There’s never a perfect answer.”

But he said Scotland “avoids the extremes” of systems in north America and England where you either “have to study everything no matter how repugnant... or you only choose three subjects at the age of 16 with no idea what you want to do in life.”

He added: “It is a problem but a good one, because it’s a middle ground, trying to find a balance and new pathways are not just driven by university but apprenticeships and other pathways.”

Dr Campbell said the review was important and hoped that the voices of students would be heard, rather than “politicians and academics”.