Professor Lindsay Paterson’s paper for the Scottish government, advocating a national system of philanthropically financed bursaries for outstanding students, has hit the Scottish headlines.
His paper concedes that the dilemma is “how to balance rigour and equity”, but has been criticised as reinforcing existing inequalities. Prof Paterson, who rejects needs-based bursaries, states that any “award of money to one student on the basis of measured achievement or potential is explicitly inegalitarian because talents are not equally distributed”.
The concept of inherent “talent” is not itself beyond debate. Carol Dweck’s and Matthew Syed’s work both suggest a combination of attitude and consistent practice are far more crucial.
Prof Paterson suggests that donors would probably want to fund schemes directly, rather than donate to a national bursary fund. Middle-class families will always find ways to outwit those who seek to spread opportunity wider.
Schools, private or public, serving affluent communities would effectively tap into such schemes. The schools serving our most deprived communities would be least well placed to benefit. Existing inequalities would be reinforced and inequality is an issue which Scotland requires to address.
Income inequality in Scotland is stark. The poorest 10 per cent share only two per cent of Scotland’s income. The wealthiest
10 per cent receive 29 per cent. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini-coefficient, in Scotland (and the UK) is among the worst in Europe, at 34 per cent.
Educational inequality is also stark. More than 10 times (5.9 per cent) as many children from Scotland’s most deprived areas left school without a qualification than from our least deprived areas (0.5 per cent).
Without abandoning Prof Paterson’s concept of rewards, there are alternative philanthropic models which have been applied in Scotland. A less divisive approach would pilot pre-school initiatives in our most deprived communities, working directly to involve parents of two to five-year-olds in their children’s education, especially in the development of language and social skills and health and wellbeing.
A second target might be in the lower and middle primary classes in the same communities. With a longer school day, a free breakfast programme, smaller classes and the recruitment of the very highest quality teachers, it might be possible to consolidate these social and language skills developed in an enhanced pre-school programme.
Then develop in such schools, at the upper end of primary education, a culture of hard-work, effort and success through additional after-school and summer holiday classes. Target literacy, language, communication skills and broad cultural awareness.
Acknowledge children who attain consistent scholastic achievements (exemplary attendance, excellent behaviour and regularly completed homework) and active participation in such after-school and vacation activities.
Enhance these rewards with a modest financial element for children from the poorest families. Integrate complementary activities, including community service, sport and engagement with the arts. Gradually, increase the targets and the rewards until the end of the secondary stage.
Such an approach “sifts” and “selects” but it starts at an inclusive level by inviting all students within the given schools to participate. The “sifting” and “selecting” will be done by the young people themselves as they determine whether they can maintain the commitment and meet the challenges.
It avoids removing the advantaged core, the leadership potential, from schools in challenging communities, schools which urgently require their presence.
There is a huge untapped source of excellence, only awaiting recognition and systematic nurturing. Unleashing that potential is a far preferable option for philanthropists wishing to support educational excellence than one which reinforces existing privileges.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.