Social justice in Scotland

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Alex Wood on a 'perverse' Scottish system that is intended to close the education attainment gap, but in fact does the exact opposite.

I recently co-presented at a seminar with Florida Atlantic University’s Professor Ira Bogotch. He argues that social justice is a leadership construct which obliges educational leaders to participate in debates on the moral uses of power and to be actively engaged in creating socially just schools but also a fairer, socially just world.

Education and social justice are rare bedfellows in Scotland today. Take university entrance statistics: Scotland’s oldest universities take only a handful of students from Scotland’s poorest communities (St Andrews 2.7 per cent, Aberdeen 3.1 per cent and Edinburgh five per cent).

More than 50 per cent of school-leavers from Scotland’s most affluent decile enter higher education, but only some 15 per cent from the bottom decile.

Inequalities and in-built advantage start early. At age five, children with a degree-educated parent have a vocabulary around 18 months ahead of those with unqualified parents. At age three, the vocabulary of children from the poorest quintile is 0.5 of a standard deviation below average; for those from the top quintile it is 0.27 standard deviations above average.

Income inequality is rising, child poverty remains intractably stuck, and inequalities in income and health are directly linked. Three-quarters of the total increase in UK incomes over the last decade have gone to those with above-average incomes. The incomes of the richest tenth of the population equal the combined income of the bottom five-tenths.

It is no wonder that children in schools serving our poorest communities appear to attain at substantially lower levels than their more affluent peers. The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) has, however, challenged the very basis on which attainment is analysed.

Scottish schools are judged, by the public and the inspectorate, on exam results. It was patently unfair to compare schools in wealthy areas with schools in poor areas. Consequently, the concept of PCA (Principal Component Analysis) comparator schools was devised. Comparator schools were identified by analysing proportions of pupils with given characteristics such as degree-qualified mothers and free meal entitlement. Schools compared thus will normally have very similar proportions of their intake from the poorest two deciles of the population. Their attainment statistics however can vary significantly.

The problem is that the PCA comparators focus on measures which distinguish between pupils who live in the most deprived areas but not among pupils living in more affluent areas. In other words, while two schools may have an identical proportion of very poor children they may have quite different proportions of very affluent children. The results are invalid comparisons.

“We have schools in the top 50 of The Sunday Times league table system that are failing children,” said a spokesman for the ADES performance and improvement network. “Even the top-ranked schools might have ‘lost sight’ of pupils whose achievement was at the bottom end. The crude use of data also ensured that some schools doing excellent work with lower-achieving pupils did not always get the recognition they deserved.”

This perverse system allowed schools to increase the attainment gap and led to great but often-unmerited accolades. Not only have the statistical data introduced to avoid unfair comparisons been invalid, they have continued the process of undervaluing schools serving our poorest learners and overvaluing those serving the most affluent.

If Prof Bogotch is right, Scottish educational leaders have major debates on growing inequality in which they must engage. They also have a short-term issue to face – the poor statistical tools that actually exacerbate the social divide among Scotland’s schools.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his retirement he was head of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.



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