Reducing the attainment gap and addressing the inequity in Scottish education was the topic of a recent lecture delivered by Mike Russell, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for education, at Glasgow University. His underlying argument was that only independence will secure these objectives.
He focused on the impact of poverty on learning: “A child in poverty is a child that has yet one more barrier to learning. A hungry child can’t do his or her best. And a child who worries about the very future of their family, is a child who is distracted from fulfilling their potential.”
He emphasised a strong Scottish consensus which valued education as an ideal. “Education is in our DNA. It is woven through our history and our sense of ourselves. We are a learning nation.”
That is an argument for the devolved status quo, not necessarily for independence, but Mr Russell suggested that devolved efforts were hampered by UK macro-economic policies. He said: “Westminster controls tax, benefits and labour market policy. Scotland controls education policy. One is undermining the other.” He said that until Scotland controls welfare and economic powers, it will fail to achieve greater equity and academic success.
He also compared Scottish outcomes with those elsewhere. Generally, school-leavers from the 20 per cent most disadvantaged areas have a tariff score that is less than half that of leavers from the 20 per cent most affluent areas, a greater gap than in most developed nations against which we measure ourselves.
The message was not universally welcomed. One head said she had not come to hear politics and suggested that unequal academic outcomes resulted from families which did not value education, had little commitment to achievement and ambition, and were part of dependency culture. Mr Russell replied that tough love doesn’t work but merely makes those on its receiving end feel virtuous. The audience divided further.
Hers was not a lone voice, but the details of the lecture included concrete proposals which certainly offered some change in how our schools operate and how they are judged and governed.
New partnerships between pairs of schools serving similar areas will be developed to ensure that best practice is effectively pooled.
There will be progressive reductions in class sizes in primaries 1 to 3 and in the poorest areas.
A new bench-marking tool to better and more meaningfully measure school attainment is being developed for 2014.
School leadership will be developed by providing effective leaders with the opportunity to experience different schools and different challenges.
The partnership proposals should be welcomed but in threes or fours, not pairs. Otherwise there will be a reluctant partner in each pair.
There is little evidence that class sizes are crucial to increasing attainment generally, but there is some evidence for the effectiveness of smaller classes in areas of greatest deprivation.
An improved bench-marking tool is certainly required to end the iniquities perpetrated by the current Principal Component Analysis methodology with its in-built bias against schools in the poorest areas (http://bit.ly/13hxDS1).
Supporting all educational leaders, not merely headteachers, to widen their experience and share it can only be valuable but should not be based on the compulsory transfer model under consideration by some local authorities.
The proposals add up to moves in the right direction. Whether they effectively challenge inequity in either education or broader society is a bigger question. As Messrs Cameron, Gove and Clegg seek to steer the UK in one direction, such a challenge, whether Scotland wants a more equitable and socially just society, is at the root of the constitutional divide. Mr Russell’s first attempt, in the educational context, has yet to nail the argument.
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.