The Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, named after a pioneering 19th century social reformer, will be a “major asset” to Scotland, said the education minister, Michael Russell, who officially opened it last week.
Six years ago the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development cited concerns about an achievement gap in Scotland, which it said began to open in the last three years of primary and widened up to the age of about 16.
However, Professor Christopher Chapman, the director of the centre, said the phenomenon affected the whole UK, as well as many other countries, and was best tackled by innovative and wide-ranging approaches that drew on international research and expertise.
“We already have local authorities coming to us asking for help in thinking about some of the issues and challenges they are facing with disadvantaged pupils. At the same time we are supporting Education Scotland in some of their attempts in raising attainment among specific groups,” Prof Chapman told SecEd.
“It might mean working with local authority personnel and school leaders across boundaries to explore, develop, test and refine new approaches to support what happens in the classroom.
“But we also see our role as being far wider than that, because schools, of course, don’t have all the answers to these issues.
“So we are looking to bring in other stakeholders engaged in public policy and public sector provision: groups like Save The Children, the Robertson Trust and many others.”
Prof Chapman cited The Spirit Level, a book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that argues fairer societies tend to be happier and more equitable in terms of outcomes. “For that reason, there is no silver bullet. We’re in this for the long-term. It’s about understanding the complexities, and experimenting and taking risks to try and develop new approaches that might break the gap.
“Within our team we have educational economists, experts in higher education systems, others who are interested in international comparative education. By having this diverse range we hope we will be able to shed new light on some of the issues,” he said.
“We will draw on our international research and collaborations to see how they may apply to the Scottish context, and also see how Scotland applies to the broader international context.”
Robert Owen founded the village and cotton mills of New Lanark, which had the world’s first infant school, free health care, a creche for working mothers, and a comprehensive education system, including evening classes for adults. Children under 10 could not work in the mill, which was exceptional at the time.
Mr Russell said: “As we seek to address the attainment gap in Scotland’s education system, this new centre will become a major asset, not just to this university but to Scotland. Owen’s legacy will surely be alive in this hub as it looks globally to draw in the best thinking, the best practice and the best people working in educational change.”