Monday 21 March 2016

Flying a Kite - Some thoughts on education inequality in Scotland

Education has long been held-up as a sacred cow in Scotland. Arguably even more so than the National Health Service. For decades Scotland has lived-off its reputation for comprehensive, broad, inclusive education and the pedigree of the Enlightenment and the contribution of its Universities sector to philosophy, economics, law, the sciences and medicine.

This reputation is one that ignores an underlying reality: that Scottish education, at all levels, has stagnated since devolution. Secondary school pupils are presented for fewer qualifications, on average, than they were before, primary and early secondary school literacy, numeracy and science education rates have fallen behind international competitors (not helped by our withdrawal from PIRLS and TIMSS monitoring) and access to our Universities for the most disadvantaged, despite larger intakes and state-funded-tuition, are appalling. Budget decisions in recent years have also narrowed the scope for adult learning and vocational support, with a cut of over 150,000 college places.

Perhaps most importantly, the people that are being most disadvantaged by these various problems are those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. St Andrew's University has come-in for some flack over this, but others also perform poorly in this respect. A recent Freedom of Information request, for example, showed that a teenager living in Easterhouse was more likely to end-up in a young-offenders' institute than gain a place at the University of Glasgow.

Part of the response from Universities and the Scottish Government has been both to expand very specific and dedicated forms of maintenance support towards the most disadvantaged, and to adjust minimum admission requirements for those from more deprived backgrounds. Whilst these schemes are welcome, they are very limited in their scope for success and, financially, have actually been off-set by the Scottish Government's withdrawal of maintenance grants in favour of making student support more loan orientated.

In truth, though, to blame the Universities slightly misses the point. Scotland's education problems begin far earlier than we like to admit. The discrepancies are well-entrenched by late secondary school and arguably begin significantly earlier than that.

In Glasgow, the city I live in, this is incredibly stark. Govan High School, a secondary school in Nicola Sturgeon's constituency, saw within the margin of error of zero percent of its pupils achieving five Higher passes, the "gold standard" for those seriously contemplating going to university in Scotland. Looking down the list, other similarly disadvantaged areas, with a couple of exceptions, achieve similarly depressing results. The trend is similar in other local authority areas, with Northfield and Torry Academies in Aberdeen getting fewer than one in twenty pupils up to the 5 pass standard. Even in local authorities with generally very good records on schools and attainment, like East Renfrewshire, there are schools with weak results. Barrhead High School, for example, though punching above its weight, only secures 5 Higher passes for one in four pupils.

This isn't to denigrate the efforts of the teachers, pupils and parents in these schools; quite the opposite. They work exceptionally hard in a system that is failing to provide them adequate or fair support, of both financial and non-financial kinds. What is so damning is how badly the life prospects of children in these communities are affected by the post-code lottery.

It wouldn't be so bad, from an equality perspective, if the reason for these low pass-rates was that the exams are far too tough. But they're clearly not. In Glasgow you are one and a half times as likely to leave school with 5 Higher passes if you go to Jordanhill School than you are to leave even with one Higher pass if you went to St Thomas Aquinas School, which is barely 350 yards away, or Knightswood Secondary, 1000 yards in the other direction. In East Renfrewshire, if you go to St Ninian's, a similar pattern emerges compared with your counterparts that go to Barrhead.

These differences are too large simply to be attributable to the quality of the learning environment of the schools in isolation. Focusing more resources, whether through targeted school-specific funding or by way of a pupil-premium that tracks free-school-meal kids, might help hire an extra handful of support teachers and slightly reduce class sizes, but it is not going to change fundamentally the position of those schools. We need instead to be more radical and to ask how demographics, and especially how primary and early secondary school education, stratifies Scottish society so spectacularly.

The big successes of the London schools in narrowing attainment gaps has come through a willingness both to invest, but also to experiment. We should be cautious of directly implementing ideas that may work there but would be inappropriate to Scotland's system. Nevertheless, I think there are three areas, largely untouched by Scottish education reformers, that need to be given serious thought in the next few years. They are: the problem of the urban-rural divide; the structure of secondary schooling; and the pitfalls of catchment-based primary schooling.

1. The Urban-Rural Divide

Schools often face very similar problems in terms of being under-resourced and unable to provide a full curriculum and adequate support to their pupils, regardless of whether they are an inner-city school or serving a number of village communities in the Highlands and Islands. But the solutions to these problems are unlikely to be the same beyond the rudimentary fact that there is a greater need for resources. What works for Glasgow and Edinburgh may not be suitable for Aberdeenshire, Dumfries and the Highlands and Islands.

This is not a reason not to experiment more radically with the way we provide schooling in one type of area to the exclusion of another. Local authorities need both more freedom, but also to be given greater encouragement, to try something new. Instead of having a blanket opposition to changes, like experimentation with academies and free schools, we should be prepared to look at other countries, not just England, to see what they have tried and how we might adapt that to see what impact giving head-teachers and parents more direct control over financing and management decisions in a Scottish context would have.

2. Secondary Education Structure

One way we might be able to overcome the problem of narrowed availability of courses in our cities and large towns' schools, would be to rethink how we divide primary and secondary education.

One of the most unsatisfactory states of affairs at the moment relates to how pupils end-up being bussed from one school to another just so they can take their preferred Highers or Advanced Highers, at not inconsiderable expense, inconvenience, and disruption to the school day. We should think about whether the introduction of or experimentation with a "junior high" and "senior high" set-up in Scotland might better address this allocation of resources problem, especially in our cities and towns.

This would more cleanly bring together a critical mass of students taking the same courses and allow teachers, if they wish, to specialise or focus on teaching either the younger or the older age-group. Given that the Curriculum for Excellence framework now places more emphasis on generalist learning up to and including S3, this would arguably also make more sense now than before.

This would also allow for the "pairing" of advantaged and disadvantaged areas and schools, and encourage more sharing of best-practice and resources between schools in a local authority area. If a schools "group" that contains a high-performing school knows that its overall results are likely to be dragged-down by less good results from a paired school, they are more likely to focus their resources on improving approaches and resources for the "junior high" servicing that more deprived area.

Clearly, an approach like this would be less suitable for rural areas. That is not a reason at the very least not to try it in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee.

3. Primary School and Catchment Areas

In a system where all, or almost all, schools are organised on a comprehensive basis and run by a local authority, the secondary school you go to is almost entirely determined-by the primary school you went to. That in turn is almost entirely determined by your post-code. Placement requests can be made, but are disproportionately used by families who are already relatively prosperous, or who have a strong background of education and high levels of awareness of how best to "game" the system.

England does not have as stringent approaches to catchments. One of the biggest criticisms of their system, where among other things, selective schools existed, was that the system of applying for places at secondary schools is skewed in-favour of the most affluent families.

A lot of educational research shows that the greatest impact on educational attainment in later life is determined by the levels of support in early-years education. It also intuitively makes sense: if you don't leave primary school able to read, write and count, you will be severely disadvantaged in secondary school where almost all of your learning will depend on a minimum standard being achieved in one or more of these areas.

These discrepancies clearly emerge in primary schools. One of the advantages of primary schools being much smaller than secondary schools is that they are more intimate and are often very well-integrated into their local communities, not least in rural or smaller town areas. I know this well, having attended a village primary school in Auchtertool, Fife, from P1-3 as a youngster. One of the major disadvantages, however, is that when places for primary schools are determined by catchment areas, they bunch-together children from very similar backgrounds, economically and socially. This is arguably more extreme than it is even for secondary schools.

Local authorities seldom change catchment areas either for primary or secondary schools, for fear of the massive backlash, usually from middle-class parents that have bought expensive houses to get their children into a good state school. Though my liberal instincts tend towards localised control, I wonder whether what Scotland needs is a national review into how school places are allocated, and an independent commission to look at diluting catchment areas or otherwise altering admissions rules and incentives.

One of the major advantages of the "pupil premium", the idea that additional state support should follow disadvantaged pupils rather than schools, is that it, theoretically at least, encourages schools to take-on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This mitigates against reluctance to do so, that might otherwise have been motivated by the impact on school league tables. This especially means that the best schools are more incentivised to take-on kids outside of their traditional catchment areas who have a less good attainment profile, and to maximise their chances, rather than just cherry-picking the brightest kids and taking them away from those already struggling schools.

Having more diverse primary schools, especially in our cities and towns, would be an altogether good thing, and again, would encourage much closer cooperation between schools, both between primary schools and between them and secondary schools, whether or not divided along the lines described above. In any case, we need to find a way to overcome the practical obstacle of pushy middle-class parents trying to protect the existing system for their children's benefit to the exclusion of others.


These are not yet fully-formed thoughts, but they represent the kind of more "out-of-the-box" thinking I believe Scottish education needs if it is to give a fair chance to everyone going through it. Some of this will involve doing more to empower local authorities. But some of it also means asking them either to take a genuine political risk or to cede control and let someone else have a go at improving the chances of Scotland's most disadvantaged kids.

This is in-part why I sympathised with the SNP government when they decided to bring back national testing. The Scottish Lib Dems were quick to criticise this move, but I think that is a mistake. Standardised testing, if not as-such public league tables, seems to me to be an important part of the Scottish Government's armoury if it is to measure the impact of different policies and different local authority's efforts and approaches towards narrowing gaps in attainment and improving attainment in absolute terms. This includes policies like the flagship one, adopted in England and Wales that the Lib Dems now want introduced in Scotland, the "pupil premium".

It is hyperbolic to suggest that four or five formal assessments (prepared in consultation with teachers and curriculum designers) a year represents an unconscionable administrative burden beyond the ken of our teaching profession. These kids will have to sit exams when they are 16-18 years old anyway, so acclimatising them to formal assessment is likely actually to help them later-on. What we really need to be doing is looking at how teaching methods interact with assessment, and how well assessment measures actual ability and meeting of learning outcomes by pupils. The argument that some pupils do better in certain types of test than others isn't a reason not to conduct the tests; it's a reason to look more carefully at what the tests are in fact testing and what teaching behaviours they are encouraging.

So what do you think? I would be interested to hear people's thoughts especially on the questions of the structure and admissions factors in primary and early secondary education. I'm sure there will be those within the teaching profession who can find problems with these ideas, but I suspect the conversation about them is arguably just as valuable and important in advancing the debate about education reform in Scotland. More of the same and tinkering at the edges seems to me to have run its course.

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