David Gow thinks Labour has an opportunity to seize the high ground and drive real improvements in educational attainment in Scotland.
Scottish Labour’s new leadership team, headed by Jim Murphy, has made education a key battleground for the 2015 general election and for Holyrood in 2016; and rightly so.
Getting education policy right and ending what Alex Massie has memorably called “educational apartheid” is critical to making the Scottish economy more competitive and, above all, overcoming glaring inequality.
Seven years of Scottish government under the SNP have not made an iota of difference to shocking inequalities in educational attainment grounded in socio-economic poverty. Here is an area where Labour can seize the high ground, set the agenda and offer effective solutions. Education used to be the pride of the nation; it’s now, too often, a disgrace.
Jim Murphy, during his campaign, often cited the fact that (in 2011) only 220 of the poorest 20% of students got high enough grades to enter higher education compared with 17% of the richest fifth. Scotland tends to score higher than England, Northern Ireland Wales in PISA surveys for reading and maths as a whole but this masks the fact that the gap between pupils from the poorest and richest households is obvious at age 3, blighting employment prospects already. The gap in vocabulary is 13 months at age 5. By S2 (age 12-14) the gap in, say, reading can be more than 20%. Only 2.5% of students from poorer backgrounds get 3 A grades in Highers.
We know that after seven years of council tax freeze this inequality risks widening/deepening as class sizes increase and the number of teachers declines to a ten-year low of just over 50,000, down more than 4000 on 2007. This undermines government efforts to make the curriculum more directly relevant to skills and employment. What’s more, and critically so, it is a huge own goal when you are supposedly modernizing and scaling up the economy to make it less dependent on oil – and able to compete with the BRICs et al.
One solution, canvassed by Massie and others, is for Scotland to follow the English example – begun by Labour and hugely expanded by Michael Gove – of converting schools to academies. More than half of secondary schools in England – 1807 out of 3268 – and a much smaller proportion of primaries (2154 out of 16,818) have opted for academy status.
Their initial aim – divised by Andrew (Lord) Adonis – was “”to improve pupil performance and break the cycle of low expectations.” The outcome was at best patchy in terms of GCSE results. In fact, most opted for greater financial support via direct government funding. The rate of expansion, largely driven by this allure of greater financial autonomy, has now slowed down as funding is squeezed.
But there is no reason to follow this route – a core element of Tory plans to downgrade, nay degrade, local government. In Islington, the inner London borough that is home to ultra-rich bankers and lawyers as well as the fourth highest level of child poverty in England, the Labour council has raised educational standards substantially – despite cuts, which now include a further 15% announced this week and which amount to half of central government funding in four years. Three-fifths of GCSE students got Grades A*-C this year.
At the school (Central Foundation Boys School) where I was a governor for a few years 84% reached this level with English and maths. More than 60% of students don’t have English as their first language; 47% get free school meals. The gap between disadvantaged students (72% of the total) and others has narrowed, with over 90% of the former making expected progress in English and maths.
This steady improvement in attainment levels owes a huge amount to the ethos of high expectations instilled by the head, senior management team, teaching staff and governors – and parents and students. There isn’t enough space to list all the measures undertaken to achieve this but they bear a striking resemblance to those listed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study’s authors in their recommendations. These include working with feeder primary schools, parental involvement, after-hours activities, mentoring, literacy teaching (including with parents) – generally, setting the greatest store by standards of learning and behaviour.
This is just one partial example of what can be achieved. If Scottish Labour genuinely wants to help overcome inequality , then it must propose measures to close the attainment gap in education – mounting a passionate campaign to make good the neglect of the past few years.