For Scotland’s poorer children to catch up with England’s, a fairer economy is needed

Children’s backgrounds peg them to different achievement levels from a young age. Tom Donald, CC BY-SA

Scotland likes to think of itself as a nation reflecting the core social values of collectivism and meritocracy. Yet social and economic inequality is deeply entrenched within both the education system and wider society.

One in five Scottish children live in poverty and according to an important research review published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last week, there is a strong and enduring association between low household income and low educational attainment.

The difficulties faced by Scottish children from low income backgrounds are evident at an early age and intensify during the course of primary and secondary education. The Growing Up in Scotland study shows that by age three, average vocabulary scores for children from low income households were below those of children from high income households.

By age five, the scores correspond to a 13-month gap in vocabulary development. By the end of compulsory schooling, young people from socially advantaged neighbourhoods are much more likely to gain a university place, with social differences in entrance to ancient universities particularly marked.

Despite massive expansion of the system, young people from the most advantaged neighbourhoods in Scotland are five times more likely to gain a place in an ancient university compared with those from the most deprived neighbourhoods. The most selective universities in Scotland draw about 40% of their intake from private schools, which only cater for about 5% of the Scottish school population.

Lagging behind

Social inequality in educational attainment at school level in Scotland appears to be around the OECD average. The many countries that have narrower gaps include Norway, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. The attainment gap is also slightly lower in England. Some initiatives, such as the London Challenge, have achieved “stunning” results in narrowing it. There appear to be no equivalent initiatives in Scotland at the moment.

What are your chances of getting from here…. Ted and Jen, CC BY-SA

The JRF review concludes that narrowing this gap has not been a social policy priority in Scotland. It notes that the agenda around poverty and educational achievement in Scottish education is, “virtually invisible in the key documents that provide advice for schools and on-the-ground examples of policy and curriculum development.”

The review notes that, “all successful programmes are accompanied by targeted funding,” but Scottish local authorities distribute only 5% of their budget allocation towards social deprivation, with no clear link overall between deprivation and per-pupil expenditure. With year-on-year reductions in their budgets, local authorities are struggling to meet their statutory responsibilities, but there is still a need for them to re-examine their funding priorities.

It is suggested that the new Scottish curriculum, Curriculum for Excellence, might have the potential to improve the educational outcomes of children from poorer backgrounds by allowing teachers to design, “context-specific, whole-school approaches that bridge the gap between learning in school and the experiences that children have outside school.”

The problem with cutting your coat…

But clearly there are some potential pitfalls here. If educators proceed on the assumption that children from different social backgrounds need access to different types of knowledge, there is a real danger that children from poorer backgrounds are channelled into vocational courses at an early age. This would itself ensure that access to high-status academic knowledge remains the preserve of those from more affluent backgrounds, particularly those in the private school sector – one of the key problems that the report identifies.

… to here? Stephen McLeod Blythe, CC BY-SA

This would be a regressive move. It would threaten the principle of universal cultural literacy, which informs the Scottish liberal education tradition. There is sometimes a belief in Scotland that new educational initiatives inevitably produce more socially just outcomes. But as the review acknowledges, there is a need for more robust research to ensure that policy development is informed by careful data analysis.

The review emphasises the role which the Scottish education system could and should play in reducing unfair educational outcomes. But it is also important to recognise that while schools can make a difference, levels of economic inequality in the wider society are far more important in intensifying or reducing the attainment gap.

In the context of the referendum on independence, this raises very important questions on what can be done to address the growing problem of social and economic inequality, which is evident in Scotland as well as other developed countries.

The day after the referendum, irrespective of the outcome, the problem of educational inequality in Scotland will remain. A future Scottish government will clearly have to think much harder about how to inspire local authorities and schools to achieve more socially just outcomes. Fairer resource distribution, as well as rhetoric, will be essential here.