The UK has one of the most socially segregated school systems in the developed world, with academic selection – where children are admitted to a school on the basis of ability – and parental choice at its core.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believes this has a negative impact on social equality and a young person’s ability to earn a good income in the future. OECD evidence shows that segregated schools present children with two different perspectives of the world and affect their life chances.
Effects of poverty
There is a strong link between a pupil’s socioeconomic status and how well they do in school. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have a higher chance of failing. Children and young people living in the most deprived communities do significantly worse at all levels of the education system than those from more affluent backgrounds. This is often referred to as the “attainment gap”.
In Scotland, it is estimated that one in four children is living in poverty. European Commission figures suggest this is higher than in many other countries in Europe and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts that more than one-third of children in the UK will be living in poverty by 2021/22.
In 2016, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, declared that the Scottish government would “draw on successful ideas from around the world” to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds and close the attainment gap. She introduced a range of initiatives, not only in the education sector, but across health, childcare, social services, welfare and employment.
Some of these measures introduced as a matter of urgency have already proved controversial, such as the national testing of P1 pupils (a standardised assessment for five-year-olds designed to measure the attainment gap) which parents and teachers complained had caused some children distress. Schools play a significant role, but the initiatives adopted need to follow a long arc of slow structural change. Short-term political fixes have been tried for decades, yet people in Scotland and the rest of the UK continue to live in a deeply unequal society divided by class, income and poverty.
Following the Finns
Finland is widely recognised as being an educational success story. Like Scotland, it has a population of around five million which shares the same culture, language and a keen sense of social justice. But after World War 2 the Finns recognised that a society divided by class and poverty would weaken their country further, so they embarked on long-term structural reform abolishing private and selective schools in favour of a system in which every child would attend high-quality state schools. The Finns reduced socioeconomic inequality by reducing inequality in the education system.
Having different educational provisions and greater freedom for parents to choose their preferred school may seem democratic, but it leads to a country that separates children and damages the very fabric of democracy it seeks to champion. I think there are three fundamental ways to help bridge the educational divide in Scotland.
First, as the Finns have done, the government should look beyond parental choice and introduce the “common school” which provides basic comprehensive education to serve all children equally well, regardless of family background. Not just a form of school organisation, the idea of the common school embodies a philosophy of education as well as a deep set of values about what all children need and deserve.
Second, the quality of teachers and teaching is crucial for effective learning and can have a demonstrable impact on a disadvantaged pupil’s prospects. Teachers need to be paid at a level that will attract top graduates, so that the profession becomes more appealing and valued.
According to the OECD the UK has one of the least well-paid and youngest teaching workforces in the EU, predominantly populated by women. Because teaching is a highly skilled profession, only teachers who are academically well-qualified, research literate and socially committed should be encouraged to teach Scotland’s children.
Freedom and trust
A long-term solution for reducing the attainment gap is to restore a culture of responsibility and trust within the education system that values teacher and headteacher professionalism in judging what is best for students. The Scottish government has pledged £120m directly to headteachers, which although considered a sound idea by the OECD, has been met with concern due to a lack of clear guidance on how this money should be spent.
Striking a balance between accountability and autonomy, with greater levels of responsibility, flexibility and freedom to be creative in addressing pupils’ needs takes time. Research suggests that encouraging schools to make their own decisions about how best to support their pupils to do well is essential for closing the attainment gap.
Third, the standard of literacy has fallen in Scotland over the past four years. Literacy and life chances are closely linked, and evidence suggests that libraries can contribute to improving quality of life for all. Starting with areas that have been designated as deprived, new public libraries should be built or existing community libraries transformed.
Raising the level of literacy is not just about the child, it has to involve the literacy of families and communities too. As we see in places such as Finland and Singapore, public libraries can serve as the educational and cultural bedrock of a community, and could help work towards closing the attainment gap.
Persistent poverty exacerbated by budget cuts and coupled with entrenched mindsets in government and education are all obstacles in the current climate. There is an urgent need to think out of the box and to re-imagine long-term solutions to reverse the inequalities that face disadvantaged children in Scotland.