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Education remains key to escaping cycle of poverty

Peter Peacock in The Scotsman

Providing first-rate education is the most noble of societal endeavours – a collective will to liberate individuals through learning, providing for the skills that our society needs to flourish, imbued with the values we cherish, and providing understanding of the ever more complex world we occupy and need to contribute to.

Scotland still enjoys a high-performing education system by reference to international standards. For the most part, children in Scotland attend schools that would be the envy of many, anywhere. However, for too many Scottish pupils, schooling will be an unrewarding experience with a significant number leaving with few, if any, qualifications. We would be right to worry about these children in particular.

While almost without exception every community has some disadvantage within its boundary, in Scotland we have some of the most concentrated disadvantage anywhere in Europe. All the statistics tell us that if you live in such a community you are likely to achieve well below the average. We also know you are likely to have poorer health, poorer housing conditions, and less well-paid work, if you have work at all.

The cost, in lost potential, in significantly reduced economic opportunity, in the pursuit of health and happiness, is dramatic both for the individuals caught up in this recurrent cycle, and for the strength and potential of the communities concerned. There is nothing new in this. That this remains a central feature of Scottish life is to our collective shame.

I am but one of a succession of past Scottish education ministers who has been well aware of this while in office. One of a succession of education ministers who tried to do their bit toward turning this around – challenging any limiting of expectations of children based on post code, tweaking the funding formula, targeting early intervention methods, encouraging promising new teaching methods, expanding provision for three-year-olds, promoting and funding methods to keep children at the edge in school, and all the rest. Education is a long-term business and results are seldom seen in the short term, but like most of my predecessors and successors, the probability is that as we fade into history, the problems of disadvantage will still continue to have a negative impact on too many individuals, communities, and Scotland as a whole.

One of the reasons I set in train an OECD inspection of Scottish education in 2006 was because I knew it was likely to highlight this fact, put it in context and help us focus more on what we did about it. That study pointed to the fact that “who you are in Scotland is far more important than what school you attend”. This conclusion fits with my own experience of visiting schools in many of the most disadvantaged communities where I often saw inspired leadership and leading-edge practice from outstanding teachers, new methods of pupil tracking linked to support and intervention, widened curricular choices, effective inclusion practice, enlightened links from school to home and family, all and more making a real difference.

Some schools in some of our most disadvantaged communities have delivered significant improvements in performance from an inherited low base. Despite these successes, however, the bottom line has not fundamentally altered. We clearly know some of what works, and there is much expertise and experience in Scotland to build from.

No one individual will have the answer, no one period of time will deliver the outcome we want, we will be able to learn from other countries, we will need to consider skewing resources in more fundamental ways as we face up to the fact that broadly equitable inputs to our education system deliver grossly inequitable results.

But we also need to develop new and more flexible ways of working, new ways of collaborating, new ways of marshalling wider than school resources, new methods of intervention.

One feature of the effects of disadvantage is its high level of predictability. That gives us the potential for more sophisticated, personalised, anticipatory interventions, provided we are prepared to leave no stone unturned in seeking to conquer this, our greatest educational challenge.

If we were able to address the issues successfully and turn round educational performance in our most disadvantaged communities, I have little doubt Scotland would score more successfully in the international league tables that are used to compare international performance.

That might be nice, but it would be nothing compared to having empowered the individuals currently disadvantaged to live healthier lives full of the opportunity the majority of us take for granted.

The Commission on School Reform, which reported last week, makes clear we need renewed efforts to tackle the effects of disadvantage as a central priority in Scotland, and that starts with facing up to the fact that, despite all the laudable efforts made, we have not isolated this feature of our education system enough as one for decisive, focused and collective action. The commission report calls for that action now.