Inequality, Social Justice and the schooling ‘gap’: a different perspective – Sarah Atkin

When a school system, designed specifically to advance the life chances of society’s least privileged is demonstrably and disproportionately failing them it is time to put your hands up and say ‘not good enough.’ No excuses. No defence. Where you start is not where you should end up after 11 years of schooling. Thanks to Kezia Dugdale’s tenacity education is now – at last – top of the political agenda in Scotland.

According to the OECD, Scotland was a leader in maths attainment in 2003 and now we are ‘above average’. Also, the proportion of lower achievers in maths is increasing whilst the proportion of higher achievers declines. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2014 echoed this trend in reading. Between 2012 and 2014 top performers in reading declined by 11% between Primary 4 and 7; by 6% in P7 and by 8% by S2. This cannot continue. It is not ‘talking Scotland down’ to raise the political stakes and tell the truth. If your reading age fails to at least match your chronological age when you start secondary education you will struggle to access the curriculum and likely never catch up.

Raising attainment overall and ‘closing the gap’ – actually different challenges – are what the OECD said Scotland needs to ‘relentlessly pursue.’ This requires a sense of mission, a strategy and some urgency; none of which is being is suggested in Nicola Sturgeon’s plans.

Of course it’s vital to invest heavily in high quality pre-school education. I’d also argue that Scotland needs a coherent literacy and numeracy strategy for primary schools (it is surely worth looking at the impact of this down south during the early Blair years.) However, ‘the gap’ and wider inequality in education extends beyond attainment/exam results.

The best educators will tell you that what happens outside the classroom matters as much as what happens within it. I was struck by reference to ‘socio-economic status’ in the 2007 OECD report ‘Quality & Equity of Schooling in Scotland’ and its influence on the ability of pupils to make the best of what school offers even when they attend the same (good) schools. Socio economic status is a far more complex measure than poverty and relates to cultural attributes and practices – family values, child rearing, language development, well-being and aspiration.

The impact of socio-economic status is something I’ve noticed working in a school and through my own experience as a parent observing a generation of children from infancy to young adulthood.  Part of this inequality is the gap in the ‘cultural capital’ of pupils. Access to broader experiences is an issue a recently retired Depute Head Teacher said was possibly the biggest driver of inequality in her former (academically high achieving but socially mixed) school. How do you encourage and/or enable poor, less affluent and/or less culturally confident pupils to access opportunities beyond formal learning? Not just to pursue a natural talent – although this area relies way too heavily on parental willingness – but also for the sheer joy of a different experience? A trip abroad, an outward bound week-end, mountain biking, visits to theatres, galleries, art house cinemas, concerts. The experiences that open young people up to a world beyond their background and help them realise their true potential. We also know that it is wider experiences and achievement beyond the classroom that build character and boost confidence and, crucially motivate those disengaged by school to learn.

The middle classes take for granted the access their children have to a wealth of experiences denied others because of a lack of means, parental motivation/know-how, transport or that precious of commodities – time. One reason people with the money have no hesitation in paying for private education is because so much of what is offered beyond the classroom is embedded within the curriculum – not optional; not under the eye or direction of parents and not determined by them either. School is school and home is home.

Of course many state schools do provide a fantastic array of opportunities despite having nothing like the resources of the independent sector. I am in awe of the commitment of many teachers and youth workers I know. However, in the main this agenda is not yet part of the ‘whole school’ offer. I guess therefore, across the system as a whole it’s patchy and optional. Pupils choose. With ‘choice’ there’s a chance participation will be weighted towards the already motivated and confident; those with bucket loads of parental advantage outside the school gate. A double whammy for the less privileged and insecure.

Might this be one reason why state school outcomes mirror socio/economic/cultural status so accurately? Too much reliance on parents to provide input and effort into ‘wider achievement’?

So, what can we do to try and close this particular ‘gap’? Here’s a plan.

To embed this agenda within all schools will require a change in mind set and greater autonomy for schools to innovate (there are more ways to provide a Broad General Education than just through subjects.) Plainly though, it’s also about money. For rural Highland schools the logistics of even delivering the broader agenda/cross curricular aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence are near impossible. Travel costs are the biggest barrier. I’d like to see an acknowledgement of this in any school funding settlement with ‘top up’ money for remote and rural Highland & Islands schools ring-fenced for education transport costs. In addition, modelled on the Fair Start Fund, less affluent children should be allocated an annual non-transferrable ‘cultural fund’ for their secondary school years paid directly to their school. It is up to the school and the pupil how this money is spent. Leave it to those who know pupils best – Head Teachers and teachers.

Finally, somehow schools need to be incentivised to ensure every child pursues something that interests them outside of formal schooling rather than leave it to parents or pupils themselves to ‘choose’. This could become part of the personal support remit. Participation rates in activities and participation in wider school life should also continually be monitored and reflected upon from asocio-economic status perspective as rigorously as attainment. This could become one of the measures by which schools are inspected.

With dedicated resources, a remit and the freedom to take this forward unburdened by bureaucracy our schools will make a ‘step change’ difference.

It’s time for creative approaches initiated nationally, monitored locally and managed at school level to help address ‘the gap’ from every perspective.

Sarah Atkin is on the shortlist for the Scottish Labour Highlands & Islands Regional List and a volunteer contributor to the Commission on School Reform.