Devolution has failed Scotland's children. Can independence change that? - Spectator Blogs

15 October 2012

12:24 PM

15 October 2012

12:24 PM

Yesterday Fraser asked:

Scotland has a tragically long list of problems (especially with inner-city poverty) and [the No campaign] can ask: which of these problem would independence solve?

This is a fair question, albeit one that offers the retort: and which of them are being solved by the Union the noo? Of course, this question was asked before devolution too. In broad terms, Alex Salmond has the same range of powers as those enjoyed by Secretaries of State for Scotland in the pre-devolution age.

Not all of those have been used. Devolution was essentially the democratisation of existing administrative devolution that, quite properly, already took account of Scotland’s distinct place within the United Kingdom. It was a shift that allowed for the possibility of great change but did not necessarily ensure there would be change.

Take education for instance. For much of the last decade Scotland’s educational establishment has argued about a new curriculum, now being introduced in secondary schools. The “Curriculum for Excellence” (I’m glad we agreed on that aim) doubtless has something to be said for it. Whether it can or will repair a great national scandal must, however, be a matter of some doubt. It may not be irrelevant but it does not seem likely to be enough.

And Scotland’s educational system is, these days, a scandal that ought to be considered a national disgrace. The facts tell us this but we – that is, public, civic, Scotland – prefer to ignore them. Devolution has failed Scotland’s children. Would independence change that?

A case in point: earlier this month the Guardian’s excellent Scotland correspondent Severin Carrell reported on the number of pupils from Scotland’s poorest districts who achieve 3 A-grades at Higher. The figures are quite appalling and would, I had thought, been the occasion for a renewed discussion about whether Scottish schools are actually quite as good as we like to think they are. How naive that expectation was!


Consider this: almost no pupils from the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods actually achieve the minimum grades needed to gain entry to the most competitive courses at the most prestigious universities. Almost none? Yes, almost none. In 2011 just 220 pupils from the so-called SIMD20 areas passed at least 3 Highers at A-grade. That’s just 2.5% of the fifth-year students who come from these areas.

It’s true that slicing the country into these quintiles is a mildly-crude exercise. Some “pockets of deprivation” lie within wealthier postcodes for instance. Nevertheless and even making some allowance for the inadequacy of the data the broad picture is pretty unambiguous: the poor are screwed to a degree and by a system that has not just failed them but failed them utterly.

In Edinburgh just 1.4% of state-educated pupils from the poorest fifth of postcodes achieved three As at Higher. In Glasgow the numbers are scarcely much better: just 2.4% – that is 58 pupils in Scotland’s largest city – reached this level in 2011. Universities can do their best to make allowances for pupils from what we coyly call “disadvantaged areas” but there is clearly a limit to what they can do or how effectively they can divine potential all but lost amidst this wreckage.

Again, this is waste on a horrifying scale. We know what works in education and we know how poverty and family breakdown can have dreadful effects on educational achievement. But I think we can also say – with some confidence – that the system isn’t helping these children either. Not when a 500% improvement in attainment would still only have one in ten kids from the poorest postcodes achieving the grades that could send them to a competitive course at a leading university. (By contrast: one in five state-school-educated kids from wealthier postcodes achieve these marks.)

And yet do we talk about this? Not very much we don’t. This is not a partisan point. In the past 20 years Tories, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists have all been in power in Scotland and none of them have left a legacy that even offers the hope of transforming opportunity for Scotland’s poorest children.

At what point does the denial end? When do we start to suspect that the system itself is at least partly responsible for all this wasted potential? Whether you measure attainment by A-grades or just by achieving five Higher passes at A-C the story remains the same: appalling failure.

I’m not so naive as to think that reforming school governance and independence are the only things that can help change this shameful record but I’m pretty sure that doing so offers some hope for better leadership in the schools that need it most. And I’m near-certain that the Scottish educational establishment’s hostility to reform is a breach of trust that should shame it. In a less-smug Scotland we’d wonder what we’re doing wrong, not simply congratulate ourselves for maintaining the “Scottish difference” in education.

Smugness? Why yes. Consider this revealing passage from a recent article in the Scotsman. Contemplating Michael Gove’s call for more rigorous exams in England, Robert Karling, rector of Kelvinside Academy (one of Glasgow’s less impressive private schools) wrote:

Scots, in the middle of the greatest change to their education system in generations, can ponder with quiet satisfaction on how they do things better.

Oh really? Do we? The evidence for this is thinner than we might like to think. It probably once was the case that a greater percentage of Scots had access to a decent education than their English cousins; I don’t think you can credibly make that argument any longer.

Devolution has not challenged the Scottish establishment or the Scottish consensus. That’s been one of its greatest failures. Would independence do any better? I hope so and am open to being persuaded it would. But that case has not yet been made – at least not in terms of education – far less been proved.

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Show comments
  • terregles2

    The poverty figures in Scotland prove only one thing the Union is not working. Scotland has been mismanged for too long by Westminster. Is anyone seriously suggesting that a country with Scotland’s rich resouces should have child poverty
    Scotland sends its’ billions of revenue from Whisky, Textiles, Fisheries, Forestry, Renewables, Oil, Tourism, Gas, Biotechnology, Paper, Electronics , Stem Cell Research, Pharmaceuticals etc to Westminster who then fiddle the figures and send some money back.
    England does not have one natural resource that Scotland does not have. That is why Westminster tried to conceal The Great Obfuscation -GERS-2006 figures and why they are fighting hard to stop Independence. they are worried that they lose hold of our revenue.
    Scotland has been blighted by tory policy. Thatcher who closed all our industry threw generations on the scrap heap and where there was a work ethic she brought hopelessness and despair.
    Instead ofpassing our wealth to Westminster for them to indulge in wars like the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan and squander countless billiions on Trident we should be using that wealth to nuture our children and build a fairer Scottish society.
    For Britnatz to imply that a country like Scotland that contributed so much to the world somehow has children genetically inferior to other countries is beneath contempt even by BritNatz standards.
    If we stand aside and let Westminster reward the bankers encourage the rich in their tax dodging and let them squander Scotland’s great wealth on nuclear weapons we should all hang our heads in shame along with the BritNatz.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog and view.

  • thesmallwhitebear

    There is a huge elephant in the room here. Educational ability is defined by many factors, poverty, aspiration, income levels, parental input etc. yes.
    But there is also “core intelligence”, something commentators, politicians and the like skim over, as it it a political “hot potato”.
    The mother of a daughter whose academic achievements were far less then her two brilliant siblings, told me that she originally thought that educational ability was all about family, aspiration opportunity, education etc. until she had to deal with her youngest child.
    It was only then she realised that the material she was working with in exactly the same way as her siblings, was not the same at all. Her youngest daughter did not have the necessary skills to be educationally brilliant. She faltered and stumbled over her school work whilst her sisters soared over any obstacle. Great kid, enthusiastic, work ethic immaculate, BUT educational ability a disaster. Her focus shifted to using her hands and she is a very competent and dare I say it happy trades-person now.
    I have known lots of other such cases, where poverty, application, lack of opportunity just doesn’t feature in any shape or form, their core ability does not extend to passing exams.

    The ability to gain 3 “A” Grades at Higher is beyond the capabilities of many, we have to take that into consideration. We cannot just take that standard as a yardstick for “education”, without also investigating communities and the cultural norms of those communities.

    For a middle class lad or lass who sees his or her future in Law or Medicine, Highers are important, the be all and end all of “education”. University beckons these kids.

    For others school is merely a way of biding time before work or family life takes over. We cannot assume that “education” failed these children. Education ie 3 “A” passes at Higher Grade per se, is not necessarily the ticket to life-long happiness either.

  • Derick Tulloch
  • JPM

    Alex, you talk about ‘the system’ & ‘educational establishment’. Few would deny the failings of Government, cooncils, EIS, etc. However, you singularly fail to mention the role of parents & their abdication of responsibility in their children’s education. It’s not just about income levels/poverty, it’s about aspiration for your kids, instilling work ethic in your kids, doing your best for your kids…. not expecting teachers, schools, government to do it all

    • Alex Massie

      JPM: all true. But so obviously true that perhaps that’s why I didn’t mention it! (I usually do when writing about these things, however)

  • andrew kerins

    Alex Massie’s analysis is correct. One point should be made; those who dominate the Scottish establishment and the who uphold the Scottish consensus make sure that their children do attend the schools which, year after year, send few pupils to university and none to study in the most prestigious faculties – law and medicine.
    Smugness is accompanied by hypocrisy.

  • pierre

    nice try on the reverse psychology, massie. your contempt for scotland is groomed from a private education system.

  • Gremalkin

    Mr Massie has apparently stumbled on the shameful little secret that is the Scottish Education system. Its not just Higher Grade attainment in those areas he identifies which represent a problem but perhaps he could also look at the PISA standings over the past few years and see the the decline in our education outcomes. To try and ascribe a different constitutional arrangement as a solution seems about as relevent as saying the Nationalists can change the weather. Could I gently suggest the problem is perhaps more deep seated than that as we have in effect an adult centred education system. Its the producers of education who dictate what type of schooling we receive. For them that means the ‘bog standard Comprehensive’ and no political party or constitutional arrangement seems willing to challenge that settlement. In England Labour brought us City Technology Colleges and Academies and the Tories Free Schools in an effort to improve matters. Whilst in Scotland we have what? The EIS and their smug complacency.

  • drewmagoo

    It would be helpful and informative if you could include some comparative statistics within this article. 9.3% of all weans achieve 3 A-grades at Higher compared to 2.5% of those from the poorest neighbourhoods. Not great, but I’d venture it’s not as large a gap as you make it sound. The statistics for attainment in E&W for further comparison would be interesting too.

  • James R

    Comprehensive educashun did for many a good Grammar school back in the seventies,Alex.But then all countries in the Union can claim that I suppose.
    Bloody Shirley Williams.

  • James R

    Comprehensive educashun did for many a good Grammar school back in the seventies,Alex.But then all countries in the Union can claim that I suppose.
    Bloody Shirley Williams.