A while back I was speaking at one of those How did it all go so wrong? post-referendum discussions and, as expected, the air was thick with recrimination. The good people of Glasgow – rebranded as Yes City – were unhappy and indignant. Eventually, however, talk turned to what might be done next. I made the suggestion that, just perhaps, Scotland’s political and blethering classes might pay some attention to the powers the Scottish parliament currently enjoys.
I mean, I said, it is not as though there are no big arguments to be had within the confines of Holyrood’s truncated responsibilities. Not as though there are no large problems that needed fixing long ago. We were way past the point, I said, at which we could ignore the appalling reality of Scotland’s apartheid education system. A system that serves the affluent pretty well but utterly fails the poor. We don’t need independence or even any more devolution to do something about this, I noted, we could do it now. We could have done it at any point in the past 15 years. We’ve just chosen not to.
Responding to this small suggestion one of the high priestesses of the Yes movement said, yeah, yeah, yeah that’s all very well and good but we can’t really be expected to do much about this because, come on, it’s all about the inequality isn’t it? And since the inequality cannot be fixed without independence so it follows we can’t really do very much about education. Not now. Not yet. It’s just not important enough.
An awkward truth dawned upon me: these people don’t care. You’d think they would but they don’t. Not really. I can’t think when I last heard Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon or John Swinney or even, eek, Mike Russell really talk about schools in a sense that suggested they were in anyway appalled – or even peeved – by Scotland’s educational apartheid.
You could understand this reticence before the referendum. Why do anything that might upset Scotland’s powerful teaching unions and all the other vested public sector interests from whom you hoped to win support for independence? A grubby piece of politics, to be sure, but nothing you wouldn’t expect. But what’s the excuse now?
OK: let’s be fair. This isn’t just an SNP failing. It’s a Labour failure too. And a Liberal Democrat failure. And even a Tory failure. They’ve each had a chance to do something and none of them have really done so. A collective failure, then, that should shame – and damn – an entire generation of Scottish politicians just as surely as it has failed an entire generation of Scottish children. But, hey ho, we’re Scottish and we do things differently here. So that’s fine.
Except it isn’t. The evidence, I am afraid, is incontrovertible. Scotland’s educational “gold standard” is supposed to be five Highers in S5. Last year a pupil attending one of the country’s leading state schools was 50 times as likely to reach that standard than a pupil educated at the worst performing state schools.
In Glasgow only 8 percent of state-educated pupils passed five Highers in S5. There were 14 schools in which fewer than one in 20 pupils passed five Highers and two in which not a single pupil reached that mark. At Govan High, no pupil in S5 passed even three Highers and there were five other schools in which fewer than one in ten kids achieved three Higher passes. In other words, in the poorest districts of Scotland’s largest city a state-educated kid has about a one in ten chance – if they’re lucky – of leaving school with the qualifications needed to attend university.
I wrote about this in The Times today (vexingly the article does not appear online) but what use is “free” university tuition to children who never have a chance of getting to university in the first-place? It’s not just a Glasgow problem either. There are schools in Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen in which, some years, no kids pass five Highers and in which, in most years, almost no child reaches the ballyhooed “gold standard”.
A couple of years ago, just 220 children from the poorest 20 percent of families (as determined by Scottish government figures) reached the AAA standard at Higher. In Dundee just five children from deprived backgrounds got, forgive me, a Triple A rating. Five.
But, look, it’s not fair to consider exam results in isolation. Education, faith, is a drawing out and not a putting in. Sure. We all know failure has a hundred fathers (some of them absent) and we all know that the further down the socio-economic scale you travel the harder it is for children to fulfil their potential. That’s rather the point of education reform, you see. It’s not a cause for the affluent – they will be fine – but, rather, for the poor. The people whose children, according to international tests, perform as well as kids in Turkey.
Of course exam results aren’t everything but they are still something. It’s sometimes estimated that 20 percent of Scottish children leave school with what are tenderly described as literacy “issues”. The new Curriculum for Excellence might change that (let’s hope so) but the previous system also, I believe, encouraged children to learn to read and write and count. And yet many, far too many, fail to do so.
University isn’t for everyone, sure, and Highers aren’t either. So let’s see what we find in earlier years. Here too the divide between the best state schools and the worst is wincingly wide. At Castlemilk High School, for instance, 69 percent of the S4 year group achieved five awards at SCQF Level 4 last year. That sounds ok! Until you realise that, according to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework itself, Level 4 is broadly equivalent to a GCSE at grades D-G.
Level 5 in Scotland is the approximate equivalent of passing GCSEs at grades A-C. And here we discover that only 14 percent of children at Castlemilk High achieved five passes at Level 5. I don’t mean to pick on Castlemilk, by the way, I chose it as an illustration of the scale of the problem. Results from Drumchapel, Govan and Springburn are just as depressing. In Glasgow as a whole a mere 27 percent of pupils reach Level 5 in at least five subjects. Across the whole of Scotland a mere 38 percent of children do so. There’s plenty of squandered potential in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh too. Plenty of wasted talent in rural Scotland as well. (And the results from rural Scotland should put an end to the lie that private education – used by five percent of Scots – distorts the overall figures.)
There’s always a reason, of course, why we cannot make comparisons between different parts of the UK. Hell, we’re not even supposed to make comparisons between schools operating in the same system are we? That would be invidious. That might mean we had to label some schools ungood. And we can’t have that. Not when we can otherwise pretend everything is fine. But however generous you are and however many allowances you make it is simply no longer credible to claim that the poorest third of Scottish children are receiving the education they need.
There has to be a better way. There must be a better way. Fortunately, there is a better way. We could, just for once, peer south of the border and learn from what’s been happening in England these past 20 years. The Scottish education establishment – the McBlob – hates Michael Gove even more than its English counterpart does. It sneers at the “chaos” in English schools just as it loftily declared itself uninterested in the academy movement pioneered by Andrew Adonis during the last Labour government and just as it turned-up its nose at the City Technology Colleges introduced by Kenneth Baker a generation ago. We would continue to do things differently in Scotland and it that means doing things worse then so be it. That’s a price we’re willing to pay for Scottish exceptionalism and hell mend the kids whose potential is squandered along the way. Ain’t we the unco’ guid?
It is awkward, then, that Academies work. Doubly awkward that the people for whom they work most are the poorest parts of society. The people, frankly, for whom we need education to work the most, not the least. Because education is an answer to inequality and educational apartheid a leading cause of it. Leaving this generation of children behind risks ensuring their own children will be left behind. It becomes a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle of disappointment, squandered opportunity and wasted human capital.
The best Academies and Free Schools change this. They break the cycle and build something new and better. The poster-schools for reform are now quite well-known. They include King Solomon Academy in London – where 50% of children qualify for free school meals, a measure of deprivation broadly comparable to that found at Govan and Castlemilk in Glasgow – but 93 percent of kids in its first GCSE class passed five GCSEs, including Maths and English, at grades A-C. There’s Mossbourne Academy too, where 80 percent of pupils, many of whom don’t speak English at home, achieved at least five good GCSE s and from which pupils regularly graduate to attend Cambridge, Oxford and other Russell Group universities.
And there’s Perry Beeches in Birmingham where, in 2007 just 21% of children got five good GCSEs but where in 2011 74 percent did and, this year, 100 percent passed at least five GCSEs and 77 percent did so including Maths and English. Forty percent of Perry Beeches children qualify for free school meals. Its intake is, broadly speaking, as poor as the intake at Govan High. Its results are from a different planet.
So what’s to be done? Credit the Scottish Tories with at least beginning to address these issues. The party launches a pamphlet today highlighting some of these issues. (I’ve contributed to it, making many of the same point I make here.) But this is an opportunity for Scottish Labour too. A chance to show how and why public sector reform is desperately needed, not by the middle classes, but for the poorest communities in Scotland. They are the places least well served by the current system; the places that most need real change.
I think that despite many well-intentioned efforts to change things we’re still failing far too many children in Scotland. There are endless government programmes designed to help close the attainment gap; few, if any, are having any great impact. The Scottish government’s own analysis of the 2009 Pisa tests concluded that “while socio-economic status is as likely as in other countries to affect students, the effect it has is likely to be greater than in other countries”. In other words, relatively-speaking, it is better to be poor in other countries than to be poor in Scotland.
Ministers boast of annual improvements across the country. Many of these improvements are tiny. Audit Scotland reported this summer that, in the last decade, performance in Glasgow City had increased by six percent. At least that showed some improvement, however modest. In terms of S4 achievement, schools in Aberdeenshire, East Lothian and Angus actually regressed between 2004 and 2013. Across ten different attainment measures the chasm in performance between the best and worst performing councils decreased in five, increased in four and remained the same in one. In other words, broadly speaking, the overall picture is the same as it was ten years ago. It is a picture which reveals that the children of refugees and asylum seekers do almost as well as school as white, male, Scottish pupils.
Nor is this simply a matter of finance. As Audit Scotland concluded, “Spending more money on education does not guarantee better pupil performance”.
But we could, perhaps, ask England’s leading Academy providers to come to Scotland and see what they can do here. The good news is that Scotland is a small place. Problems of scale matter less. There are only 350 or so secondary schools in the whole country. So let’s start – so as not to scare people more than they desperately need to be scared – small. With, say, a dozen schools with sponsors and run by leading English academy chains. It is hard to see how they could do much worse than the current system. And if they do well? Well, perhaps then we could imagine a time in the not too distant future when Scotland did once again enjoy an education system about which we could boast, of which we could be proud.
It’s not the kid’s fault they’re failing. The failure is on us. So let’s do this. Ok?