Legislation is not the key to raising attainment

Legislation is not the key to raising attainment

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Tuesday 31, March, 2015

LAST WEEK, the Scottish Government published its new education bill. It appears to have been met with a less than enthusiastic response within the educational establishment. 

This is not because the central aim of the bill is wrong – far from it. The sizeable attainment gap which exists between pupils from poorer backgrounds and those from wealthier backgrounds is acknowledged right across the political spectrum as being the most entrenched and most serious problem in Scottish education. Everyone accepts that it needs to be addressed before any more generations of young people are badly let down by the system.

However, if the newly published bill is to have its desired aim it will need to be radically reformed.

For a start, the Scottish Government seems to think that it is both sensible and desirable to legislate to force local authorities to meet specific targets when it comes to closing the attainment gap. We have seen a similar policy intention in the higher education sector whereby universities will be required to ensure that 20 per cent of their academic intake comes from the 20 per cent poorest students. 

Several things are wrong with this legislative approach. Setting an arithmetic target is no guarantee whatsoever that you will deliver the qualitative change that is required. Indeed, I would put money on the likelihood that the bill in its current form is going to give the Scottish Government a major headache. If it forces local authorities, by law, to reduce inequalities of educational outcome in their schools, how will it measure this? What will happen to those local authorities who cannot meet their legal requirements? 

To quote one expert, the proposed legislation is likely to be “a futile exercise” and become a distraction from where the most important work needs to be done. These comments were made by Professor Lindsay Paterson (pictured) whose academic work – just like that of other educational experts such as Keir Bloomer and Sue Ellis – has demonstrated, over a long period of time, just how much he cares about closing the attainment gap. With their track record, these experts need to be listened to.

Secondly, there is a huge problem with data. We know what proportion of pupils living in the most deprived fifth of Scotland go into higher education, and we also know the same for pupils living in the most deprived two-fifths. Yet, it seems we don't know the accurate, corresponding proportions in the other three-fifths. Similarly, if we want to include all those who go on to university later in life, as many now do in an age when the articulation between colleges and university courses is becoming much more flexible and more appealing to mature students, we don’t seem to have the necessary data. But, there is another, related issue.

Even if we are unable to find accurate statistics for the wealthier three-fifths, we do know from what schools and universities tell us, that demand for places from these students far outweighs the demand from those in the poorer income groups. 

This matters because it has a very significant impact on higher education places. Simple arithmetic tells us that you cannot increase the percentage share of existing places going to poorer students without having a significant impact on wealthier students. They get squeezed in the system unless, of course, you go on providing more and more university places. That costs a lot of money, it creates more problems, and there remains a big question-mark over the educational wisdom of supplying more and more university places.

Thirdly, the bill as it stands just now, seems to be much more about how local authorities in Scotland will be expected to handle the reporting process which is designed to tell the Scottish Government what they are doing to measure attainment.  Perhaps, it would be better if the focus of the bill was on helping schools to deliver improved attainment.

It is a strange mistake for the Scottish Government to make, given the First Minister’s interest in and praise for the ‘London Model’. The model’s greatest success was not designing overly bureaucratic reporting and national measurements, but putting the task of improving pupil attainment into the hands of teachers – the very people who are best placed to make the correct professional judgment about whether standards in their school are rising or falling. It also engaged parents and, crucially, schools were allowed “to do their own thing” and to learn from others in their own local area about what worked and what didn’t work. If they failed – and some did – they learnt very quickly from their mistakes. They were not governed by punitive legislation.

As things stand, the Scottish Government’s new bill is very top down in its approach, yet again reverting to the one-size fits all philosophy which seems to be the overriding mantra of the Sturgeon government. This is at odds, not only with what happened in London, but also with the Curriculum for Excellence which encourages much greater curricular diversity, more freedom of thought and the facility for schools, on an individual basis to try out what works for them.

Everyone in Scotland wants schools to raise attainment, most especially for those pupils in the more deprived areas. The current bill however, places the emphasis on process rather than on substance and we know from past experience what that can mean for hard pressed local authorities.

There is plenty time for the bill to amended. Lets’ hope some common sense will prevail.

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