children from disadvantaged backgrounds should be given booster lessons to bring them to the same level as their peers, according to a senior academic.
Linda Croxford of Edinburgh University's Centre for Edu-cational Sociology believes teaching children to their ability does not iron out inequalities in education. Speaking at a conference in the capital this week on whether Scotland is rising to the challenge of delivering "world-class education", she said social disadvantages must be countered as soon as possible or they would become cumulative throughout a child's life.
Dr Croxford told delegates that Scottish children should benefit from a world-class education: "At the moment, that is not the case, in my view.
Although Scotland's education system is very successful in raising academic attainment, there is social inequality and people are not reaching their full potential.
"These inequalities are evident in the early stages of schooling and they have a cumulative effect that leads to inequal opportunities after school."
Her conclusions were based on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which studied education and youth transitions in England, Wales and Scotland from 1984 to 2002. It used data from the Scottish School Leavers' Study.
Despite Scotland having a higher rate of school-leavers entering higher education, Dr Croxford said children who started both primary and secondary school with low skill levels did not make as much progress as others. They were also more likely to come from less educated families, to qualify for free school meals and to end up in the Neet (not in education, employment or training) category.
"There is no narrowing of the social gap over time,' she said. "There is a cumulative effect over time, and their early experience of school can include early failure. We should be looking at the problem right from the early years and addressing the inequality at the earliest possible stage, and that means more one-to-one support."
Dr Croxford warned, however, that setting by ability could exacerbate the problem by contributing to low teacher expectation. A flexible curriculum could also disadvantage those who did not have support at home, while benefiting those who did. Children should be exposed to active teaching and treated more like adults.
Also speaking at the conference, Ann Grieve, director of the professional development unit at Strathclyde University, outlined her vision of the 21st-century teacher who should not simply deliver subjects. "Perhaps teachers for excellence should be facilitators for learning, in order to maximise the potential of an individual - not necessarily seek to impose learning," she said, stressing the importance of continuing professional development for teachers to expose themselves to critical thinking. "CPD should empower teachers and help them develop a critically reflective approach to teaching."