Poverty dulls success

Neil Munro

Schools must raise their game and be less 'conservative', a leading expert tells The TESS.The Scottish school system "shines at both a national and international level", according to the man leading the group of international experts who have just run their rule over how it is performing.

But Richard Teese, of the University of Melbourne in Australia, has concluded that schools are not doing well for all young people, particularly in secondaries. The achievement gap between the poorest performing pupils and the rest remains as wide as ever, with poverty the main factor driving a wedge between the two groups.

Professor Teese's report, which was commissioned from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development by the previous Scottish Executive, paints a dispiriting picture of schools pulled down by the weight of disadvantage suffered by their pupils.

The report reveals that every third primary pupil and every fifth secondary student lives in poverty. One consequence is that every second child in S2 in Glasgow under-achieves in reading.

Talking to The TESS, Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, acknowledged that "the scale of the challenge is huge". But she suggested the OECD report, which she presented to Cabinet on Tuesday, vindicated the Government's early intervention strategy, where health, housing and skills agencies will be expected to join with education to tackle poverty, build "resilience" in families to help them cope - and so close the achievement gap.

Professor Teese's answer to the challenge is that schools and education authorities must be "freed up" to boost standards, but in a way that is less prescriptive than at present and which acknowledges differing ways of doing so. He extolled the collaborative learning he had witnessed in North Lanarkshire, applied learning, vocational studies for all and problem-based approaches. "It's a case of 'set high standards, but take different routes'. If the kids are bored by algebra, don't teach it. Maths teachers have to respond to that, as I'm sure some do," he said.

Ms Hyslop said these views were in line with the Government's strategies for skills and for giving local councils more autonomy while holding their performance to account on key "outcomes".

Professor Teese cited as "shining" features of the Scottish system the lack of reliance on private schools, a truly comprehensive approach, a "fantastic" induction system, dedicated teachers and excellent professional development for staff. But, added: "Many kids are not being looked after enough, because the system is centred on qualifications not on quality of learning. It's a very conservative system, and has to change."

Report in detail p4.

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Neil Munro

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