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Social class leaves its mark

Scotland has long prided itself on its comprehensive school system and high levels of participation in higher education - but how widely are the benefits of education spread?

Scotland has long prided itself on its comprehensive school system and high levels of participation in higher education - but how widely are the benefits of education spread?

Social class remains a major source of inequality, highlighted in the recent OECD review and demonstrated by new analyses of the Scottish School Leavers' Surveys (SSLS). The research provides evidence that key reforms of curriculum and qualifications - the introduction of Standard grade and Higher Still - had positive effects on the attainment of working-class pupils.

However, in spite of these improvements, social class inequalities in attainment at age 18-19 have risen as pupils of higher social class status have increased their levels of advantage in qualifications. The gap is widening - and this should be a cause for concern.

Although ideals of equality and social justice underlie many of these reforms, the increasing emphasis on "quality assurance" and "performance management" creates pressures which can exacerbate inequalities.

A recent study under the Applied Educational Research Scheme (AERS) identified a number of perverse consequences of performance targets. The focus on comparisons between schools takes attention away from the differences within them - an issue also highlighted by the OECD review.

Whatever the merits or drawbacks of performance indicators and targets, they can galvanise action in education, as in other public sectors. Think how the focus of attention on boys' under-achievement was triggered by the publication of data on gender differences.

But statistical data on social class differences is more difficult to find - and the recent decision by the Scottish Government to discontinue the SSLS will make it even more so. Administrative data on entitlement to free school meals and area deprivation will not provide an adequate substitute, because inequalities by social class are far wider than can be measured by the administrative data on poverty. Addressing inequality in education requires us to look at those who gain advantage through the system, as well as those who are disadvantaged by it.

Analyses based on pupils in poverty identifies them as the problem group whose performance needs to be addressed. But the SSLS study, using data on parents' social class, provides a very different perspective by revealing high social class pupils as a very advantaged group who gain most from the education system. It also demonstrates the additional advantages accruing to pupils who attend schools with large proportions of high social class pupils - a situation that is strengthened by parental choice policies.

So, instead of focusing on problem pupils, we must consider problems in the system itself, and ask why it is that the Scottish education system advantages some groups of pupils and disadvantages others? Is it possible that the burden of demonstrating "quality" in education has obscured the goal of "equality"?

Linda Croxford's research report on inequalities in Scottish secondary schooling was published by the Scottish Government last Thursday.

Linda Croxford works at the Centre for Educational Sociology, Edinburgh University.

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