Structural reform of education is the only way to tackle deep-seated inequalities in society, but the opposition parties are failing to rise to the challenge, Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute, told a conference in Edinburgh organised as part of the recently launched Campaign for Learning.
The "new right" had appreciated the need to change structures, Professor Paterson said, with parental choice, markets for public services and even wholesale privatisation. "But we look in vain at the educational policies of the other parties for any radical ideas on structure, ideas that might deliberately and systematically tackle the effects of social disadvantage.
"We tend to get from these parties the defence of the structures which Scotland has been putting in place for the past three decades."
He said that since the 1960s comprehensive education had reduced inequalities in attainment and opened the way to the expansion of higher education. But the pace of change was slow and over more than a single generation. Today's parents, who enjoyed better education, pass that experience on to their children in the form of higher aspirations.
Accepting and defending past changes would allow the continuous but slow widening of opportunity, Professor Paterson claimed, but "it hardly inspires hope that gross social inequalities will be ameliorated significantly".
The conference, on "Poverty - the real barrier to lifelong learning", was organised by the Scottish Community Education Council, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and The TES Scotland.
Among the barriers, according to Professor Paterson, was student debt. There is no evidence that social origins affect a student's performance in higher education, but lack of money does. Half of students are in debt when they graduate, and about 60 per cent of withdrawals are for reasons other than exam failure. Some students might drop out because they had to take part-time jobs.
Elizabeth Maginnis, education spokesperson for Cosla, told the conference that her own daughter was likely to drop out for financial reasons. "She gets Pounds 21 in grant a year. She has ended up like many of her friends working far too many hours to ensure she can eat and put a roof over her head instead of studying."
Mrs Maginnis, who described early intervention reading strategies in deprived areas of Edinburgh, where she is education convener, said that the emphasis in primary schools had to be on reading. Otherwise some people would in later life hit every barrier to learning.
"Lifelong learning begins at the earliest possible age," Mrs Maginnis said. "No one should be under any illusion that we must create the circumstances as early as possible to allow them to succeed."
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