Educational equality? Give it 30 more years

27th March 2015 at 00:00
Landmark report says attainment gap won't close for three decades

Closing the attainment gap between Scotland's most deprived young people and their classmates could take almost three more decades, according to a landmark report.

Progress in addressing educational inequality has been too slow and education should be more of a focus in the poverty agenda, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report argues.

Although the gap in attainment between the 20 per cent of children from the most deprived backgrounds and the most affluent 20 per cent has closed slightly, the social development charity highlights that the "rate of progress is slow".

Looking at student attainment trends between 2005-06 and 2012-13, the report concludes that it would take 14 more years for the most deprived young people to catch up with the "middle fifth" - or 28 years for them to be achieving as well as their classmates from the most affluent families.

The findings, which were published yesterday, come just days after the Scottish government launched the Education (Scotland) Bill, which focuses on raising attainment levels among the country's young people by placing extra duties on local authorities to ensure that the gap is being narrowed.

Tackling educational inequality was "at the heart of this government's work", education secretary Angela Constance said.

"Our bill underlines our expectations of local councils in the process of addressing educational inequality. Specifically, the bill will place a statutory duty on councils to narrow the attainment gap and introduce a new requirement for councils and ministers to report on progress in achieving that."

Earlier this year, the Scottish government announced its four-year attainment challenge. This is based on the London Challenge, which transformed the educational fortunes of the UK capital.

"Although it is equivalent to less than 1 per cent of the schools budget, the pound;100 million over four years attached to the new programme is a big step," the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report stresses. "The challenge now is to deliver."

Even though levels of child poverty in Scotland were significantly lower in 2012-13 than in 1996-97, the most recently available attainment statistics show no room for complacency, the report says.

Fluctuations in attainment recorded in 2012-13 mean it is "essential to be vigilant to the possibility that this may be the start of a turn for the worse which, if left unchecked, would squander the gains made in Scotland over 15 years", it adds.

John Holland McKendrick, a senior lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, said that current projections suggested poverty would increase in the "foreseeable future", adding: "There will be more child poverty in Scotland."

Dr McKendrick said he was not convinced that completely closing the attainment gap would ever be possible. "The problem we have is the size of the gap and the persistence of the types of people who are not achieving. There is a lot of interest and a lot of work being done, so the challenge is to find out what works and to give the level of resource required," he said.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union - which organised a conference on child poverty earlier this year - told TESS that the report confirmed previous evidence. "This chimes with all the previous research. This is why [reducing inequality] has to be a priority if we want to close the attainment gap," he said.

"I think the attainment gap can be reduced. But I think there is a point where schools by themselves cannot combat the impact of poverty in society. There is no room for complacency, but schools in and of themselves cannot resolve poverty."

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, educational inequality is one of the central challenges in the fight against poverty and social exclusion. It states: "The challenge is to bring education further into the debate on poverty, including the recognition that it is about more than just academic qualifications."

The foundation urges the government to ensure that all schools have access to "timely attainment data so [they] can develop effective approaches to reduce the gap based on evidence".

"Proven teaching methods such as peer-tutoring and one-to-one tutoring, study skills, mentoring opportunities and working with parents on supporting children's learning at home can also help those from poorer families," it adds.

Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: "Falls in child and pensioner poverty over the past decade in Scotland show that poverty can be reduced."

But, she added, "sustained action must be taken to stop a lack of high-quality work and a shortage of affordable homes from trapping a generation of young people in poverty".

Poor - and excluded

Student exclusion rates can also be an indicator of poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report finds.

Among the most deprived fifth of pupils, the exclusion rate is 65 per 1,000 students, but among the most affluent fifth, the figure falls to 10 per 1,000 students.

And the gulf continues after school: 57 per cent of students from the highest quintile moved on to higher education, compared with just 20 per cent of students from the most deprived quintile.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today