European research reveals Scottish culture of 'giving up' on disadvantaged pupils

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
Teachers divide classes into the `good' and the `bad' within first 10 hours, says OECD education chief

Teachers in Scotland are "giving up" on students from poor backgrounds who they believe are incapable of achieving academic success, according to an international education expert.

The controversial comments came from Dirk Van Damme, head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's centre for educational research and innovation. He said research had shown that teachers divided their classrooms into "good" and "bad" students after the first 10 hours of teaching.

"Educational success is defined by academic success in Scotland," he told a conference on the future of secondary schooling, organised by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and supported by The TESS. "It may be the case that some teachers really think these students will never be capable of achieving the academic success they have in mind, and they are just giving up."

This happened everywhere in the world, stressed Mr Van Damme, who was a member of the OECD team which produced the 2007 report, Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland. But it was a particularly important factor when it came to explaining why, in Scotland, children from poor families often performed badly at school, or, as they put it in the OECD report: "In Scotland, who you are is far more important than what school you attend".

By contrast, in Finland, Canada and South Korea, schools succeeded in bringing poorer pupils up to a higher level of performance. He reiterated one of the key findings in the OECD report, which was that most of the difference in student achievement is attributable to performance within schools, not variations between schools. The latter represents only 10 per cent of the difference in achievement in Scotland, compared with 50 per cent in the Netherlands.

The OECD report suggested that the challenge for Scotland was therefore "not, in the main, unequal access to good schools - as if there were wide variations in schools' quality - but unequal capacity to use good schools well".

Mr Van Damme argued that giving Scottish headteachers more autonomy was a key part of the solution. "This means more power and more opportunity to do badly, but Scotland has most of the conditions in place. Scottish school leaders are very capable of guiding their schools and managing them in a more autonomous way."

The biggest problem with the Scottish system, however, was complacency, said Mr Van Damme. "Scottish education is doing very well, but in a little bit of a conservative way," he said. "People like things to stay the same. If they believe they are good, why change it?"

But while Scottish schools were egalitarian, they were not equitable, he continued. "Real equity is treating differences differently," he commented. "Egalitarianism is one-size-fits-all".

There should be "more ways to educational success than doing academic subjects", he said, adding that Scotland needed more vocational training.


The conference heard an upbeat assessment of education performance from Michael Kellet, deputy director in the Scottish Government's teachers division.

He cited figures which showed that 69.8 per cent of Scottish pupils achieved the equivalent of a GCSE pass at English, while just 60.2 per cent of pupils south of the border did so; 57 per cent of Scottish pupils achieved a similar standard in science, against 51.3 per cent in England; and in modern languages 48.6 per cent of Scottish pupils got the equivalent of a GCSE pass, compared to 30.9 per cent of English pupils.

These figures are, however, three years old. They also disguise the fact that the Scottish performance in English represented a 0.8 per cent decline on the 1999 figures, but a 7.5 per cent rise south of the border; and a 3.7 per cent fall in science performance in Scotland, compared with a 5.6 per cent increase in England. Modern language scores showed a decrease of 1.8 per cent in Scotland and 8.3 per cent in England.

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