Our eyes are shut to the realities of poverty
"Who you are in Scotland is far more important than what school you attend," observed the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development a few years back. In 14 words, it nailed a social divide that means poorer children fall far behind their peers even before they start primary school.
Still, at least we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that plenty of people are doing something about poverty. Or perhaps not. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed a subtle but shocking truth: almost without exception, no one can tell whether projects addressing this educational gap have done any good.
Millions of pounds of expenditure and countless hours of hard work by teachers and other professionals have been undermined by the failure to build up a credible evidence base. This covers all manner of well-intentioned and lauded initiatives of recent memory, among them Schools of Ambition, Determined to Succeed, Assessment is for Learning, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, the work of support for learning teachers, university access programmes, phonics-based approaches and the Bookbug programme.
The report, Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education, is measured but scathing. "On the whole, most interventions have not been robustly evaluated to determine their impact on attainment, so we do not know which are worth continuing or scaling up," it states.
The researchers, University of Strathclyde's Dr Edward Sosu and Dr Sue Ellis, appear almost incredulous. "The lack of routine focus on poverty seems inexplicable, given that poverty is the biggest factor associated with academic failure," they say.
This leaves a dearth of knowledge to guide teachers in helping the fifth of children - between 150,000 and 200,000, depending on the criteria used - living in poverty in Scotland. Even more worryingly, the report finds that well-meaning but poorly informed teachers may "negatively amplify" the damage that poverty causes, and some projects may be "declared successful when actually they enshrine existing disadvantage". There are bound to be small projects that are effective, "but it is difficult to identify them because evidence of impact on attainment is not easy to find or has not been systematically documented".
Fads and quick fixes
All this leaves professional development vulnerable to what the report calls "fads" and "quick-fix solutions", while evaluations of school-based action research can, it says, be "skewed" by a lone teacher's enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the researchers say that poverty is "virtually invisible" in the policy and curriculum documents that guide the work of schools.
"There is more talk about poverty at a national level but not that much actually happening," says Louise Wilson, assistant secretary of the EIS teaching union, which has been running a campaign against child poverty. "And I am not hearing of much coming out of local authorities. In fact, anecdotally, I am hearing about cuts to things like breakfast clubs."
Education Scotland, however, points to recent improvements in the lowest-performing schools. It insists that inspections consider the "nature and context" of each school and hold them up against comparator schools in similar circumstances. "We have identified schools and authorities that buck poverty pressures and we share the information we glean from these with schools in similar situations," a spokeswoman adds.
The School Improvement Partnership Programme (SIPP), highlighted by Education Scotland, attempts to drive up attainment through close work between schools and local authorities. Professor Chris Chapman, director of the University of Glasgow's Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, says that SIPP marks a significant departure from projects such as Schools of Ambition because it is "much more focused and sophisticated" in exploring how to change teachers' practice.
If the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were to commission a similar report in five years, Chapman believes the findings would be very different. Collaborations between schools and university researchers are increasingly common and Scottish education is moving away from one-off CPD presented by "gurus" whose advice is swiftly forgotten in the classroom.
Reframing the debate
How to bridge the poverty gap in education is not a complete mystery. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation emphasises international research that identifies benefits from, for example, full-day nursery education, academically focused after-school activities and projects that help parents to support their children's learning practically.
The charity has called for Scotland to stop skirting around the edges of poverty. It claims that the government should analyse how disadvantage affects the results of specific groups of children, rather than focusing on general attainment.
Education Scotland's guidance for self-evaluation, How Good is Our School?, must also change, according to the charity. The report says that at present poverty is alluded to only in quality indicators, adding. "Making poverty a more routine and central part of the inspection agenda would both raise the profile of poverty issues and increase the knowledge base about what works".
It recommends a national "knowledge bank", which should be "underpinned by clear principles of what constitutes robust knowledge, to sufficiently inform national, local authority and school-level interventions".
But schools must not wait for others to act. They can take the lead by prioritising the mitigating of poverty in their planning. "It is, after all, the factor that has the biggest impact on attainment," the report notes pointedly.
Schools face an uncomfortable truth, however. No matter how hard they try to boost the chances of pupils from poor families, forces beyond their control may exert a bigger influence in the opposite direction.
Household income has a direct impact on educational attainment, the report finds. If families are struggling to make ends meet, this will "limit the capacity of education on its own to make a difference". A crucial message for Scotland is that closing the attainment gap "must involve concrete strategies that increase income levels to families living in poverty".
Wilson from the EIS assesses anti-poverty education projects more bluntly: "My personal view is that you're not going to make a hell of a lot of a difference if you're not going to have a fair and more equal society."
Hungry, dirty, ill, absent: the telltale signs of poverty
The EIS teaching union recently asked members how poverty was manifesting in schools. Here, TESS shares some of the teachers' comments.
"Grubby children. Parents not able to provide PE kit.Packed-lunch boxes have fewer items. No school bags or stationery. On dress-down days, more children unable to pay a 50p donation to charity."
"More children spend longer in after-school care as both parents try to work longer hours. This means parents spend less time with their children and homework is not supervised. Pupils are more frequently coming to school in unwashed and unclean states. Outbreaks of nits and so on are more frequent and prolonged."
"Poor hygiene. Lack of tuck, which has led to stealing from each other. No gym kit."
"Increase in poor attendance. Low-paid families who are not entitled to free school meals struggling to pay.and ending up in debt to the school. Children not able to afford fundraising events in school - for instance, dress-down days, school discos. These are optional but it's upsetting and embarrassing for children who can't afford to take part."
"Stealing food, toys, pencils and so on."
"Lots of children coming to school with no snacks for break and shoes that have holes in them or the soles coming off. I've used the school glue gun to fix them."
"Children appearing pale day after day, so not a one-off illness."
"Parents telling us they are struggling - for example, with the bedroom tax."
"The number of children learning to play an instrument or dance has dropped; holidays are the `hame'll do me' variety; comments like `We aren't having Christmas this year' and `It costs too much to get there' when chatting about the fact that [entrance to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery] is free."
"More sickness than before, as children aren't as clean or healthy as they once were."
"Life experiences are narrowing for those pupils unable to participate in educational outings. Hungry children are less attentive and more restless, leading to poor behaviour and reduced attainment levels."
"Children whose parents are involved in illegal ways of earning money.Selling their toys is becoming an acceptable way of living."
"More families are coming to us requesting referral to a food bank. Many families really desperate to give their children Christmas presents."
"We run a week's summer school for students about to start S1. We used to offer this free of charge, but budget cuts meant that ceased to be sustainable. Although we strive to keep the costs as low as possible (pound;10) and tell parents that help is available if this is a problem, I know that some parents have not sent their children because of the cost - inevitably, it is those children who would probably most benefit."
"Some severe behaviour issues beginning in P1, with more children than ever needing one-to-one support to complete a full day in school."
"[Children's] world is getting narrower and their natural sense of adventure and ambition is being curtailed. Conversations reflect despair at their chances in life because they do not see a way out of the position they are in. Sadly, I think that many do not believe that their teachers can help them."