Positive signs on the road to greater equity

1st February 2008 at 00:00
The biggest issue facing our education system is the effect of low socio-economic status - a wider concept than poverty alone. As the report on Scottish schooling from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development made clear, who you are in Scotland matters more than what school you go to.

Many will say there is nothing new in this, and it didn't need the OECD to tell us. There is an element of truth in that, so why is its report so important?

First, I believe it draws together in a convincing narrative a great deal of Scottish experience and expertly uses the statistics. Second, I believed - given the extent of the reform agenda we were pursuing - the need for further change could best be advanced if there was external stimulus; now we have one. Third, and perhaps most important, the report arrives at a time when we have strengthened many of the foundations of our system to the point where we can take action to lift us to the next level.

But, despite the recognition given to the needs of deprived communities, the resources flowing to schools in those areas differ little from their advantaged neighbours. The challenge goes wider, and many pupils are casualties in some of our least challenged communities: our problems are not confined to areas of deprivation.

Governments and local authorities need to skew national and local resources to where the challenges are greatest. And headteachers need additional freedoms to direct more of their resources to those who need them most.

Scotland's education system, sitting within a nation which has prided itself on its concern for social justice, needs to admit in all its policies that equity in opportunity just isn't enough.

However, this is not all about resources. It is as much about culture and the practice that follows the acceptance of new thinking. Part of the answer lies in the notion of anticipatory education and support. We can predict to a high degree those who will struggle most. We know about family backgrounds, we see siblings and how they perform, we can establish the education parents have had, and we understand much about communities. There are close connections to health and the anticipatory health-care models being developed.

The total approach we have to adopt will need to embrace a range of things, which the OECD alluded to. It will be about:

- curriculum and wider curriculum choices;

- more personalised learning and support packages;

- changes to qualifications;

- training teachers to teach differently and better those we know will struggle most;

- ensuring secondary teachers in particular move beyond teaching subjects to teaching and supporting the whole child;

- reducing class sizes for key learning purposes, not just to meet nationally prescribed class maxima;

- better home-school links;

- new ways to bring support from outside the school and alongside teachers; and

- using our inspection system to support and validate experimentation, not causing or being used as a shield for conformity.

These are challenges across the whole system and to established interests, including those of political parties. Local authorities need to be prepared to let go and move to enable and facilitate schools, away from any sense of command and control, while growing their role in quality assurance. Teacher organisations need to embrace greater local flexibility, so teachers and heads can agree to operate widely varying class sizes in the interests of securing greater equity in outcomes.

Peter Peacock, MSP and former Scottish Education Minister, in the second of five articles on the state of Scottish education.

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