`Poverty progress has been painfully slow'

19th December 2014 at 00:00
Efforts to close attainment gap just aren't working, experts warn

Politicians must stop basing strategies for improving the attainment of Scotland's poorest pupils on "intuitively appealing and naive misunderstandings" that fail to address all the issues, a leading academic has said.

Sue Ellis, an expert on the link between poverty and academic performance, pleaded with political parties to look at the evidence when devising schemes to narrow the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

The University of Strathclyde professor claimed that national advice on literacy was often misguided and that programmes such as Literacy Across Learning failed to recognise that issues with reading and writing went beyond English classes.

Pupils were more likely to "hit the buffers" when confronted with subject-specific language in lessons such as chemistry and physics, she said, so programmes should have a far wider focus than English lessons alone.

She pointed out that it was just as important for literacy activities to focus on emotional as well as intellectual engagement. Interventions should be specific, she said, and initiatives such as mentoring schemes should be monitored to ensure that they were effective.

Evidence-based long-term professional development of teachers was also key, she added, and not all schools should be compelled to do the same things.

Speaking last week at an Edinburgh conference on poverty and attainment organised by policy specialists MacKay Hannah, Dr Ellis said: "It breaks my heart that national advice on literacy is not always well-conceived."

Her comments were backed by Jim McCormick, the Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which published a report earlier this year on closing the attainment gap in Scottish education that was co-authored by Dr Ellis (bit.lyRowntreeGap).

Dr McCormick said that some programmes' focus on poor neighbourhoods was "too blunt" because they assumed that all children in poverty lived in deprived areas, whereas only one in three actually did. "The attainment gap exists within every school, so every school needs to own this agenda," he said. "It's got to become the DNA of our system."

He added: "Progress has been painfully slow, inconsistent over time and variable in different parts of Scotland."

The Joseph Rowntree report, entitled Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education, reveals that between 2007 and 2012, the attainment of school-leavers in the most affluent 20 per cent of areas was double that of those from communities in the most disadvantaged 20 per cent.

Yet the report also shows that, almost without exception, no one could confirm if projects designed to address this discrepancy in performance had had a positive impact.

The experts spoke out as first minister Nicola Sturgeon and the newly appointed Labour Party leader Jim Murphy both put attainment high on their agendas.

Ms Sturgeon announced a new literacy and numeracy drive, while Mr Murphy promised to focus "unrelentingly" on the poorest-performing schools if he became first minister.

Education and lifelong learning secretary Angela Constance, who also spoke at the conference, appeared to have taken the experts' warnings on board when she admitted that targeting the worst-performing schools "misunderstands the scale and nature of the attainment problem".

She said: "There are disadvantaged young people in otherwise high-performing schools, so we have to reach out to those in need wherever they are."

Bill Ramsay, convener of the EIS teaching union's equality committee, warned delegates that if teachers were expected to act on evidence and data, they would need to understand it - which would require time. He questioned where this was going to come from.

Dr Ellis responded: "This is not just about more time, but about schools wasting time on misdirected efforts which the evidence shows won't work."

The issues facing those on the front line, however, are set to become more complex - and not only because of the demands on schools. After falling for more than a decade, levels of child poverty in Scotland started to rise again two years ago - up from 15 per cent in 2011-12 to 19 per cent in 2012-13.

Mark Ballard, head of policy at charity Barnardo's Scotland, described poverty as "not only widening but deepening". He claimed this was the result of benefits sanctions and delays in payment, leading to "no income-poverty rather than lowincome poverty". This in turn aggravated existing difficulties such as mental health problems, drug abuse and relationship breakdowns, he said.

Mr Ballard added that schools and services such as Barnardo's, who were now struggling to cope with families in crisis, faced a huge challenge.

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