Poverty study slammed

24th September 2010 at 01:00
Education directors: charity's attainment gap campaign `cynical' and `verging on libellous'

A leading children's charity which sought to highlight the attainment gap between affluent and deprived children has been attacked by education authorities for its "amateurish and cynical" approach. One education director went so far as to describe its campaign as "verging on the libellous".

A Save the Children media campaign last week denounced a "scandalous" 60 per cent gap in national attainment between S4 pupils entitled to free meals and those who were not. The figures were based on an analysis of Scottish Government statistics for 2008-09.

But angry education directors have retaliated, criticising the charity for not showing how its figures compared to previous years, or acknowledging initiatives to tackle the problem.

They were also upset by individual versions of the news release for media in each local authority, all describing the local situation as "scandalous" no matter how small the gap.

Leslie Manson, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and Orkney's education director, said the release was "telling us what we already know" and had left "a lot of people feeling particularly bruised, to no advantage".

Orkney's figures, like everywhere else, were described by the charity as "scandalous", yet at 22 per cent the authority recorded the second- smallest gap in Scotland, behind Western Isles Council at 19 per cent.

Mr Manson described the charity's approach as "amateurish, cynical and undiscriminating".

Glasgow City Council's education director, Maureen McKenna, a former HMIE inspector who developed the inspectorate's approaches to analysing attainment data to take account of deprivation, wrote to Douglas Hamilton, Save the Children's head of Scotland, complaining that the reliance on free meals data represented a "rudimentary approach to statistical interpretation . verging on the libellous".

A city council spokeswoman said much had been done to bridge the authority's education gap. Measures included supported study, early intervention and award-winning nurture groups. Glasgow pupils this year posted the city's best-ever exam results.

West Dunbartonshire education director Terry Lanagan, whose authority is involved in a long-term partnership with Save the Children to help disadvantaged families, also questioned the reliability of the analysis, but said the charity's statements should be interpreted as those of an experienced pressure group.

Save the Children policy officer Claire Telfer conceded that the school meals data was not an ideal tool, but it was the best available.

The aim had been to achieve political support for the charity's Better Odds campaign, calling on the Scottish Government to close the attainment gap. That was achieved, she argued, when Labour education spokesman Des McNulty submitted a parliamentary motion urging Government action, with support from 18 MSPs.

Save the Children's figures show attainment gaps ranging from 19 per cent in the Western Isles to 102 per cent in Stirling. Even in demographically similar authorities, there are wide variations: 40 per cent in Glasgow and 91 in Dundee; 22 per cent in Orkney and 89 in Shetland.

A spokesman for Western Isles Council said its figures might be partly explained by relatively small differences in residents' incomes, as well as good early-years work, high levels of inclusion, good support for special needs and strong internal quality assurance.

A Stirling Council spokeswoman pointed to the area's "very polarised" social demographic nature. Innovative work to bridge the gap included nurture groups and the Big Noise project, which started an orchestra in the Raploch estate.

Glasgow University's Stephen McKinney, Stuart Hall and Kevin Lowden, who with Glasgow City Council are examining links between deprivation and attainment, welcomed Save the Children's efforts to highlight the issue.

They stressed, however, that its figures would be more useful within longitudinal studies. School meals figures on their own were a "fairly blunt" statistical tool since they did not indicate the level of poverty, which could explain regional variations. They would be more useful if analysed alongside data from the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, said Dr McKinney on behalf of the research team.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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