Put your money where the need is
The recent report from the Literacy Commission concluded that pupils' progress "broadly follows socio-economic factors, with poorer areas faring badly". But are we really prepared to respond to the challenge of eradicating the endemic illiteracy which it highlights?
Teachers would confirm that factors external to schools affect children's literacy levels at least as much as experiences in the classroom. In far too many Scottish schools, between 20 and 40 per cent of pupils live in homes which do not have enough books to fill one shelf. During their pre- school years, these youngsters will have heard six million fewer words spoken than children living in more privileged homes.
These same pupils then need to overcome a range of obstacles: a lack of routines leading to inadequate sleep; lower levels of parental input to homework and school work; poorer health leading to higher rates of absence; and lower levels of academic and career aspirations influenced by peer and parental role models. The cumulative effect can be overwhelming.
Dylan Wiliam states that schools do not make a difference to children, but individual teachers do. I am fortunate to have colleagues whose work and relationships with their pupils bring quite astonishing results. I also know how hard they have to work and how physically and emotionally demanding it can become. Doing this for a whole day would stretch many adults. Doing it every day for 40 years would be beyond most. And yet that is what we expect.
Educators are rightly accountable to the public. Yet there is a danger of a widening gap between how success is being measured and the resources we have to succeed, particularly in schools serving areas of socio-economic deprivation. We need to become better at analysing success levels and then be determined to provide the resources required to overcome those factors. If we continue as we are now, the goal to reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots will not be achieved.
As a nation, we spend substantial funds gathering data which are fed into statistical analyses. Sadly, when it comes to socio-economic factors, neither the data gathered nor the method of interpreting it is fit for purpose. The interpretation of and use to which the data is put have damaged the likelihood of equality, fairness and a "zero tolerance" for illiteracy. While their purpose is to differentiate between good and weak practice, performance statistics in their current form actually cloud excellent practice in schools serving challenging catchments and can lead to the celebration of mediocre practice elsewhere.
The most erroneous and damaging area of statistical interpretation of performance is that of so-called "comparator schools". Here, statistics based on a range of elements are brought together with the result ostensibly allowing like-for-like comparisons. The problem is that the elements are very blunt instruments and only take account of levels of deprivation at one end of the spectrum, and do not take account of levels of privilege which exist at the other, nor anything in between.
This is not a nuance: it results in very different schools being compared with each other. For example, two schools may have the same proportion of "deprived" children but have very different levels of "privileged" children. The "privileged" pupils are statistically much more likely to obtain five Credit awards and three Higher awards. And yet, using current methodology, results from these schools would be compared.
It is not the fault of HMIE that this is done. It uses the most robust data available. It's just that the data does not tell it what it wants to know. When asked why the level of privilege is not factored in, Scottish Government statisticians told me that they "do not have those numbers because no one has asked for them".
These errors are compounding the effects of social deprivation. Schools serving the most needy are not being fully supported in their work, because they are "underperforming" when compared with "schools with similar characteristics".
The parents whose children would improve a school's results are the very ones who use the parents' charter after perusing published exam results and HMIE reports, placing their children in ostensibly better-performing schools, and thus further hampering schools in deprived areas.
If we, as a nation, are serious about ending deprivation and combating its effects, we must be prepared to invest disproportionate funding and resourcing for disproportionately challenging school communities. The present system should assist in targeting educational resources where they are most needed. In its present form, it often has the opposite effect.
This is not a call for a blank cheque for deprived communities, but for a redistribution of existing funding according to need. The fact that every young adult leaving school without a job or further education costs his or her community pound;49,000 should be enough justification. When this cost is multiplied by future generations, the financial argument is convincing. And when we consider the hardening of a Scottish underclass, the argument becomes compelling.
A new curriculum, underpinned by noble values, purposes and principles could make a difference. Further improvements in pedagogy will make a difference. But without honesty and clarity about where fundamental obstacles exist, and without the will to respond with the right resources in the right places, we will not make enough of a difference.
John Wilson is a secondary depute head.