Self-belief is the most important lesson of all

22nd May 2015 at 01:00

When Angela Constance took to the lectern in Glasgow earlier this week to take stock of her first six months in post, it wasn't a surprise that her focus was on closing the attainment gap. Ensuring that young people from Scotland's most disadvantaged backgrounds achieve at the same level as their wealthier counterparts has been the undeniable centre of the education secretary's agenda.

Teachers certainly seem to agree that poverty and disadvantage can have a dramatic effect on attainment. At the recent conferences of the NASUWT teaching union and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, the issue of deprivation and its impact on learning was never far from the agenda.

Teachers called for the ultimate eradication of child poverty, but first to ensure that support is not cut for the young people most in need of it - from those acting as young carers to those with additional support needs and those living in poverty.

But what exactly is it about deprivation that makes it such an enormous obstacle for young people on the path to success? Of course, the problems that stem directly from poverty - hunger, for example - impact on a child's ability to focus in school. There can also be no doubt that issues such as neglect affect every part of a young person's life.

But a more indirect factor comes into play, too: the way children see themselves, their self-worth and their prospects in life. Young people will only consider options that they think are within their reach. If they do not believe university, or a successful career, or even finishing school is for them, then they are unlikely to set that as a goal for themselves. That means getting them to achieve any of those things inevitably becomes an awful lot harder.

Teachers and schools are key. They can inspire their pupils, offer new perspectives and widen horizons in all sorts of ways, not least by offering a variety of educational routes and inspirational employer engagement.

On a national scale, Scottish Apprenticeship Week, which ends today, offers a reminder of how we can provide worthwhile alternatives and new options, and do so with the added benefit of paid employment. The new foundation apprenticeships for senior pupils, which are still at pilot stage, will hopefully add to that and engage young people even earlier.

But smaller gestures can also have a huge effect. Last week, a teacher let me in on the advice she gives to trainee teachers. "I tell them to get to know their pupils and to make a point of addressing them by name. They may be the only people who do that all day."

Such simple acts seem to open doors. One of her pupils told me that she was considering doing a Higher, having previously thought that staying on beyond S4 was not for her.

Of course, the core of being a teacher is imparting knowledge. But all too often, instilling self-belief and creating ambition can be just as important.

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