We all have lessons to learn about disadvantage

17th July 2015 at 01:00

It's depressing to continually read reports that the UK is failing its poorest children. There have even been calls from health experts for more investment to support families and children in the early years as diseases of the Victorian era, such as rickets, are returning.

And then there's the UK government's goal of cutting pound;12 billion from welfare spending by 2020. The changes to tax credits announced by chancellor George Osborne in last week's Budget will have clear consequences for families. For many, the higher minimum wage will not make up for this loss and there will almost certainly be more children adversely affected than adults.

The UK is not on track to eradicate child poverty by 2020, as planned. The government's social mobility tsar Alan Milburn has advised that far more needs to be done to ensure that the poorest families can share in the proceeds of economic growth.

A key priority, he has said, is tackling in-work poverty, given that two-thirds of children in poverty have at least one parent in work. In Scotland, 95 per cent of families that benefit from tax credits are working families - so much for Mr Milburn's advice.

In this context, the Scottish government's top priority of improving disadvantaged children's performance in school is vital. Work might have ceased to be an escape route from poverty but education still can be.

Earlier this month the first allocation of pound;11 million from the Scottish government's Attainment Challenge fund was handed to the seven councils with the highest concentration of primary-aged pupils living in deprived areas.

The director of education in West Dunbartonshire told TESS he was "delighted" that his bid for pound;4 million over four years had been accepted. He plans to employ 20 more teachers, smooth transitions and create Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) hubs in primary schools.

Other authorities also have exciting plans; many are considering the role of parents, with some looking to improve adults' skills so they can better support their children. West Dunbartonshire aims to boost numeracy and Glasgow literacy.

This all looks promising on paper but it's not enough. For this investment to be worthwhile, Scotland has to be able to separate out the schemes that bomb from those that soar. They must be independently evaluated. As one education director said to TESS, councils will tell the Scottish government what it wants to hear about the success of these projects if that's what it takes to keep the cash flowing.

And there are 32 local authorities in Scotland, not seven, all with pockets of disadvantage. The number of children living in poverty may be smaller but they are no less deserving of support.

The Scottish Attainment Challenge cannot be about a short-term investment in seven councils; it has to be about closing a gap that is perhaps just as important as the attainment gap: the gap in our knowledge about what works.


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