Pupils’ Access to “basic educational opportunities” varies to an unacceptable degree across Scotland and concerns are growing about whether teachers have the resources that they need to do the job, a key new document claims.
From the size of their class to whether they have a chance to learn a musical instrument, children’s education is becoming increasingly variable from one region to the next, the body that represents local authority education directors, ADES, says. Huge inequalities also exist in the range of subjects that students can study, as well as their access to learning support staff, it asserts.
In its Charter for Scottish Education – seen exclusively by TESS – ADES set out what its members believe is required to take Scottish education forward (see panel, ‘What the Charter for Scottish Education recommends’, right).
They call for an end to the current “postcode lottery of opportunity” and for every child to receive a core set of educational experiences. A fully funded minimum national staffing standard should also be introduced, they add.
However, having a sufficient number of teachers is not enough, they say. The resources that teachers need to do their jobs – from jotters to the availability of support staff – are diminishing. If this is not addressed, Scottish education will become a system with “big ambitions” but lacking “the wherewithal to deliver”, they say.
In the charter, education directors write: “ADES has concerns over the increasing disparity of approach of resource allocation and associated policy priority for education across the 32 local authorities. Notwithstanding the very challenging financial landscape, likely to get worse, there are now unacceptable differences in some very basic educational opportunities emerging across Scotland.
“In a small country such as ours, given the importance of education, no postcode lottery of opportunity should exist or be allowed to develop.”
Secondary heads have echoed the education directors concerns: School Leaders Scotland general secretary, Jim Thewliss, told TESS there was “inequity across the country” when it came to education provision.
The heads are calling for limits to be set so that cuts to essentials, such as school budgets, can only go so deep.
Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, which has also been calling for a national staffing standard, welcomed ADES’ support and repeated its demand for a return to ringfencing so that education budgets could be fully protected.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said that the system was “creaking” under the strain of ever-tightening budgets. Provision for support for learning and English as an additional language had suffered disproportionately in some areas, he said.
A spokesperson for local government umbrella body Cosla said that a staffing standard for the country could perpetuate “the straight jacket of the Scottish government’s teacher numbers commitment”.
He added: “At the end of the day, councils are accountable for the services that they deliver and the choices they make with the resources that they have available.”
School Leaders Scotland’s Mr Thewliss said: “There is a moral obligation upon us to make sure that, just because a child lives on one side of a local authority boundary, they are not getting markedly different education provision. That is morally unacceptable.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said that revenue spent on schools and pupils had risen since 2007.
He added that the new National Improvement Framework, launched earlier this month, would “galvanise efforts and align our collective improvement activities, across all partners in the education system, to address our key priorities”.
The Education Bill contains a range of measures that would help improve education and “secure greater consistency” across education services, he said, which would address the educational inequality currently found in the system.
What the Charter for Scottish Education recommends
In A Charter for Scottish Education, directors of education set out what they believe is needed to move Scottish education on the journey to becoming a world leader. They call for:
Every child to receive a core set of educational experiences.
A fully funded minimum national staffing standard for schools.
The “major risk” of headteacher and teacher shortages to be addressed.
The training of student teachers to be more consistent, particularly in literacy and mathematics.
Over-assessment in national qualifications to be addressed.
An overhaul of the early years and more investment.
Curriculum for Excellence to be reformed, relaunched and renamed Scotland’s Curriculum.
More teachers to work across sectors, particularly in Stem and languages.
Case study: music tuition
In the early 1990s, it was common for instrumental music tuition in Scotland to come free of charge. However, new figures revealed in TESS today show that whether or not music tuition is free for pupils in 2016 depends very much on where you live. Roughly two-thirds of authorities are charging tuition fees this academic year (22 councils), while a third of councils provide the service for free (10 councils).
Orkney is among the councils that choose not to charge and uptake of an instrument is higher than any other local authority, with 20 per cent of pupils learning to play.
Uptake is lowest in East Ayrshire Council, which does charge, where just 5 per cent of pupils learn an instrument. The highest fees in Scotland are found in Aberdeen City where pupils pay £272 per year for group lessons and £340 for individual. Around one in 10 pupils in the city learned an instrument in 2014-15.
There was no correlation between uptake of a musical instrument and the charging of fees, an expert group that reported to the Scottish government in 2013 found. Other important factors included the availability of instructors and instruments, service promotion, and concessions for disadvantaged students.
Bruce Robertson: ‘The status quo is unacceptable’
Scotland’s education system faces a critical period as we head towards 2020. Our laudable ambitions and well-placed position to improve opportunities for young people are set against the most challenging public finance backdrop in living memory.
Recognising this, ADES wanted to outline, in our charter, a set of critical building blocks for Scottish education. These are designed to influence everyone locally and nationally who contribute to the “system” in Scottish education.
Our strong tradition of consensus will be challenged in such a financial climate and we have growing concerns over emerging local differences in educational priorities and provision. It is gratifying to see education identified (as it should be) by all political parties as a priority for forthcoming the Parliamentary elections. The status quo in Scottish education over the lifetime of the next parliament is unacceptable if we are going to ensure that every young person attains and achieves their best and the excesses of poverty are challenged.
Our charter aims to place the needs of young people foremost in any local and national decision making process. Surely there is no more important investment that a modern Scotland can make?
Bruce Robertson is an adviser to ADES and a former director of education