The determination of education secretary Angela Constance to close the attainment gap is evident, but sadly the rhetoric is racing ahead of the thinking. There is no strategy.
Addressing the annual conference of education leadership organisation Selmas in Edinburgh last month – a concerned and knowledgeable gathering – Ms Constance insisted that Scotland would abolish the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest. But no country in the world has done this, and a serious reduction is unlikely without eliminating family poverty.
Her speech ended with the promise to “leave no child behind” – an unfortunate slip since No Child Left Behind is also the name of a US Act of Congress that has failed miserably. For example, the reading gap between black and white students at 17 is wider now than in 1990, and overall achievement has stagnated.
England fares no better. Despite 20 years of “holding teachers to account” through tests and punitive inspections, a scandalous gap remains. Some 34 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals reach the GCSE target level compared with 61 per cent of other pupils.
Despite positive gains from the London Challenge school improvement programme, introduced in 2003, there is still an 18 percentage point gap in that city. A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows that most of the gains came from literacy strategies in primary schools that were in place prior to London Challenge. (And of course, in Scotland, we had a literacy initiative that terminated prematurely.)
In England and the US, the consequences of national testing are teaching to the test, low morale and school privatisation. Published results, moreover, stigmatise schools in disadvantaged areas.
The only useful information might come from diagnostic assessment. We might need to know which nine-year-olds are struggling with more difficult phonics or irregular words. Or positively, how many fluent readers can also select relevant information from different texts. It would be impossible, however, to merge this into a single test score and compile league tables.
The Scottish government now needs to listen hard and discuss a range of options. The first priority should be raising taxes on the very rich to eliminate child poverty. Then you concentrate on younger children. For example, by: providing more children’s centres that involve parents and lend out books and toys (with higher qualifications and pay for staff); working on intensive reading recovery for struggling readers; arranging staff development on literacy for information and literacy across the curriculum from P5 to S2; and providing bursaries so that no child misses out on visits and activities.
In short, political rhetoric is no substitute for strategy and understanding.
Dr Terry Wrigley edits the international journal Improving Schools and is the co-author of Living on the Edge: rethinking poverty, class and schooling