Is the government closing the attainment gap?

28th June 2018 at 00:00
As the SNP trumpets new figures for school leavers, we examine the facts

A glut of newly released national education statistics on attainment and school leavers has been used by the government to paint a positive picture of Scottish education. Here we sort the spin from the facts to find out what the figures really tell us.

What are the new figures for school leavers all about?

The number who go on to “positive destinations” – notably, the difference between those from poorer and more affluent backgrounds. The gap between the numbers of pupils from the most and least deprived areas who go on to university, college or a job after school is closing, the figures show.

To what extent is the gap closing?

The gap between the two categories, nine months after leaving school, has dropped from 11.2 percentage points for 2015-16 leavers to 8.7 points among 2016-17 leavers. Some 87.6 per cent of 2016-17 leavers from the most deprived areas were in a positive destination (85 per cent for 2015-16), compared with 96.4 per cent from the least deprived areas (96.2 per cent for 2015-16).

Overall, some 92.9 per cent of last year’s school leavers were recorded as being in a positive destination, up from 85.2 per cent in 2009-10.

What’s the downside?

The Scottish government used the figures as evidence that its much-trumpeted efforts to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers are working. However, the statistics also show that just 43 per cent of last year’s school leavers from the most deprived areas attained one or more Highers, compared with 80.6 per cent of school leavers from the least deprived areas – and progress on narrowing that gap between 2015-16 and 2016-17 was minimal. There has also been slow progress in closing the gap at National 5 level.

How credible are “positive destinations”?

This is a matter of controversy. Last year, Tes Scotland revealed concerns that young people in “dead-end” jobs were included in the figures (“Leavers in zero-hours jobs are classed as a success”, 5 May 2017).

Where do school leavers from the most deprived areas go to?

The most common positive destinations recorded were further education (32.3 per cent), employment (26.6 per cent) and higher education (22.1 per cent).

And those from the least deprived areas?

The most common positive destination was HE (61.7 per cent), followed by employment (21.5 per cent) and FE (11.8 per cent).

There was mention of rising figures. Any stats in particular?

Some 41.9 per cent of 2016-17 school leavers managed a Higher or equivalent as their highest level achieved. This is up from 38.1 per cent in 2012-13 and but has dipped from 42.6 per cent since last year.

There was also a separate report on looked-after children. What did it say?

That their educational achievements overall have improved dramatically in recent years. The percentage who achieved an N5 or equivalent, for example, increased from 15 per cent in 2009-10 to 44 per cent in 2016-17. And while looked-after leavers are less likely to be in positive destinations nine months after leaving school than all leavers, that gap narrowed from 45 percentage points in 2009-10 to 17 percentage points in 2016-17.

Was all the news about looked-after children so positive?

No. Their recent improvement in school attendance has stalled and they are still much more likely to be excluded than other pupils. Looked-after school leavers continue to have lower attainment than other leavers.

What was the political reaction to all these figures?

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, used her entire slot at First Minister’s Questions last week to home in on education. She criticised the government’s scrapping of the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SSLN) – which published its final report in 2017 – as a way of “rigging” literacy and numeracy statistics by shifting the focus on to newer, more positive figures.

What, specifically, was Ruth Davidson referring to in her criticism?

Davidson said that “a pupil can fail their N4 or their Higher English and maths, but still be counted as having achieved the right standards of literacy and numeracy – in other words, you’re deemed to have passed, even when you’ve failed”.

How did Nicola Sturgeon respond?

The first minister said her opponent was “mixing up different stages of education” as the new figures focused on N5 or equivalent qualifications, which showed improvement. She added that the SSLN was a “sample survey”, which in some schools was based on the performance of only 12 pupils, whereas the controversial new national standardised assessment would provide a clearer picture of educational progress across the country, ultimately comprising every pupil (see “P1 children ‘in tears’ over new national assessment, Tes Scotland, 25 May).

 

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