Scotland is rightly ashamed of the gap between rich and poor, especially in our schools. If we believe that education is a right, then we need to be aware that those who grow up in poverty are already facing massive disadvantage before they even turn up at our door. Statistics on the effect of poor literacy skills later in life are startling, so the fact that we see those problems embedded before a child even arrives at school is shameful.
We could argue all day about whether things are harder for schoolchildren today than they were for us – whichever generation we belong to. In my day, I was vomited out at the end of school with O Grades, then a couple of Highers. Some of my mates got further in the race, some dropped off much earlier than me. In the intervening years, there have been changes to the exam system, but some people still get further than others and some still drop off early. But surely, the experience of the “weaker” students – those who would have dropped out of sight – has changed, hasn’t it?
In the past, senior pupils could achieve the holy grail of Higher English, but those who couldn’t had the safety net of Intermediate 1 or 2 to fall back on. At least they would get something. (Sigh.) We convinced ourselves that achievement for all was better than what had gone on for years, and the “less able” left school with more than they had ever expected. Maybe that’s true.
However, is there a chance that we sold these kids down the river by missing the point? Did they leave any more educated or prepared than they would have been when I was at school? I’m not convinced.
With the new National courses, there is no safety net for the “less able”. There is no opportunity for the “poor wee soul” who worked so hard and was delighted to get her Intermediate 1 in English. We all know a story like that. “At least she got something,” we might have said. And what a tragic indictment of an education system that is. “At least she got something. The poor wee soul.”
But we felt better about ourselves because the poor wee soul could take her Intermediate 1 certificate away from school and consider herself more of a success than she might have been. Really? We conveniently forgot that the same 15- or 16-year-old was already a “poor wee soul” when she was 4 or 5; and the fact that 10 years in our education system did little to help her situation is nothing to celebrate, I’m afraid. This should be a reminder that our system changes nothing for those already up against it.
Reversing the trend
It is hoped that the Pupil Equity Fund – now firmly embedded in our school budgets – will begin to reverse this trend. The fact that the money is going directly to schools might cause some people to sit up and take notice, but it is incumbent on all of us to have a say about what might be done with it. It is impressive that this bold move is being made. Tackling such problems was what first minister Nicola Sturgeon asked to be judged on. It is a big commitment and there may be a danger of the money being frittered away on hasty decisions and poorly researched plans. It should not be, as someone said to me recently, “a CV-builder for middle management”.
I would suggest that most of this money should be used to help all children to access the curriculum in the very early stages of school. Education opens doors for people, but those who start significantly further behind need a leg-up first. They need support to develop the literacy skills they have been deprived of before starting school. It would be sensible to move heaven and earth to tackle inequality from this point onwards.
Strong literacy skills allow children to access the curriculum. Without these skills, many struggle in school and, if unchecked, those issues are exacerbated as they move through the system. Secondary school, especially, becomes a hellish nightmare, where everything seems a challenge. So let’s address those issues, providing whatever it takes – extra support, resources, time, getting parents involved – to bring these children up to the level needed in their later schooling.
Whatever happens, perhaps we will look back and say that this was the moment. As with the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, there is a clear desire in this plan to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable and deprived in Scotland. Regardless of our political affiliations, it would be shameful to waste this money. Cash is coming to your school, or your child’s school. Have a say in how it’s spent. Get involved in the discussions. It’s our moral duty to do so. Whether it is a success or a failure, this may well be the moment that changes everything.
Change is always hard in education. We should be having these conversations – these debates where we hold our educational and political masters to account. However, before we start to get our knickers in a twist about the distractions of which exam pupils sit and what a particular certificate represents, can we please remember the fundamental reason we do this in the first place? It’s not to make the best of a bad situation. It’s not to ensure that at least the kids “get something” from it. It’s to ensure a fair and equitable society for all, starting from the early years.
We should be furious about the fact that there still are “poor wee souls” at the end of their school lives, not about whether we can furnish them with meaningless bits of paper. Let’s get mad about the right things.
Kenny Pieper is a teacher of English in Scotland