Fiona was one of the most unusual pupils I encountered during 10 years teaching at one of Scotland’s least successful secondaries (in terms of exam results). Fiona was from one of the poorest families in one of the most disadvantaged communities but, nonetheless, she managed to pass five Highers and gain a place at university.
What drove Fiona on was the example of her mother – a single parent who worked hard as a cleaner on minimum wage. During school holidays, Fiona would help her clean the offices where she was employed. “It’s appalling the disdain you attract for being poor,” I remember Fiona saying.
In spite of numerous opportunities to neglect her studies and follow other members of her peer group into low-paid jobs and long-term unemployment, Fiona graduated, became a teacher and now, in her early thirties, has been appointed acting deputy headteacher.
The problem with Fiona’s story is that it is just so exceptional. Most pupils from disadvantaged families are not making it in education or the rewarding careers that follow. The challenges of deprivation are just too great for the majority to overcome.
The problem of underachievement has been exacerbated in recent years with the widening of the labour market and increased competition from talented and highly motivated jobseekers from Europe and beyond.
The headteacher of a secondary school in one of our poorest urban areas recently admitted that few, if any, of his pupils would make it to university, and that his school’s main aim was to try to keep them safe.
His ambitions are, perhaps, too narrow. Scotland’s number one aim in education must be to improve attainment and motivation among pupils from our poorest families. It is education that provides the key route out of poverty, and into a healthier and happier life.
The innate intelligence is often there, but the aspiration and confidence are too frequently lacking. And the loss is more than a personal one: by failing to unlock talent we are wasting precious human resources that could create greater wealth for the nation.
Schools serving our poorer communities are now receiving additional funding to try to improve the progress of disadvantaged pupils. But past inputs of money made little difference, and the attainment gap between rich and poor is greater than ever. Significantly more creative and radical strategies are required.
Fiona doesn’t think she is in any way special, but in a situation where you have such a low number of graduates from deprived backgrounds, she is a genuine superstar.
“My family was poor but I didn’t let that stop me going to university,” Fiona now tells her own pupils. “It’s not where you start that’s important – it’s where you get to that counts.”
John Greenlees is a secondary school teacher in Scotland