I will retire soon after teaching for almost 40 years, and still the chasm we politely refer to as the attainment gap continues to disfigure Scottish education and society. Despite high expectations for initiatives such as new community schools – now largely forgotten – social mobility is moribund. The prospects of pupils attending schools that are part of the long-running Leaps (Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools) initiative are incomparably poorer than their more affluent peers.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the longevity of the problem, despite significant economic growth in the past four decades, is attributable to a lack of political will. Apologists emphasise the complexity of finding solutions. But are we seriously suggesting that creatures capable of putting a man on the Moon, or adjusting democracy to give women the vote, just have to accept that the attainment gap will always be with us?
Our willingness to live with this problem ensures a massive waste of potential – the number of children leaving school functionally illiterate is a national disgrace. But poverty of ambition is endemic and we have grown to accept inequality as inevitable.
For too long the affluent – including politicians – have remained silent, comfortable in knowing their children get into the “right” schools. The harsh reality is that they have a vested interest in turning a blind eye: the attainment gap gently suppresses the disadvantaged, while children of the articulate middle classes flourish. The gap dramatically reduces competition, thereby ensuring easier access to university and the pick of the best jobs for children of the educated elite.
Thankfully there are people in power, nationally and locally, who seem willing to challenge the status quo. But only time will tell if they can give children from our deprived communities a fair crack at life.
Teaching in a Leaps school presents a host of issues rarely encountered in more affluent areas. Disruption is more frequent, as more children have social and emotional difficulties and they are often less motivated; teachers need to be particularly adept at inspiring pupils and managing behaviour. Teaching in such circumstances can be unrewarding and exhausting – never mind the highly detrimental impact on the children who want to learn.
If we are serious about maximising the potential of less affluent children, then the most deprived schools must have greater choice when appointing new teachers and senior managers. This could be achieved by offering 20 per cent more pay in areas of deprivation. Many excellent teachers already work in such areas but more are urgently needed to make a significant dent in the attainment gap.
Such a move would no doubt result in considerable resistance and controversy – radical change usually does. Nevertheless, it is essential if we are to avoid another 40 years of educational apartheid.
David Halliday is a secondary teacher in the Borders