We are rich in ambition - but it's not enough

Poverty is rarely far from the centre of educational debate in Scotland. Rightly so. There is a quite staggering education gap between children from different social backgrounds even before they have started P1. By some measures, at that stage a child from a poorer family can already be up to 18 months behind their peers.

Things are being done about this. Numerous recent initiatives have had the explicit intention of combating poverty's effects on education. A new Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, however, makes for startling and highly discouraging reading (see pages 16-18).

It explores a litany of well-intentioned educational initiatives: Schools of Ambition, Determined to Succeed, the Scottish Book Trust's Bookbug programme and many more besides. All, at some level, have sought to counteract poverty's impact in the classroom.

But something else unites them: we do not know what benefits, if any, they have yielded in addressing poverty. Scotland, it seems, has a dearth of research evidence on such projects. Schools and local authorities have been earnestly ploughing ahead with all manner of initiatives, but no one can tell how big the benefits have been. Some school-run projects may have even unwittingly done more harm than good, the report finds.

Scotland is at least thinking about poverty. At the many education conferences I've attended over the past few years, it has felt as though The Spirit Level (a detailed account of "why more equal societies almost always do better") was quoted more than all other books put together.

The debate around independence touches frequently on the impact of a Yes or No vote on this issue. The Scottish government has sought plaudits for overseeing a national child poverty strategy. Scottish Labour recently published a report outlining its plan to tackle educational inequality.

The EIS teaching union, meanwhile, has been running a high-profile campaign against poverty. Earlier this year, it asked members how disadvantage was affecting pupils. In have come tales of hungry children stealing food from classmates, of pupils' stunted sense of ambition, of teenagers' acute embarrassment at not being able to scrabble together enough change for dress-down days and school discos.

Today marks the publication of another report, by children's commissioner Tam Baillie - Learning Lessons: young people's views on poverty and education in Scotland - again underlining the human impact of disadvantage in schools. "Aye, if you don't eat then you've not got the energy and then you can't think," one pupil said. Another observed: "The more money you have, the better the childhood you have."

We are good at identifying poverty in Scotland and we are good at telling the stories of how it hamstrings a child's schooling. But if our intentions to do something about it are not backed up by robust evidence, they may be doomed to failure.


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