A University of Glasgow academic has criticised the Scottish government for failing to look beyond schools when it comes to its flagship policy to close the "attainment gap", arguing that for effective action it is also important to look at the places where pupils live.
Teachers have long said that they alone cannot be left to tackle the attainment gap between advantaged pupils and their peers, and this position has been supported by a paper from a Scottish academic who is an expert in urban studies.
According to the University of Glasgow’s Professor Keith Kintrea – particularly in the early days of the Scottish Attainment Challenge – the attainment gap was very much defined in relation to place, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon stating in 2015 that “too many children still have their life chances influenced more by where they live, than by how talented they are, or how hard they work”.
Living in poverty: An open letter to teachers from a parent in poverty
Short read: Closing the gap? Scotland lacks the data to know
However, Professor Kintrea highlights in a paper published in the Oxford Review of Education that efforts to close the gap have been “all about what could be done in schools, rather than also about the community- or area-based approaches that might have been a logical approach to place-based disadvantage”.
He writes: “In order to understand the attainment gap and take effective action, it is important to unscramble the factors that underlie it. They include both the separate and the conjoined influences of students’ household background, the schools they attend, as well as the places where they live.”
Professor Kintrea highlights that place matters because in Scotland – where most pupils attend their local school – it shapes the “social composition” of the school.
He says “disadvantaged contexts" make it "more difficult to provide good education” because parents cannot afford to pay for extracurricular activities; children suffer more from insecurity and stress, and schools spend more time handling “pastoral, attendance and disciplinary matters”.
Place, he argues, can also impact on attitudes towards school.
Professor Kintrea says: “Neighbourhood effects research suggests that residents in disadvantaged places will adopt negative or perhaps even fatalistic dispositions towards education because they have developed identities that are shaped by their local experiences.”
He suggests a more rounded approach to closing the gap would include encouraging more socially mixed neighbourhoods; supporting schools “to look beyond their gates and work more directly with communities”; and learning from projects such as Children’s Neighbourhoods Scotland, which asks local people what they would like to see happening in their area.
The paper concludes: “The wider argument of this paper is that, in a country like Scotland that is riven by socio-spatial divisions, it is as important to understand place as it is to understand more prevalent education research themes such as poverty, parenting and pedagogy, and that all need to be conjoined in order to challenge the attainment gap.”