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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Poverty is the real difference between school attainment levels

The Scottish Government's parentzone website has published data on the performance of school leavers. The Daily Record highlighted how these figures show a shocking class divide between the wealthiest and least well off areas of Scotland.

This is my opinion piece in the Daily Record that ran alongside the article. In it I argue that the difference tells us more about poverty than schools.



"These figures don’t tell us much about schools. What they tell us is that poverty ruins lives.

The enormous gap in qualifications between children in poor and wealthy areas is simply a reflection of the inequality that scars Scottish society. An appalling number of families are relying on foodbanks. You don’t need to be an educational psychologist to work out that a well fed child is going to be a better pupil than one who is hungry. Saying that looking at these figures tell you more about house prices than it does about standards in schools is no joke, it’s the truth.

They certainly don’t tell us much about the teams who deliver education in the schools. Arguably it’s the schools where fewer children are getting qualifications that are working the hardest, as the team in the school attempt to help the children overcome a host of social disadvantages in order to learn. Think about it – if it were simply a matter of the attitudes of the staff would the pattern of poor areas and supposedly poor schools be quite so consistent?

One of the things that drives attainment is the chance to undertake educational enhancing activities. It is clear that better off parents have resources to allow their children to take part in a wider range of activities than their less well-off peers. For example, going to see a play live makes it easier to get good marks in English than just reading it in a book or out loud in the class.

Those who have the least opportunity to do these activities out of school because of lack of money, need to have these opportunities through school. Cuts in local authority funding, made worse by the council tax freeze, mean that the cost of school trips, whether for a day or a week, and sports clubs are increasingly falling on parents. These are burdens that many families cannot meet. Here in UNISON we have been told by members on low wages or zero hour contracts of instances of their children, knowing the sacrifices their parents would make to find the money, of not even telling parents about school trips. These charges mean that far from narrowing the gap will see it grow.

There are some initiatives that could be taken in schools that might make some difference. Ensuring poorer children are not denied support that can't otherwise be offered would be a good place to start - for example by ending the trend of getting rid of Classroom Assistants.

And let’s hope that the political response to these figures avoids nonsense about ‘improving aspiration’. As if the poor, who lets remember are mostly working for a living, don’t or can’t care for their children.

No one should be in any doubt that the real key to reducing the gap between how children in poor areas do compared to children in rich areas is to reduce the gap between rich and poor."


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