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Poverty is a continuing reality in contemporary Scotland. Seventeen per cent of our people and 20 per cent of our children live in poverty.
Despite legislation, child poverty persists, its pernicious effect on children’s life chances remaining largely unaltered.
Until the recent financial crisis, politicians of all parties insisted that the answer to the problems of poverty lay in getting the unemployed into work. A growing economy was the key. The unequal distribution of wealth was never perceived as problematic.
Inequality, however, is the elephant in the room. Income inequality accelerated during the Thatcher years but has not altered significantly since. The Scottish Government’s Solidarity Purpose Target seeks to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but there is little sign of any effective redistributive policies at either UK or Scottish level. Indeed, the Chancellor’s autumn statement continues the regressive fiscal trend with the lowest earners squeezed while the mega-rich prosper through tax relief and lavish bonuses.
In such an unequal society it is no surprise that deep-seated educational inequalities persist, reinforcing the poor outcomes of many in our most disadvantaged communities.
Gordon Brown and Robin Cook published Scotland, the Real Divide, in 1983. David Raafe’s chapter on education indicated that in the 1970s, from a representative sample of Scottish local authorities, 38 per cent of middle-class children achieved 3+ Highers compared to 9 per cent of working-class children; 20 per cent of middle-class children attained university entrance but only 3 per cent of working-class children.
Forty years after Brown and Cook’s collection drew such educational injustices to our attention and after a ten-year Brown Chancellorship and a three-year Premiership, these major inequalities all persist.
In 2011 the average tariff score (aggregate value of qualifications) of the most affluent 20 per cent of school leavers was 531 but from the disadvantaged 20 per cent, it was 250. Scotland’s oldest universities take only a handful of students (St Andrews, 2.7 per cent; Aberdeen, 3.1 per cent; and Edinburgh, 5 per cent), from our most disadvantaged communities. Over 50 per cent of school leavers from the most affluent decile enter higher education but only 15 per cent from the bottom decile.
Negative outcomes are also skewed.
Exclusions from school are overwhelmingly experienced by children from the most disadvantaged households, 79 per 1000 from the population’s poorest 20 per cent, 12 per 1000 from the most affluent 20 per cent.
Gaps in attainment on developmental tasks are detectable as early as 22 months for children from poorer households. These gaps widen significantly by the time children go to nursery or primary school and persist throughout life.
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to leave school at 16 and to become NEET (not in education, employment or training) than their wealthier peers. In 2009, 22 per cent of school leavers from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas moved into unemployment compared to only 6 per cent from the most affluent areas.
While this inequality has festered, the Scottish Government has prioritised free university education (on grounds of ‘equity’) and boosted support for universities, but has balanced its resources by reducing further education funding, despite the FE client base being far more rooted in disadvantaged backgrounds than those entering university. That reduced spending may also have a detrimental effect on the skills developments required for economic growth.
Education can impact on poverty. It can raise the skill levels of the most disadvantaged, raise employability and support social mobility. It can raise the national skill-set and support (although it will not create) economic growth.
It can open doors to culture, wellbeing and human potential.
In 1983 David Raafe stated that the “most that … educational intervention can expect to achieve is a marginal increase in equality of opportunity, not an increase in social equality as such.” He concluded that educational policy alone cannot achieve greater equality: that requires radical change to the social, economic and political structures.
A serious challenge to poverty and inequality indeed requires radical politics the like of which we have never witnessed from any Scottish or UK government. Such a challenge might be high on the wish list of the Scottish people in an independent Scotland and should figure in the pre-referendum debate.
Here are a few educational initiatives which might be part of a larger, radical offensive against poverty and inequality– if any political party is willing to launch such a crusade:
• A major shift of educational resources to preschool education, but prioritised in our most disadvantaged areas
• The development of wide-ranging skills, vocational and inter-personal as well as traditionally academic, in schools, colleges and universities
• Mechanisms to encourage the movement of the most talented teachers to the most challenging schools
• Enhanced resources and new and innovative ways to boost the focus on language, literacy and numeracy skills, for adults and young people, in our most disadvantaged communities
• The active encouragement, with suitable incentives, to parents to be actively engaged in the daily education of their children and to raise their own skills, aspirations and expectations
• A refocus of teaching approaches and attitudes to prioritise challenge and high expectations of all students, irrespective of social background
• The accelerated break-up of our monolithic estates, the readjustment of catchment areas and an end to the concentrations of deprivation within a small number of schools
• University entrance based on a range of identified skills, attributes and potential and not merely on SQA results
• A recognition that the increase in resources to tackle poverty and disadvantage will mean a reduction in resources for the most advantaged – and a willingness to take the flak which such redistribution will mean.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 18th December 2012:

One Comment

  • Judith McClure says:

    I think you have expressed the situation of lack of equity very clearly, Alex. I agree with all your recommendations, though I am not sure how University entrance based on identified skills, attributes and potential would work in practice. The answers, as you argue lucidly, really come very much earlier in a child’s life.

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