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Professor Lindsay Paterson’s paper for the Scottish government, advocating a national system of philanthropically financed bursaries for outstanding students, has hit the Scottish headlines. 
His paper concedes that the dilemma is “how to balance rigour and equity” but has been criticised as reinforcing exiting inequalities.
Professor Paterson, who rejects needs-based bursaries, states that any “award of money to one student on the basis of measured achievement or potential is explicitly inegalitarian because talents are not equally distributed.”
The concept of inherent ‘talent’ is not itself beyond debate.   Carol Dweck’s and Matthew Syed’s work both suggest a combination of attitude and consistent practice are far more crucial.
Professor Paterson suggests that donors would probably want to fund schemes directly, rather than donate to a national bursary fund.   Middle-class families will always find ways to outwit those who seek to spread opportunity wider.  Schools, whether in the private of public sector, serving affluent communities would effectively tap into such schemes.  The schools serving our most deprived communities would be least well placed to benefit.  Existing inequalities would be reinforced and inequality is an issue which Scotland requires to address.
Income inequality in Scotland is stark .  The poorest 10% share only 2% of Scotland’s income.  The wealthiest 10% receive 29%.  Income inequality, as measured by the Gini-coefficient, in Scotland (and the UK) is among the worst in Europe, at 34%, exceeded only by Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria and Portugal.
Educational inequality is also stark.  More than ten times (5.9%) as many children from Scotland’s most deprived areas left school without a qualification than from (0.5%) from our least deprived areas.  At age 5, children with a degree educated parent have a vocabulary ability around 18 months ahead of those of unqualified parents.
Without abandoning Professor Paterson’s concept of rewards, there are alternative philanthropic models which have been applied in Scotland.   A less divisive approach would pilot pre-school initiatives in our most deprived communities, working directly to involve parents of 2- to-5 year olds in their children’s education, especially in the development of language skills, social skills and health-and-wellbeing.
A second target might be in the lower and middle primary classes in the same communities.  With a longer school day, a free breakfast programme, smaller classes and the recruitment of the very highest quality teachers, it might be possible to consolidate these social and language skills developed in an enhanced pre-school programme.
Then develop in such schools, at the upper end of primary education, a culture of hard-work, effort and success through additional after-school and summer holiday classes.  Target literacy, language, communication skills and broad cultural awareness.  Acknowledge children who attain consistent scholastic achievements (exemplary attendance, excellent behaviour and regularly completed homework) and active participation in such after-school and vacation activities.  Enhance these rewards with a modest financial element for children from the poorest families.  Integrate complementary activities, including community service, sport and engagement with the arts.   Gradually, increase the targets and the rewards until the end of the secondary stage.
Such an approach ‘sifts’ and ‘selects’ but it starts at an inclusive level by inviting all students within the given schools to participate.  The ‘sifting’ and ‘selecting’ will be done by the young people themselves as they determine whether they can maintain the commitment and meet the challenges.
It avoids removing the advantaged core, the leadership potential, from schools in challenging communities, schools which urgently require their presence.
There is a huge untapped source of excellence, only awaiting recognition and systematic nurturing.  Unleashing that potential is a far preferable option for philanthropists wishing to support educational excellence than one which reinforces existing privileges.
The above article was first published in secEd on 26 September 2013:


One Comment

  • Lindsay Paterson says:

    I give the same response here as I gave to the original publication on Sec Ed:
    It is generous of Alex to engage in debate here, and I do not disagree in any fundamental way with anything he says by way of positive proposals, but I’m afraid he also rather seriously misrepresents what I proposed, in two respects:
    (1) It is not true that, in Alex’s words, the report ‘rejects needs-based bursaries’. It does suggest that there should be a small element of financial reward that is not needs-based – as a prize to celebrate success publicly – but it also proposes an important element of needs-based support. For example, on p. 30 of the report there is this:
    ‘The provision of bursaries is itself the means by which students with the necessary talent are not prevented from developing it for financial reasons alone, although here a distinction is to be drawn … between financial reward as a prize, open to everyone, and financial aid related to students’ means. Awarding prizes is one way in which talents and gifts are publicly celebrated, and thus they relate solely to the quality of the achievement. Financial aid beyond the prize, always subject to the student’s already having been selected according to the same absolute standards as everyone else, is the most important means by which any scheme of developing outstanding talent might satisfy Rawls’s third principle that it should benefit “the least-advantaged members of society.”‘
    One reason to award prizes is to avoid stigma: the financial scheme then recognise all achievement, but does so differentially according to means. I take it that Alex does not disagree, since he prefaces his comments on finance by conceding: ‘without abandoning Prof Paterson’s concept of rewards …’.
    (2) Alex also misrepresents what the report says in attributing to it the expression of a belief that talent is ‘inherent’. He says: ‘The concept of inherent “talent” is not itself beyond debate. Carol Dweck’s and Matthew Syed’s work both suggest a combination of attitude and consistent practice are far more crucial.’ I agree. At no point does the report disagree. Indeed, it places emphasis on the hard work of students, teachers, coaches and mentors in fostering talent. But presumably Alex would not disagree that not everyone has the same potential, and so the key thing is providing opportunities, as his article, in effect, also says: ‘Such an approach “sifts” and “selects” but it starts at an inclusive level by inviting all students within the given schools to participate.’ That is essentially also what the report says (also p.30):
    ‘Thus the main question about selection is how to combine absolute standards with mechanisms that involve as wide a range of recruitment as possible: it is partly the responsibility of those who carry out any selection to ensure that the competition is known about and understood by schools and appropriate specialist clubs throughout Scotland. ‘
    The report itself may be obtained free from the David Hume Institute at under ‘Publications’ and ‘Hume Occasional Papers.

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