Gina Davidson: Education charity should begin at home

Nicola Sturgeon launches National Improvement Framework for Education. Picture; John Devlin
Nicola Sturgeon launches National Improvement Framework for Education. Picture; John Devlin
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THE statistics are quite something. While young people celebrated their exam results this week, the fact that 39,884 results were awarded to 8007 pupils across more than 80 subjects, certainly suggests that Edinburgh’s pupils are working hard, aiming high and getting their just rewards.

But drill down into the numbers and are things really so rosy? Is the fact that 66 per cent of pupils - just two thirds of those sitting exams - achieve one or more Higher pass by the end of sixth year really something to crow about? Yes, that number is up 11 percentage points over the last five years, so something is working, but it still feels . . . low.

Fewer than half of those sitting three or more Highers pass them all (46 per cent) and for those doing five or more it falls further to 32 per cent - though again this is an improvement of four percentage points since 2011.

Similarly by the end of fourth year less than half of the city’s school roll sitting exams achieve five passes at National 5 Level - the exams they need to go on to study Highers. While the rate of 43 per cent is up four percentage points from the previous year, why aren’t more pupils achieving this standard?

While every pass should - and will - be celebrated by the pupils, their parents and teachers, overall the results suggest that much more needs to be done to ensure the majority of our children are leaving school with the kind of qualifications they need to equip them fully for a hugely competitive job market or the just as competitive higher education field.

All the numbers are yet to be crunched so a clearer picture of what’s going on is yet to emerge - including just how many Higher passes were achieved at the city’s secondary schools in the more deprived areas.

This is where the much-talked about ‘attainment gap’ is to be found. After all, according to Ucas - the higher education admissions body - it’s the school leavers from the most prosperous backgrounds who get to university. Indeed, they’re four times as likely to get a university place as pupils from the poorest areas.

Yesterday Ucas reported that the proportion of young Scots going into higher education had increased to 21.3 per cent - a record level - but for 18-year-olds from the poorest areas the rate was just 8.8 per cent (a 0.6 percent improvement on the previous year).

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has placed her reputation on tackling this gap and as a result it has been suggested that the new flexibility councils are being given on raising council tax will be used in this manner.

Those who live in higher council tax bands will see their council tax rise - and the government wants £100m of this money, raised from across Scotland, directed at improving attainment in schools in deprived areas.

Edinburgh - given its many leafy, wealthy, suburbs - has the largest number of homes likely to be affected by this tax rise. Therefore, it will generate the majority of this £100m.

Should that money then be spent by the government on schools in Glasgow or Lanarkshire where the deprivation levels are perhaps greater than those in Craigmillar or Wester Hailes?

Redistribution of wealth is at the core of centre-left thinking, but how will council tax payers - indeed councillors - react to the idea that money raised locally could be spent elsewhere, even if it is for the greater good?

Surely that’s what income tax is for and raising the top rate for the highest earners a better way to generate the £100m.

Why should national government interfere at all in local taxation? Why would voters believe anything council candidates and parties said if they don’t have control of the purse strings? Such a move certainly suggests that the local political system can be undermined at the whim of national government.

Councils have been desperate for the council tax freeze to be relaxed to give local services a vital boost - handing cash to national government was not in the plan.

And given Edinburgh’s exam results, which though moving in the right direction still seem to have their own attainment issues, money raised in the city from council tax should surely be spent on closing that gap first.