John McLellan: Education more important than climate strikes

Amidst the many claims about rising poverty and inequality, there is no dispute that strong education is essential for tackling both. But a new report has laid bare the width of the attainment gap in the fundamental Three Rs between Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged children and the most comfortable, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 30th May 2019, 7:03 pm
Well over half of students from the poorest backgrounds leave school unable to read, write and count to the expected standard. Picture: John Devlin

According to figures presented to last week’s education, children andfamilies committee, at P1, P4 and P7 in council schools, between 60 and 70 per cent of the least well-off children reach required levels for reading, writing and numeracy, compared to 88-92 per cent of the most affluent. If independent schools were included it would skew the data further.

By S3 the picture improves considerably, with attainment for the most deprived students reaching high 70s and low 80s, but then something dramatic happens and in the space of a year the gap between the most disadvantaged and the least becomes a yawning chasm.

It’s a fair assumption a significant number of students in the poorest areas are more likely to be leaving full-time education than those in the wealthier districts, so what’s known in education circles as the “exit velocity” is crucial. In other words, as young people get ready to leave they need to improve their skills, not fall further behind.

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In 2016-17, 78 per cent of S3 students in the lowest fifth for deprivation in all Edinburgh schools achieved the required standard for reading, 76 for writing and 80 for numeracy, a gap of 16, 17 and 16 per cent respectively between the most affluent fifth. Worrying enough figures, but the same intake the following year in S4 hit the wall. Only 43 per cent of S4 students from the most deprived backgrounds achieved the required standard for reading and writing and just 39 for numeracy. The gap had widened to 34 per cent behind for reading, 33 per cent for writing and a staggering 46 per cent for numeracy.

It means well over half of students from the poorest backgrounds leave school unable to read, write and count to the expected standard and with around 4000 children entering Edinburgh’s secondary schools each year, that’s approximately 450 already disadvantaged young people lacking rudimentary skills.

Perhaps the slump is because struggling students see the end of school coming up and don’t see the point in engaging, but one way or another, hundreds who were making the grade in S3 either switch off or are being switched off by the system in S4.

The report offers no explanation for the S3-S4 slump, and for hundreds of school leavers it’s obviously already too late, but there is a plan to tackle the problem.

In particular, the report highlights an impressively extensive programme at Tynecastle High and the importance of an engaging programme with pupil support officers, initiatives to increase aspiration, breakfast clubs and such like.

But nothing schools do will have any effect if the students aren’t there and educationalists believe that as students mature and other distractions kick in it becomes increasingly important to maintain regular attendance. It’s one reason Ruth Davidson recently launched a new Conservative policy of raising the leaving age to 18 to ensure formal training and education for all continues for an extra two years at least.

Contrast that with the Green Party’s relish for ramming home a message that demonstrating against climate change is more important than education, embraced in Edinburgh by the SNP-Labour administration.

Enthusiasm for further authorised absences is apparently running out and thankfully last Friday’s caper may be the last with official blessing.

Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney is due to tour Holy Rood High School today and it would be refreshing if he was to remind local authorities they cannot be serious about improving attainment while telling young people their education is less important than political campaigning.