Longer hours at school and less holidays for poorest kids: Education guru demands action

Longer hours at school and less holidays for poorest kids: Education guru demands action
The Herald, by Andrew Whitaker


Creating a new system where poor children attend school for more hours and take fewer summer holidays than rich children could be a solution to closing the attainment gap, according to one of the most influential education experts in Scotland.


Keir Bloomer, one of the key architects of the Scottish Government’s flagship education policy, the Curriculum for Excellence, pointed to the success of similar schemes in America which helped boost learning for pupils from poor backgrounds. Bloomer is also Chair of the Court of Queen Margaret University and Chair of the Commission on School Reform.


He believes that failure to get to grips with the gap would be “disastrous”and “condemn people to poor quality lifestyles”, likely to lead to higher levels of unemployment, a reliance on welfare benefits and higher rates of crime.


Bloomer spoke out as the Sunday Herald begins a series of State of the Nation articles today, starting with an analysis of the attainment gap in schools and what needs to be done to fix it .


He maintained that while the Scottish Government was addressing overall standards and teaching it would not remove the gap unless disadvantaged children get “additional high quality opportunities” and “extra provision”, including longer school days.


“You don’t want to be holding learners back,” he said “so it’s quite right to do this and the Scottish Government has been advocating better teaching and better assessment. But because this brings benefits to more able, as well as disadvantaged pupils, you still need to do something to close the gap. The disadvantaged learners have got to get something extra. Not enough thought is given to the school day and year. We are just going to have to alter school days.”


Bloomer highlighted the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, which describes itself as a “national model for breaking the cycle of poverty” and offers extended-day schools, a ‘baby college’ with a series of workshops for parents of children ages up to three, as well as extensive nursery care.


“All over the world there is a relationship between poverty and educational attainment,” he said. “Just about everybody has got the same problem to some extent.


“A lot of it has got to do with early language development and research suggests that well-off parents talk to their children more and read to their children more. That’s fundamental to developing language skills. We’ve probably been less effective in Scottish education in tackling the problem,” he admitted.


“The Scottish Government has made this a priority and significant resources have gone into it. All that’s worthwhile, but if we are going to make real progress with children who come from disadvantaged circumstances they are going to have to be given something extra in terms of extra provision.”


He pointed to the Harlem initiative as an example “where deprived children have longer hours and shorter summer holidays.”


He added: “I’m not advocating exactly that model as it’s not a good idea to just lift something from elsewhere. But the general point is that high-quality opportunities have got to be offered. It would make a difference.”


The failure to close the gap inevitably meant “wasting potential and resources”. He said: “There is already a lot of evidence that we are making an impact.Virtually every change in Scottish education has had something about addressing the attainment gap, but in 50 years we’ve not made the impact we wanted.


“Unless we find a better formula, there’s every reason to think that the position will be the same in the next 50 years. That’s pretty disastrous for the individuals concerned, as if you are unsuccessful at school it becomes very difficult to get a job. You are condemning people to poor quality lifestyles if you don’t tackle this problem. It’s wasting potential and resources.


“If you allow large numbers of people to be unsuccessful that way in school there’s a danger they will unemployed for long periods of time, on benefits and more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.”


He added: “But if you can make a successful educational system for them you can change them from benefit recipients to taxpayers.”


Education secretary John Swinney, said the Scottish Government was devoting significant resources to narrowing the gap.


He said: “We have committed £750 million of Scottish Attainment Challenge funding over the course of this parliament. This year alone, £120m of Pupil Equity Funding is being allocated directly to headteachers with an additional £50m of Attainment Scotland funding providing targeted support and resources to local authorities and schools in areas of greatest need. This is already having a tangible impact, including directly funding 160 full-time equivalent teachers. Through the Scottish Attainment Challenge we are encouraging schools to work in closer collaboration with each other. We want them to develop their own approaches – drawing on evidence-based practice and sharing their results.”