Nicola Sturgeon must try harder to kill off elitism in Scotland’s schools

Nicola Sturgeon must try harder to kill off elitism in Scotland’s schools
Kevin McKenna, The Guardian

For a moment or two last week, it was possible to imagine that Scotland will soon be setting the global gold standard on raising attainment levels for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When you witness Nicola Sturgeon talking with quiet passion about her dream of giving all children in Scotland, regardless of background or status, an equal chance of fulfilling their potential, you want immediately to join the marching band. Pledging to bridge the chasm in attainment between children from poor areas and those from the most affluent neighbourhoods, which currently disfigures education in Scotland, she said: “My priority… is that every young person should have the same advantage that I had when I was growing up in Ayrshire.”

Kezia Dugdale, Labour’s newly elected leader in Scotland, had signalled she will place educational attainment at the centre of her strategy to breathe new life into her stricken party. She, too, spoke passionately about the pattern of inequality that runs ruinously through our education system. “When I went to study law at Aberdeen University… I was surrounded by privately educated pupils who would spend holidays at their parents’ law firms; I would work preparing food containers for oil rigs… It made me realise that what I really needed to do was to change the system.”

It’s gratifying that the two most influential individuals in Scotland are women educated at comprehensive schools who didn’t have to take the silk road, paved with Daddy’s money, to make their presence felt in Scotland. At least we know that they attained their positions through their own hard work and sacrifice and no one else’s.

Yet before we all get too euphoric at the prospect of Scotland becoming a Shangri-la of fairness and inclusiveness in education, we need to be reminded of some inconvenient truths. Since devolution, Scotland has had an unbroken pattern of left-of-centre government, yet unearned privilege, elitism and social advantage run through our education system and poison everything.

Last year, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated: “There is clear evidence of a persistent gap in attainment between pupils from the richest and poorest households in Scotland. This gap starts in pre-school years and continues throughout primary and secondary school. In most cases, it widens as pupils progress through the school years. Most importantly, the poverty attainment gap has a direct impact on school-leaver destinations and thus the potential to determine income levels in adulthood.”

You could understand if this had flourished under the endless night of a Tory regime

You could understand if this had been allowed to flourish under the endless night of a Tory regime, but for it to have risen unchallenged in a country dominated by progressive politics is a condemnation of every administration and every cabinet secretary for education since the dawn of devolution. Political cowardice and absence of radical or independent thought condemn hundreds of our secondary schools to a twilight existence where all aspiration has fled while bad leadership and rank, rotten teaching flourish under an EIS staff protection racket.

According to the Rowntree report, in early secondary school only 28% of children from poorer families were performing well in numeracy, compared with 56% of those from advantaged backgrounds. Children from poorer families were also more likely to leave school early and without a qualification.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in 10 pupils from our most disadvantaged districts have been accepted to university this year. Figures from Ucas, the university clearing organisation, showed that only 9.7% of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods have won places at university, compared with 34.9% from our most affluent communities. In 2014, 9.6% of those from the poorest areas were offered places.

Last week, Sturgeon announced that a national testing regime for primary school pupils would help solve the problem. Nicola, if that’s the best you can come up with, then I guarantee that in 10 years, still probably on your watch, children from our poorest areas will still be failing. Why are you so afraid of implementing something more ? You are at the head of a government that has been in office for eight years and will remain so for at least another decade. You and your government are untouchable, yet your solutions to Scotland’s big problems are timid and fearful.

So here’s my blueprint for recovery (a more detailed version is available on request). You must reform the way our teachers are taught and seek to identify those with the special gifts required to reach children burdened by the handicap of social deprivation. Make provisions within the Dip Ed framework to this end. Similarly, identify the most gifted of our emerging head teachers and seek their agreement to guarantee the best 20 years of their careers to our most challenged schools. Pay each of them at a special premium rate. Loosen the EIS stranglehold, by which hundreds of bad teachers are allowed to reduce the life chances of thousands of pupils while their parents watch helplessly. The nation will support you in any stand-off with this outfit.

Encourage our elite universities to establish a widespread mentoring system to facilitate our poorest pupils’ routes into their courses. This would work by seeking out successful older students from working-class backgrounds and granting them a sabbatical to work with children from similar communities. Challenge them not to judge academic attainment solely by stark A grades on an exam certificate but to give added weight to a Higher gained after five years at Drumchapel Secondary as opposed to one gained at St Aloysius, where money and private tuition mean it’s virtually impossible to fail. And if our Russell Group universities continue to discriminate against children from poorer backgrounds, seek to ensure that they are penalised hard in their precious revenue streams of government-funded research.


Do not be afraid of thinking the unthinkable, of discriminating in favour of the many as opposed to the few. The usual suspects from the reactionary right accuse you of social engineering. So what? You would be reversing centuries of educational and cultural gerrymandering in favour of the privileged few. This is the time to do it, Nicola, and you have an historic opportunity. Don’t drop the ball.

Source: The Guardian