Testing times for Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland slips behind at school “An extract”

Testing times for Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland slips behind at school "An extract"
The National, by Lesley Riddoch 


Educational attainment is inextricably linked to family income and a positive social background. That’s why state schools in wealthy suburbs outperform expensive private schools, and wealthy children in large classes do better than poor kids in small ones. There is indeed only so much a school can do to equalise life chances when society won’t invest massively in pre-school where substantially better outcomes are still possible. Schools can only apply sticking plaster – but they can do that badly or well. 


According to an OECD report in 2007, schools in Scotland “are not strong enough to counter the negative effect of low social status on educational attainment”. It said other countries were far better at ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their potential. And those other countries aren’t just the maddeningly efficient Nordics. 


That’s worrying. If Scotland is a society riven with inequality – and it has been since industrialisation – we should be past masters at targeting compensatory resources on predictable problem areas. We’re not. Inequality and failing schools are two sides of the same tarnished coin. The most successful countries won’t even touch it – the Scots are still vainly fighting to flip it. 


Take Finland, where 95 per cent of kids go to state schools. Only the best students become teachers, and even primary teachers have Masters degrees that take five to six years to complete. Primary school is not glorified childcare – that’s done at kindergarten. So kids start school at seven ready to hit the ground running in formal education. Teachers are not necessarily higher paid than other professionals, but are definitely held in higher esteem. And by the by, Finns have smaller schools and class sizes than the Scots.


In Scotland, political energies are so focused on the “national question” that we constantly postpone that real moment of reckoning when Scots finally decide how much we really want to end poverty, under-performance and the need to plead “special circumstances” during international comparison. If poverty is churning out unteachable, unreachable Scots, why is there no sense of urgency, no national commission, no cross-party agreement on the permanent Nordic-style shift of resources to equalise income and opportunity that underpins their success? 


Another factor that can’t be swept away is the unusually early starting age of Scots schoolchildren. Yesterday Professor Sue Palmer, founder of the pressure group Upstart Scotland, tweeted; “Since 2000, Slovenia up; Scotland down. One key difference: Slovenia has high-quality play-based state kindergarten 3-6yrs.” 


Indeed, a 2013 letter to the UK Government, signed by around 130 early childhood education experts, advocated a delay to the start of formal “schooling” so Britain could join the 80 per cent of countries whose kids only begin formal education at the age of six or seven. 


But north and south of the border, that call has been ignored. Scotland talks the language of play, but remains firmly wedded to what’s ae been, with disastrous results for the poorest kids whose parents are least likely to coach, talk and encourage engaged play. Durham and York University academics recently found Scottish pupils from the most deprived areas are 14 months behind their more affluent peers when they reach primary school. 


No amount of national testing will wish away that gap. And while a more equal society is the main solution, a move away from early “schoolification” may be equally important. Evidence suggests children taught literacy skills from the age of five do no better in the long run than those who start at seven. On the other hand, an early start at school is linked to social, emotional and mental health problems in many children forced into formal learning before they are ready.


So why isn’t a later school starting age on the political agenda? 


Partly because it rocks the boat. But mostly because even progressive politicians fear voter reaction to the tabloid backlash that would inevitably follow a move away from our rigid, top-down system of schooling. Yet that is also why reform would be transformational. 


Parents, newspaper editors, teachers, politicians and wider society would have to decide if Scottish education should be based on modern evidence or what’s ae been. Change would require a collective and empowering act of faith in the innate ability of children to blossom if supported, not restricted. It would also signal the end of our panicky spoon-fed approach to learning – the product of centuries of o’er early formal schooling. 


Above all, Scots would have to embrace the hard truth that less (intervention) is more (productive). Eagerly stuffing education into five-year-old brains may be understandable – but it’s not rational, helpful or kind. 


Since education really does matter most to First Ministers, parents and civic society, shouldn’t we decide to discuss these tough questions instead of playing the predictable political blame game and wringing hands over lost Pisa positions?