Bridging the attainment gap

The gulf in attainment at schools between better-off and disadvantaged children is not a given, argues MELANIE MAIN

We have great schools here in Edinburgh.  We have committed and passionate teachers. We have engaged and active parents and students.

Curriculum for Excellence is giving our children and young people a much richer learning experience than any of us benefited from. That’s even with the birth pangs common to any new system and recognition that there is still work to be done to bring exam qualifications in line with the new curriculum.

Mel 2012 smilingIn Edinburgh’s education landscape there are two fault-lines, however.  One is the physical quality of our school estate.  Decades of under-investment are coming home to roost, at least for those school communities not yet housed in a new or renovated school.  That is why I have persistently argued, over the last three years, for greater capital investment in buildings and much better attention to day to day maintenance.

The other fault line is the attainment gap: the yawning gulf between those children and young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.  While attainment in general continues to rises right across the city this gap remains pretty much the same.  Two years ago, the independent report “By Diverse Means” reminded us that, in the last 20 years, too little has changed for young people from deprived backgrounds.

In Edinburgh, far fewer young people from deprived backgrounds get the qualifications which other young people take for granted, although some individual schools are excelling in bridging the gap. The capital is also some way below the national average.

Now the Scottish Government intends to place a legal duty on councils to narrow the attainment gap. Some people in the education sector have raised their hands in horror, citing wider social forces as being the principle problem and that poverty is a key cause of poorer outcomes. That’s right. Schools cannot possibly solve all social ills. But that does not mean they are powerless, and there is a danger in hiding behind this premise.

I don’t know a politician who is not concerned about the attainment gap. It’s not just about fairness.  If we want a society and an economy in which everyone can contribute to his or her full potential we need to get more serious about bridging the gap.

So genuine concern needs to translate into action and support for our hard working professionals working in schools. And fortunately, there is well-researched and far-reaching advice on offer which can be harnessed here in Edinburgh.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, for example, full-day pre-school education produces significantly higher reading and writing skills for low-income families. Co-operative learning, where children work in small groups, learning as a team, also works.  International studies have shown that increasing the teaching of reading in class could reduce the attainment gap by a third. And supporting parents to support their children is critical.

Across the city, fourth to sixth year students will be waiting anxiously on their exam results this summer. Inevitably, some will be elated; others disappointed. More broadly, some will find their time at school enriching; others slightly frustrating.  Wouldn’t it be real progress if poverty was no longer the main determinant of those contrasting emotions?

Cllr Melanie Main is the Green Education Spokesperson. This was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 30 June