From the cradle to the grave - Inequality and poverty in Scottish education

The first months of 2017 have been dominated by headlines of an attainment gap in education between the richest and poorest children in Scotland. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged education is her top priority amidst concern at falling standards in education overall. While elitist academics and politicians eagerly discuss the riddle of inequality in education, they cannot accept that the answer is rooted in poverty itself.

According to Scottish government statistics, children from wealthier areas outperform children from poorer areas from the moment they begin primary school (The Herald 14 December 2016). Around 90% of children from richer postcodes achieved the standards of reading, writing and numeracy expected of them by teachers. This compares to around 74% of children from the poorest areas. By Primary Seven, around 80% of children from the 20% wealthiest areas achieved the expected Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) standards of writing and numeracy, while almost half of children from the 20% most deprived areas failed to meet these levels.

By the end of secondary school Scottish 18-year-olds from the fifth most advantaged areas are four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the fifth most deprived areas. This is the worst record in the UK, according to research published by the educational charity Sutton Trust. In England the most advantaged are 2.4 times more likely to go to university than the most deprived, and in Wales and Northern Ireland they are three times more likely. 54% of Scottish medical students come from the wealthiest 20% of postcodes (The Guardian 22 January 2016). Latest figures show that the current number of students from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland starting university stands at just 10.9%, an increase of just 3.7% percentage points since 2006. The Scottish National Party (SNP) government has set the goal of raising this to 20% by 2030 yet massive cuts to college funding in recent years have made the bridge between school and university even more difficult to cross for working class students.

For those who do graduate, the next hurdle is to find a job. Sutton Trust statistics released in 2016 showed that privately-educated university graduates overwhelmingly dominate the UK’s leading professions such as law, politics, medicine, journalism, despite private education catering for only 7% of the school population. 74% of top judges, 51% of leading print journalists and 61% of top doctors were privately educated. In Scotland just 4.3% of children attend one of 72 independent fee paying schools; just over 30,000 children in 2015. The total number of pupils in Scottish education at the time was 679,840.

The normalisation of deep rooted inequality in Scottish society and education is illustrated by the latest Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (31 August 2016). Nicola Sturgeon’s own constituency, Govanhill, in the Southside of Glasgow, was ranked in the worst 10% of poorest areas in Scotland. A short walk from the four state-funded primary schools in Govanhill stands the independent fee-paying Hutcheson’s Grammar School. Fees for a child entering Primary One are £9,098 per year; those for the nearby Hutcheson’s secondary school rise to £11,304. The average annual salary for someone working full-time on the minimum wage is just above £12,000.

The existence of these elitist independent fee-paying schools has not even featured in the SNP government’s debate about closing the attainment gap. In 2016 68% of Hutcheson’s secondary pupils in year five achieved Higher A grades. The Higher pass rate was 96.5%. In comparison only 47% of pupils at the state-funded Holyrood Secondary school, also in Glasgow’s Southside, achieved even the minimum three Highers. 40% of Holyrood’s secondary pupils live in the 20% most deprived postcodes in Scotland (The Evening Times 10 February 2017).

You can’t teach hungry children

Current estimates of child poverty in Scotland stand at around 220,000 children. Half of all children in poverty in Scotland live in working families (Sunday Herald 5 February 2017). Research by the End Child Poverty Coalition shows that at the end of 2015 just over 14% of children in East Renfrewshire, housing some of the most affluent suburbs in the country, were living in poverty after housing costs, compared to over 34% of children in Glasgow. Unsurprisingly, 14% more children in East Renfrewshire achieved expected levels of reading shortly after starting school compared to children in Glasgow (The Herald 14 December 2016).

A UK-wide poll of 400 teachers last year showed that 40% of education staff were aware of pupils who come to school hungry, have no money for a lunch and do not receive free school meals. 15% reported bringing in food or money for those pupils.

Victorian solutions to Victorian problems

The Child Poverty Action Group and various charities are calling on the Scottish government to top up child benefit by £5 a week, which would lift around 30,000 Scottish youngsters out of the official poverty bracket. Others propose increasing child tax credits, introducing a basic universal income and asking employers to pay a living wage.

The Scottish government responded with a February budget which, in the words of the Sunday Herald (5 February 2017) brazenly ‘spared the wealthy from higher income tax rates and neglected to say anything on topping up benefits’. The SNP is directly complicit in implementing austerity. Another round of council cuts to jobs and services were handed down from central government in February 2017 with cuts being implemented by SNP-controlled local councils in Dundee, Angus and the SNP/Labour coalition council in Edinburgh. All of this hits children from deprived backgrounds the most.

School support staff numbers in Scotland have dropped by 1,841 since 2010 and teachers by 1,389 despite the 6,707 increase in the number of pupils. Library staff and services have been slashed, with an immediate impact on poorer pupils with no study space or computer access at home. SNP claims of tackling the education attainment gap by ploughing £750m into the Scottish Attainment Challenge while cutting the services which support the poorest pupils and areas are a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The SNP government’s own flagship education policy, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), was implemented across Scotland in 2010/11. CfE was designed to achieve a ‘transformation in education in Scotland by providing a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum from 3 to 18 years old.’ Six years on there is widespread outcry about falling attainment standards across all wealth groups, with findings published by the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessments showing a decline in scores for maths, reading and science, the worst results recorded since 2000.

The elites of academia cannot admit to having no solution in the face of failure and inequality. So instead leading Scottish education academic Keir Bloomer, one of the key architects of the CfE, is advocating longer school days and fewer holidays for pupils from the poorest areas. He moralises: ‘If you make a successful educational system for them you can change them from benefit recipients to taxpayers.’

From this understanding of education in Scotland, we can see that any claim to be tackling Scotland’s attainment gap within a capitalist framework is simply window dressing. An education system which allows all children and young adults to achieve their full potential as individuals in a collective humane society, educating them to fight the injustice of today’s world, can only be built with the destruction of class society and imperialism and its replacement by socialism.

Dominic Mulgrew

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017