Last month our Chair, Alan Milburn and Douglas Hamilton held a series of meetings in Scotland to highlight the importance of social mobility, hear about the challenges facing Scottish society in making progress in improving it and to discuss the analysis and recommendations in its recent State of the Nation
In a speech to universities and further education college leaders, our Chair warned that, without urgent change, Scotland risks sleepwalking into a social mobility crisis. This warning was based on evidence that Scotland faces similar problems to the rest of the UK: large inequalities in educational outcomes and in access to the top jobs in Scotland remain entrenched and too many poor children in Scotland are failing to achieve their potential.
Children who live in the most deprived areas are only half as likely to be performing ‘very well’ as those who live in the most advantaged areas in the last year of primary school (16% versus 32%).
At secondary school only one in ten school leavers (11.2%) from the most deprived areas get at least five Highers at Level 6 or above compared to over half of those from the most advantaged areas (55.5%). The most recent data shows that only 399 –just 3.9% – of poor children in Scotland achieved three or more Highers at A grade.
These poor outcomes continue after young people leave school. Young people from the poorest backgrounds - those eligible for free school meals – are almost three times as likely to drop out after leaving school than others, with almost one in four (22.5%) not in education or work according to the Scottish Government’s own figures.
Scottish school leavers from poor backgrounds are also only a third as likely as others to enter higher education after leaving school, with only one in eight (12.8%) doing so. Additionally, poor students who do enter higher education are only half as likely to go to the elite “ancient universities” (8% versus 17% of others), with one in two of those entering higher education doing so at further education colleges rather than in universities.
Those from advantaged social backgrounds are over-represented in Scotland’s top professions: for example, Commission analysis suggests that almost half (46%) of senior judges in Scotland were educated in private schools compared to only 5% of the population as a whole.
But what can be done about this? Schools are one of the most important institutions in helping unlock children’s potential. The Commission’s report on Cracking the Code highlighted how schools can improve social mobility.
One such school which is beginning to crack the code is the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC). The Commission visited the school and saw how remarkable leadership is transforming the school. We found out that only a few years ago in 2012 only 1% of pupils received five or more Highers. Today the results have improved with 12% of pupils awarded five or more Highers, meaning these young people have more opportunities and choices about their future. Six pupils have begun studying at the University of Edinburgh, studying subjects like business and law.
How has the school got such remarkable results? Three main changes explain improvements: visionary and inspirational leadership, sophisticated use of data, and effective pupil and parental engagement.
The Head’s award winning and inspirational outlook for the school is underpinned by a strong belief that every pupil can achieve success irrespective of background or circumstance. Everyone in the whole school community – teachers, parents and children – is responsible for children’s learning, which includes ensuring children turn up to school every day and on time. This approach is yielding results, with attendance at a record high – close to the city average (92%), a vast improvement from 85% in 2009.
Data is used as a quality improvement mechanism to improve pupil performance. Ditching a clunky old system, the Head has developed a bespoke monitoring tool. But it is how this is used which is driving results. Every month pupil performance is evaluated. If pupils fall behind, then action is taken to address this.
The final school reform has been to overhaul parental and pupil engagement. Old style parents’ evenings, with low attendance, have been replaced with an appointment style system. Engagement levels have rocketed, with nearly 100% parental engagement between the school and teachers. Pupil engagement has improved too. Instead of daily morning registration sessions, these quarter of an hour slots are used to provide mentoring sessions with pupils, gearing them up for a day’s learning. The school proactively partners with local schemes such as LEAPs and Careers Academy UK, which provide aspirational activities to improve knowledge, awareness and experience of different careers and higher education options.
Of course, approaches like these are happening across Scottish schools. But the data on attainment tells its own story: too many poor children are missing out. The new Scottish Government programme for government offers an opportunity to address these issues. There is much to welcome in the proposals on education attainment. An emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy is essential and the introduction of an attainment advisor in every school should help.
Yet there is a conspicuous absence on how the Scottish Government plans to narrow the attainment gap and how this will be measured. Audit Scotland highlighted earlier this year that there’s no comparable national attainment for pupil outcomes until age 15. In other words, Scotland has no national data or way of knowing whether schools are effectively closing the attainment gap for the most disadvantaged young people until they are midway through their teenage years. This is too late.
As the Scottish Government begins to implement its new programme, it should perhaps reflect on the messages in the Commission’s Cracking the Code research. It is essential that schools have their own approaches to narrowing the gap; however, this should be underpinned by robust data which demonstrates process. Unless this happens, there is no way to know whether the attainment gap for the poorest children is improving or not.