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Mind the Gap

by on 2017/04/26

By Neil McLennan, alumni member of the Young Academy of Scotland

Within Scottish education just now, “MIND THE GAP” is on the minds of everyone – practitioners, policy makers, researchers and the press. It seems the gap will be closed, no matter what. It is the key focus of Scottish education policy currently, and preys on the minds of those involved with supporting young people’s education in this country.

Last week The National (“Figures show progress on closing attainment gap” Wednesday 12 April 2017) carried a headline which would have piqued the interest and delighted many of those involved in the exercise of closing, or at least narrowing, the attainment gap.

Most would have been looking forward to reading a ‘good news’ story and hearing how the work to date on improving attainment whilst also closing the gap between the richest and poorest children had progressed. Sadly however, it appears the headline and the story must have got mixed up in the editing process. The story reflected the increasing number of young people entering higher education or college directly from school (figures quoted:- a rise from 20% coming from poorer backgrounds  in 2012 to 24% last year). The report did suggest there was still much work to do as those from the least deprived families were still 2.5 times more likely to go into higher education than those from the least deprived families.

However, one must be careful here, as always with rogue headlines and in the era of ‘fake news.’ The National’s figures in themselves do not demonstrate progress with closing the attainment gap per se. The figures may demonstrate progress with entry to HEI and FE, most probably attributed to successful Widening Access strategies. However, they do not directly, or necessarily, show better exam performance or attainment.

As pressure mounts to meet the policy object of closing the attainment gap all need to be careful with how this is put into practice with potential perverse incentives creeping into the education system, and also the risk of manipulation of figures and how results are portrayed. How education statistics are portrayed in policy, press releases and public speeches will require close attention over the coming months and years as attention on the ‘closing the gap’ agenda continues.

Times Education Supplement this week (14 April 2017) reflected a further the issue in one of its articles when it noted the shifting pass marks. A Grade D in National 5 equates to a pass and the threshold for a pass have moved from 45% to 40%. Some will raise an eyebrow at a D being considered a pass and even more so given the lower percentage level at which one can achieve a ‘pass.’ Massaging the figures will be a concern for many, with results for senior students at National Qualifications level, of importance when entering the job market and ongoing education.

What about those in the early stages of secondary school (S1-S3) and primary schools? The issue of testing continues to cause tensions with many educationalists philosophically disagreeing with the concept of testing younger children. Scotland did not have a history of such testing until 5-14 assessments were brought in. Moreover educationalists are quick to point out that testing does not improve performance or the education system as a whole. Countries with testing regimes do not necessarily show longitudinal and consistent improvement against comparators. With that in mind, in the spirit of collegiality and professional trust, results were recently captured assessing the Curriculum for Excellence based on teachers’ professional judgement. However, the validity of these could be questioned and the robustness of moderation could have varied across the country.

One might suggest the gap at present seems to be in the system itself, with a mishmash of approaches across the system, a shifting of goalposts with regards to pass marks and, at the same time, a continuous message and mission of “close the gap.” One might consider if the system is set up appropriately to pursue our aims in education.  Indeed, what are those aims?  This being perhaps the focus of a future paper altogether.

This summer the government will share next steps with regards to the governance review of Scottish education. Many school managers offered concerns with local authority control in the Commission for School Reform (Commission set up in November 2011 and reporting early in 2013). The report stated ‘The best way of achieving this objective is to increase the autonomy of individual schools’ whilst commenting on the current system which it described as “disempowering.” However, some previously in support of such devolved powers have now retracted from significant levels of autonomy. One might consider how much the way in which such free market models have played out in England have influenced recent conservatism on the issue of more power at school level. This coupled with protectionism within  ‘the bureaucracy’ might hamstring any significant changes to the way Scottish education is governed, controlled and supported. This all may have an impact on the eventual outcome of both how children are assessed (locally, nationally, professional judgement or external scrutiny) and also how the improvement agenda and ‘closing the gap’ mission achieve success or otherwise.

However, with potential ‘fake news’ stories like the one which opened this commentary (or at the very least with the story and the headline not matching) and the facts and background which sit beneath, one might consider what the best way to run Scottish education actually is?

Finally, this needs to be set against an international and longitudinal backdrop. Leading educationalists have noted an movement towards a set of principles in educational improvement which generically are described as the Global Education Reform Movement (Passi Sahlberg and others Countries following a GERM type model see a standardization of education, a focus on knowledge through cores subjects,  didactic and risk averse teaching approaches, autonomy but with high accountability, and high stakes testing. There are however those attempting to broaden both the scope and purpose of education, and looking at innovative ways in which we can affect positive change on education. The International Positive Education Network ( are one of those with their blend of academics alongside character and wellbeing.

Amidst all this change and the detail which sits beneath a single headline it might be worth considering critical analysis of three key areas:-

  • Where does responsibility sit best to ensure that the gap is narrowed in educational attainment and continuous improvement happens? This is sure to be key to the forthcoming firming up of views on the Governance of Scottish school education.
  • What robust, detailed and longitudinal  research has been undertaken into the governance systems, exam systems and learning & teaching of the countries who are either high performing or have shown the most progress over short, medium and long terms? How has this research been fed into the consultation on governance for Scottish education? Without it we are progressing without informed opinion.  Hardly in the spirit of education. Amidst all of its various system, structures and approaches; opinions and facts we must make sure we “mind the gap.”
  • And more broadly what is education for?


From → Education

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