Education policy needs to go back to school

University access is a sideshow. It is in the early years that our children’s futures are set.

There was so much negative data about Scottish education in the closing weeks of 2016 that it was inevitable some elements would receive less attention than they merited. In particular, the focus on university access obscures far more fundamental problems that condition all subsequent outcomes.

Scotland’s record on sending youngsters from less well-off backgrounds to university is now worse than England’s, despite the boastful rhetoric about “free tuition”. A system has developed that subsidises the better-off, further disadvantages poor kids and is leading most Scottish universities into financial crisis. That is quite a triple whammy in the guise of “egalitarianism”.

Postcode quotas for university entrance will not redress the balance. As Lucy Hunter Blackburn, the University of Edinburgh researcher on student finance, points out, the probable result will be to displace students from only slightly better-off backgrounds than those of the intended beneficiaries. In any case, half of disadvantaged Scottish youngsters live outside the 40 per cent of postcodes that are the target.

Such a strategy might convey the impression of activity while achieving next to nothing. The far bigger issue is that, regardless of cosmetic measures, a substantial and growing proportion of Scotland’s schoolchildren enter the education system with as much chance of visiting outer space as of ever seeing the inside of a university. Only when their prospects are improved will there be anything remotely “equal” about our education system.

The really damning news is that trends are heading in exactly the wrong direction. Forget university access as a benchmark because that is merely a symptom of the disease. The indictment of current priorities in education lies in the fact that more and more of our children cannot read, write or count properly at the points where these skills become crucial to life prospects.

It need not be like this. In 1997, my first visit as Scottish education minister was to a primary school in Edinburgh where early intervention was being piloted. The education convener of Lothian region, Elizabeth Maginnis, insisted on my witnessing the remarkable results of an initiative that involved a battery of measures to combat handicaps that children inherited in home environments where parents had suffered the same cycle of educational deprivation.

The message was straightforward. Early intervention worked but was extremely resource-intensive. It depended upon links between homes and schools to help parents who desperately wanted something better for their children. It certainly involved children entering the system as soon as possible through massive extension of pre-school provision. It demanded classroom assistants, additional needs staff and smaller class sizes so that every child could have optimum attention in these crucial early years.

Ministers’ reaction to terrible statistics is to stop publishing them

Scotland briefly led the way on early intervention across the UK but there were always pressures to dilute the resources involved. These pressures have prevailed. Since 2010, the number of nursery teachers has dropped by a third. Support staff have been cut by a fifth, with the loss of 4,000 posts across Scotland. Primary class sizes continue to increase, as teacher numbers reduce.

The philosophy of early intervention has been marginalised. Yet if we are serious about “narrowing the attainment gap”, this is the most relevant place to do it. By the age of seven or eight, it may not be certain which children will succeed in the lottery of life. But it is distressingly probable that those who by then lack the building blocks will continue to fall by the educational wayside.

Despite the evidence that attainment gaps in the early years are critical to what happens thereafter, the dilution of corrective measures is leading to outcomes that are a disgrace to our society and should shame our devolved government. Instead, the reaction to terrible statistics is to stop publishing them. In a little-noticed move, the government has confirmed that it is scrapping the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The final report on numeracy showed that between 2011 and 2015, the proportion of fourth-year primary children performing “well or very well” had dropped from 76 to 66 per cent. The final figures for literacy will be published in May.

According to the government, information will emerge in future from “teacher professional judgment data collection”. Educational experts are sceptical and anyway, they point out, it will take five years for any meaningful information to emerge. The immediate result is that SNP ministers will have obliterated another set of inconvenient annual headlines. It is less clear what benefit this will bring to Scottish kids who cannot read, write or count.

Once again, local authorities are to have their budgets cut on a scale that is disproportionate to any loss of revenue that Holyrood has suffered at the hands of Westminster. As long as that continues, the biggest losers will be families who depend on local authority services — and nowhere is that more evident than in our schools where a widening attainment gap is the corollary of enforced cuts.

Early intervention is further than ever from being the big educational priority of the government. But, just for a moment, imagine how different Scottish education and society might be if, for the past 20 years, we had stuck to the doctrine of throwing every available pound at early intervention. Apart from anything else, the university access gap would be of a very different order.

Brian Wilson was a Labour minister in Tony Blair’s government

Please wait...

Being a single father is not as tough as it may seem

Sign up for my newsletters to get motivated