Head Examination

This weekend, a minor fracas broke out in Scottish education circles that barely broke the surface of the media. Professor Andy Hargreaves, an educationalist based at Boston College in the United States, was reported as saying that “England’s education system was obsessed with testing children almost to destruction” and that Scotland’s “will become better than its English counterpart if its fledgling school curriculum is implemented effectively.”

Education secretary Mike Russell found that understandably encouraging, commenting “Such a strong international endorsement of Curriculum for Excellence shows we are moving in the right direction”. And yet, Carole Ford, retired head of Kilmarnock Academy and former president of School Leaders Scotland retorted “the main problem is that there’s no external assessment whatsoever in the pri­mary sector. Teachers know their kids, and don’t like marking them down.”

Clearly there is no meeting of minds between the minister and the chalk face—but then there seldom is. Education has to be one of the worst areas of endeavour in Scotland where those who practice it are most at loggerheads with those who govern it. However, this should not be seen as round umpteen of that bout—and still less another jingoistic ‘yah-boo-sucks’ one-up-man-ship on England—but time for some serious anaysis.

Everybody liked this year’s school exam results which were (again) better than last year’s. But, as this blog has pointed out, there is a natural collusion of teachers, pupils and government in making it so because no-one gains if they get worse. Good results are the key to a university education, which everyone from government to employers are claiming is an unalloyed good. But, with the proportion going to university rising from 19% in 1989 to over 40% now, the mismatch of school focus with graduate reality has become damaging both to students and the economy.

A 2008 study by Francis Green and Yu Zhu at the University of Kent found that a third of graduates were “overqualified”, doing work that wouldn’t usually require a university degree. One out of every 10 graduates was “really overqualified” – doing a job that didn’t use any of their costly university training. Spicerhaart, the lettings agent, has its own graduate-training scheme. Only firsts and 2:1s need apply; stick it out for two years, and you can manage a local lettings agency. What’s getting lost in all this is the original virtue of a Scottish education—breadth and flexibility—as opposed to a focus of training for professional careers via narrowing ‘A’ level subjects and ‘The Greats’ that has so long dominated English education.

Examining Scottish school results shows how far this has already gone with league tables that focus on university-qualifying Highers achieved. This applies in spades to the private schools but they pride themselves as hothouses for future high-flying careers so you get what it says on the very expensive tin. But the rest of the 384 high schools in Scotland exhibit a huge variety of results and, unfortunately, an even wider swathe of NEET (not in employment, education or training) among its former pupils.

STV has published its own league table of state schools, but this is ranked purely on the percentage of the S4 cohort in each school that achieves 5 of more higher passes in later years. On that measure, East Renfrewshire and East Dumbartonshire pack heavily into the top decile, along with Aberdeen’s Cults, Edinburgh’s Boroughmuir and Glasgow’s Jordanhill. Trailing in the lowest decile are Dundee’s Craigie, Edinburgh’s Wester Hailes and Glasgow’s Castlemilk. East Lothian comes in averaging in the middle, with three schools well above and three others well below that average.

All of this is fairly unsurprising. Such league tables are criticised by many for not taking many key factors into account, not least the strong correlation that exists between socially deprived areas and poor academic performance. It is understandably difficult to perform well at school in a substandard, perhaps noisy or disruptive household, with neither support nor example from them to achieve among peer pressure that is all too often the exact opposite. But what if allowance is made for this by multiplying higher results by a factor that can be over two, using the free school meal entitlement as a measure of the depredation in the school catchment?

The results are surprising in that, despite new entries in the top decile (like Notre Dame in both Glasgow and Inverclyde—61st to 2nd & 93rd to 5th respectively) the clutch of East Renfrewshire & East Dunbartonshire schools, plus most of the usual suspects remain. At the other end, while Wester Hailes still languishes in the bottom decile, Craigie moves up into the ninth decile (367th to 323rd) and Castlemilk into the eighth (371st to 306th). That may be a better estimate of their actual performance but it is hard to argue that pupils are leaving with adequate qualifications, even for the social circumstances.

In fact, most disappointing is the case of East Lothian, whose six high schools fall into two distinct groups of three. Evaluated under the STV approach, some disparity might be expected because of a variety of social backgrounds of the six main towns in the county. However, applying the social modifier described above, almost all of their ratings deteriorate—and in a uniform manner across all six, dropping two deciles in five out of six cases, as shown in Table 1.

Comparison of STV School Result Ratings with Modified Ratings

Table 1—Comparison of STV School Result Ratings with Modified Ratings

This seems entirely unexpected. That the three better performing schools should be lower rated when social factors are added would seem logical. But those schools with the more deprived population do equally as badly with the modification and the EL Average drops two deciles in sympathy with that. Examining the modifier for the bottom three, it seems their free school meal entitlement (9.8 – 12.0) is only just above those of the better performing trio (4.4 – 7.7).

So, in East Lothian’s case, any adjustment for social deprivation to explain disparities appears misplaced—1,000’s of new homes in all three western school catchment areas has brought the social mix of the county nearly into balance, with none near the 54 rating of Edinburgh’s Castlebrae or the 43 at Glasgow’s Lochend. (In fact the worst 20 are all in Edinburgh or Glasgow). So what’s the explanation for such disparity? Perhaps it’s a symptom of community dissolution amidst relative affluence?

Examination of school sport in East Lothian soon disproves that. Rugby is the game of choice in all East Lothian High Schools and the Scottish Rugby Union maintains a score card on all Scottish schools, most of whom play rugby as the main sport. They also compile a table for rating teams across the local authorities, shown in Table 2.

Table 2—SRU Rating of Top Performing School Rugby Teams by Council

Table 2—SRU Rating of Top Performing School Rugby Teams by Council

Here we see that the top half of all councils by SRU’s measure are almost exclusively rural councils, many of which inhabit the middle deciles of academic performance. There are few industrial heritage sites or relatively minor levels of social deprivation to be found in any of the above. So why is it that the hard work and dedication (not to mention social support) necessary for success on the rugby field appears strongly present across all East Lothian when the academic equivalent seems present only weakly present in some?
Nobody’s going to tell you that an evening rugby training in December is easier than the same evening spent cribbing Women in Love for an English exam.

Those rugby players fight hard for a place on the 1st XV. And nobody gets a careers guidance officer pushing them into any XV over taking Higher French. Aren’t we now at that foolish point, begun sometime in the 1980’s (when only 1 in 5 went on to Uni) when far too many inadequate pupils get shovelled into academic careers that make little sense to them (or to logic)? They are drafted into the 40+% we now expect to wander the dreaming spires for 3-4 of the most momentous years of anyone’s life.

East Lothian Rugby is just one measure of what can happen when staff, pupils and parents agree on a goal. But, worse than underselling sports like rugby, why do schools persist in placing academic exam results ahead of turning out creative carpenters, subtle cooks and electronic gizmo wizards? By disrespecting vocational training, all of us willfully ignore properly educating a good third of human endeavour on the useful—and lucrative—paths available to them.There are millionaire farmers and plumbers, most of whom enjoy getting their fingernails dirty to see a job well done.

Andy Hargreaves only said the half of it when he claimed “English schools are testing children almost to destruction”. In fact, Scottish schools and their CfE may indeed be avoiding that during a school career, but then they insist on it being the only measure that matters, come the real decision point of that career—school leaving.

The present parent/teacher/pupil self-interest conspiracy that worships written exams (as a route to natty careers) needs to have a word with itself. The careers guidance ‘experts’ who recommend media studies or social anthropology as well paying career paths need to get out more. Both need to lobby HMI and the minister for a sea change in priorities to drop student numbers and boost quality vocational training (and its status) by harnessing the competitive enthusiasm seen in rugby. That might actually see exam results improve as only those who need to take them do so. Or have they all been playing rugby without head protection too long?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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