Pupils still pay the price of poverty

Poverty remains the biggest single factor in determining how Scotland's primary schools are likely to perform in tests, a Herald study has shown. Writing ability is particularly closely related to social deprivation, with the wealthiest schools doing twice as well as the poorest.

The numbers give a "desperately disappointing" picture of the first cohort to complete their primary school education under a Labour government, according to education experts who say an intense, society-wide effort is needed to eradicate the social deprivation that makes school tests an unfair contest, which the poorest are bound to lose.

The Herald has been able to show there remains a huge correlation between social deprivation and achievement. We took the results obtained under the Freedom of Information Act forwhat percentage of last year’s primary sevens at Scotland’s schools passed Level D tests aimed at their age group and mapped them on to free school meal entitlement. The correlation is particularly marked for schools with free school meal entitlement of more than half of the roll. These schools are virtually certain to produce low

“We have to raise the level of the debate and get away from sensational headlines which vilify certain schools, ” says Walter Humes, professor of education at the University of Aberdeen. “I would criticise the politicians for focusing too much on what is happening in the schools. There needs to be a recognition that these schools may be doing a great
job but that they can’t solve all of society’s problems.

“There have been a lot of initiatives, but they need to be joined up across education and housing and health and employment in these areas, and they need to bed in over a longer timescale.”

Lorne Primary School in the Leith area of Edinburgh had a reasonable set of results – 84per cent reached the age-specific target of level D in reading, 63per cent in maths and 59per cent in writing. But set against a free school meal level of 43per cent and a high one third of pupils having English as a foreign language, the results look impressive.

However, head teacher Margaret Burnett warns that while using the results of 2000 schools to demonstrate an underlying pattern may be valid, they are not a fair way to measure individual schools against each other. She says: “If you have 20 children in primary seven and six of them have a record of needs because of specific learning difficulties, you are not going to score highly. Some years our primary seven would not have done as well as last year. Also, every school sits different tests at different

She says she was angry that schools had been criticised for not getting more children to level D, adding: “There was never any expectation that all children were going to get to level D. It is not a minimum standard. People don’t understand what it is. For instance, level D reading comprehension is probably about what you would need to read The Herald.

“I’m concerned that children will arrive in secondary and feel they are failures if they haven’t achieved level D, but for some children in mainstream school, getting to level A or B or C is a huge achievement.”

She says the writing targets in which children have to complete one factual and one imaginative piece of writing were particularly difficult. Teachers are allotted the test material from a data bank.

“One that the computer regularly spews out is ‘A Brave Dog’, ” she says. “My heart sinks when we get that because it’s fine if you have a dog or if you know a dog but some of my children really struggle with it. It just depends on if the test piece fires their imagination or not and if it doesn’t you find they don’t score highly.”

Burnett feels that for many of her pupils, a lack of experience of life can handicap them when it comes to imaginative writing, saying: “Every child in this school goes to see Scottish Opera or Scottish Ballet or goes to the theatre, and for some of them that will be their first time in a theatre.”

However, she does believe that the underlying trend is improving. She says “The children’s attainment levels are getting better. Eight years ago, for instance, we had cafeteria-style lunches that were serving what to my mind was junk food. We didn’t have learning assistants, we had only part-time learning support.

“It’s not all about money, but it takes a lot of extra resources to really address the problems some of these children have.

“The primary seven that came through last year benefited from early intervention at the nursery stage and reading recovery. Expectations for them have been much higher than in the past. All that is making a difference but it will take a long time, perhaps a generation, to come through.”

Burnett does not believe in suppressing information, but is concerned that publication of primary school league tables may become an annual event. In Ireland that is prevented by a clause in the Education Act that enables education authorities to withhold information that may be used to compile comparative league tables.

Burnett would not support such a move in Scotland, but argues that the annual target each school is given in consultation with the local authority for what percentage of the roll should be expected to achieve their age-specific level is a fairer way of measuring how a school is doing. She publishes her target, currently 75per cent, in a newsletter to parents each year and lets them know if the school has met it.

Lorna Glen, head of Victoria Road School in the Torry district of Aberdeen, has 41per cent free school meal entitlement. Her school’s results revealed 71per cent achieved level D reading, 67per cent maths and 61per cent writing. She believes openness about targets is an important part of raising expectations, saying: “I’d be happy to tell parents what percentage of children at this school were achieving their targets. I also talk openly to the children about what the targets are and where they are expected to be at their age.”

Believing a team approach is important, she says: “For me it’s all about getting the relationships right. Relationships take work and for some of our children it is really important they have relationships with an adult they can trust. Will they be seeing daddy at the weekend? Maybe yes, maybe no, but they know their teacherwill be there on Monday morning and they need to know they can trust in that relationship. I say to the teachers
don’t worry about getting their noses to the grindstone, concentrate on the relationship – if you get the relationships right, the reading and the writing will follow.”

The link between poverty and achievement seems particularly strong in urban areas – the more rural schools in Highland, Moray and Fife produced higher average results even where free school meal ratios were high. “Rural schools tend to have smaller class sizes but there could also be a cultural explanation for that, it may be to do with putting a high value on education, ” Humes says.

Professor Eric Wilkinson, of the University of Glasgow, is calling for a massive injection of resources into problem areas, believing this is a problem to be tackled not just by politicians and communities but by the business sector. He says: “It is going to take a huge concerted effort to eradicate this blight on our society.”

Bronwen Cohen, the chair of Children in Society, says the current Parental Involvement Bill is too narrowly focused.

Robin Harper, MSP and green party spokesman on education, says: “We need to address real poverty if we’re to give young people the best educational chances. Investing in education is only part of the answer. Give them a decent place to live in, maintain estates to the same high standards as the centre of our cities, invest in high quality local amenities instead of the wastelands that exist on the outskirts of our cities, with poorly designed schools and houses that have been social nightmares for the last 45 years.

“We need to be doing more to make sure that children get not just free school meals but good nutritious food. We should be doing far more to involve parents and families in education.

“If we don’t support the children that teachers are trying to teach by giving them decent houses, decent surroundings, good nutritious food and early interventions to help single mothers and young families in poverty, then we are cruelly letting our children down and undermining the struggles of their teachers.”

Children’s Commissioner Kathleen Marshall points out the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to “take all necessary measures to eliminate the inequalities in educational achievement between children from different groups”.

She adds: “It is clearly concerning that levels of educational attainment appear to be so linked with levels of affluence. I know there have been a number of useful initiatives to try to address the situation, but that is not good enough for the children who are currently losing out.”

We looked at data released under the freedom of information act for more than 2000 primary schools in Scotland showing what percentage of primary sevens last year achieved level D in reading writing and maths at each school. Level D for reading, for example, would be the ability to read a newspaper We then obtained the figures for free school meal entitlement for each school (commonly used as a measure of social deprivation).

Warning A credit was omitted from this feature. We are grateful to Edinburgh-based data-analysis company Quadstone for their help in compiling the statistics and graphs which accompany the article.

The Scottish Herald
6th December 2005