Three steps Scotland can take to close the attainment gap between rich and poor children

The Scottish Government, local authorities and schools must act fast to give Scotland’s poorer children better life chances.

The Scottish Government, local authorities and schools must act fast to give Scotland’s poorer children better life chances, say Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu.

Today JRF publishes our review of the evidence on the links between education and poverty in Scotland.

We knew that kids get unfair chances from their schooling, but the evidence on just how unfair speaks volumes about the need for action. Life chances depend on how well children do in school – and schools need to focus on their attainment as a key factor in promoting equity.

When they start school, children from poorer families are likely to have a vocabulary that is on average 13 months behind those from richer families, and be 10 months behind in problem-solving. The differences amplify as they move through the system.

By early secondary school, 28 per cent of low-income pupils are doing well at mathematics compared to 56 per cent of those from advantaged backgrounds. Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to leave school early, with poorer qualifications.

They are twice as likely to be unemployed and are likely to earn only around half as much as those who leave with better qualifications. But the evidence shows this doesn’t need to be the case. Schools can do a lot, and in Scotland we have the freedom to make the changes that can make a difference. We believe there are three big steps needed to effect change:

  1. Provide guidance for schools on how to use the policies and freedoms that are in place to make a difference to children from low-income families. The Scottish Government, national agencies and local authorities need to act on this fast.
  2. Start talking to schools about the data they need, and how they must use it. Data can help teachers to check the impact of the curriculum, teaching and school system is having on the attainment of children from low-income households, so they can adapt it if needs be. At the moment, this is hard in many Scottish primary and early secondary schools because reliable data about attainment is not available for every child, or if the school buys in tests, the results arrive too late to be useful to the teacher. The Government, local authorities or schools need to decide how to make this happen.
  3. Give teachers and head teachers robust knowledge about what has worked, or what is likely to work, for the particular communities or children in their own schools. Teachers deserve professional advice, based on detailed evaluations and research evidence of what works to close the poverty attainment gap. They need information about what works, for whom, in which contexts and why. Scotland’s universities, its Government, its advisory bodies and local authorities can all contribute to this so that schools make the sort of changes that matter for Scotland’s poorest children.