Mixed Prospects for the Scottish Attainment Challenge?
By Michael Gregson
We should congratulate John Swinney’s commitment to the Scottish Attainment Challenge. £750 million over 5 years, £120 million through the ‘Pupil Equity Fund’. Targeted resources “to improve the life chances of all children and young people in Scotland.”
Following research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Scottish Government’s goal is to raise educational attainment amongst disadvantaged young people, ameliorating prospects despite inequalities in housing, employment, health, life expectancy, income, community safety, environment, and more.
What’s not to like? Funding is already supporting Family Link Workers, Literacy and Numeracy work, Digital Technology, Mental health support and other measures across the country. Schools in Glasgow are receiving £21 million.
Isn’t this unequivocally a good thing? Well, I hate to be a party pooper, but I think caution is needed, given the laudable boldness of Government intentions. Before the education stat-nerds create histograms, cross-referencing SCQF levels and SIMD quintiles to assess schools’ progress on their ‘journey to excellence’, we need to moderate our expectations.
If only the transformation of socioeconomic disparities were that simple! If getting the children into school, and then supporting them through Literacy or Numeracy assessments - of the right tariff - were the magic bullet to banish deprivation, poor health, inadequate housing, poverty, unemployment! With the best will in the world, tackling these issues goes beyond schools.
Indeed, even the goals of the Scottish Attainment Challenge may be unachievable, because of the very interconnectedness of deprivations, of endemic cultural realities. Newcastle University’s Gillian Pepper & Daniel Nettle have done important work. Their 2017 The Behavioural Constellation of Deprivation tells us that embedded disadvantage results in complex clusters of habitual behaviour. These are transmitted across generations, and by peer and cultural influences; and there are developmental mechanisms. In this context, while understandable, behaviour can appear irrational, self-destructive - especially from a different socioeconomic perspective.
The most disadvantaged perceive themselves having less control over their lives, and have a tendency to discount future rewards. This may lead to less healthy lifestyles, or a failure to strive in education; neither engaging with the present, or aiming for potential future opportunities.
If the Scottish Attainment Challenge is to achieve its educational goals, it has to complement other measures across society. According to Pepper & Nettle, even embedded behaviour can change, if perceptions of life opportunities, and of self-efficacy, can be shifted. External interventions, which reduce risks and improve prospects beyond the control of the disadvantaged person can, over time, encourage them to reduce risks and improve prospects within their control. So lessening harm by encouraging a reduction in smoking; increasing community safety, by means of lower speed limits; or improving nutrition by offering a breakfast club at school: these and other actions may increase the success of targeted educational interventions. Being patient, holistic, impacting on the whole environment, may just work.
Mr. Swinney is right to seek to improve the ‘life chances’ of disadvantaged children. This is worthwhile. The Education Endowment Foundation’s Report shows that even small rises in attainment can lead to significant increases in lifetime productivity and outcomes, benefitting both the individuals concerned and the nation as a whole. Educating means guiding, nurturing and supporting; it means learning from good practice; it means examining data strategically; it means using the human and practical resources available.
There is no magic bullet. The Scottish Attainment Challenge, complemented by other measures, could achieve much. But – and this is what politicians don’t want to hear - don’t expect quick results.
This article first appeared in The Herald, Saturday February 3rd 2018.
Dr Michael Gregson teaches English and Gaelic at Inverness Royal Academy