Scotland’s school education system, particularly its secondary school system, both reflects and contributes to inequalities in a number of inter-related ways.
The first and most obvious way is that it is deliberately designed to create and/or measure differences in knowledge and learning capacities through its examination system. Performance in this is then used in high-stakes competitive processes operated by employers, training agencies, colleges and universities, as they select and sort young people for different post-school destinations. Inequality in measured outcome is a design feature of the system.
Second, the system has very different inputs. Young people who leave school at 18 will have attended school for around 17 per cent of their lives. During the remaining time, the quality of their learning is heavily influenced by their parents and carers, wider family, local environment and the rapidly changing national and global context which they access through personal experience, a variety of traditional curated media, the internet and social media. Abigail McKnight’s recent study, ‘The Glass Floor‘, shows how, in the competition for examination success, advantaged parents with high financial, social, networking and/or occupational capital maximise these differential inputs to ensure that their children do not fail.
A third inequality results from the interests and enthusiasms of the young person which, from the earliest years, are both influenced by their experience of school learning and affect their motivation to learn. The increasingly competitive character of school learning has a particularly strong effect – for some this is positive, encouraging greater efforts to succeed, but demotivation is the result for those who never succeed in the competition, those who are always, in the pejorative language of an earlier school era, at or near the ‘bottom of the class’. Young people also make choices based on what they see as both desirable and possible to them in their situation and increasingly assert their right to make such choices as they go through their teenage years. The schooling system, and the broader cultural context of 21st century plural developed societies, encourages, respects and values such choice as an important aspect of democratic living, even where the choices made may lead to undesirable outcomes.
A fourth source of inequality arises from the varied, and potentially intersecting , influences from socio-economic and geographic location, cultural traditions and the related social, cultural and interpretative frames young people use to make sense of their experience.
Close the gap
These different inequalities contribute to and are in their turn influenced by inequalities in examination performance. This is not just about individual capacity or effort – there is a clear relationship between socio-economic background and educational attainment on leaving school in Scotland, as in most developed societies. Although individuals buck the general trend, the statistics for Scotland as a whole show a straight linear relationship between levels of socio-economic advantage and examination performance. This gradient is gentler, however, in Scotland than in most other OECD countries. Scotland also has more resilient students (those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds who do well educationally). It also has more socially inclusive schools – where young people from unequal backgrounds mix in the same comprehensive secondary school – than the OECD average. Nevertheless, there is a gradient in examination attainment and the current government is determined to reduce it, to ‘close the gap’.
This may be more easily said than done. Additional money is now going in to support the learning of children from less advantaged backgrounds and this will no doubt be put to good use, and will often improve their educational experiences – a very desirable outcome. There have, indeed, already been significant improvements in the attainment levels of the poorest achieving groups over the past 25 to 30years, but every group, including the highest achieving, has also improved. In a competitive process, the most advantaged do not stand still and wait for others to catch up. They continue to use their competitive advantages to keep ahead.
These issues benefit from being viewed through a wider set of lenses. We need to explore the concept of equality and ask what kind of equality is desirable? In school education, equality of opportunity is much used, but is clearly a weaker form of equality than equality of outcome. Also important, as highlighted above, is equality of input. Equality of value – that each child and young person is respected and valued equally – is often missing from national debates, but is very important within school communities where an important message is ‘whatever the inequalities in wider society, every single one of you is equally important to us in here’.
Finding the right balance
In our recent review of the first 50 years of Scotland’s comprehensive secondary school system, I and my colleagues at Edinburgh University considered the desirable ‘equalities’ of democratic school education in the context of the other important democratic principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘fraternity’. Where individuals or groups are free to choose different paths in work or leisure or politics or lifestyle, there will inevitably be diverse, unequal outcomes. Given the freedom to do so, those with advantages of wealth, knowledge and social influence, for example, use their advantages to maintain their position. Liberty and equality are in constant tension, and political leaders have to find a balance that will command support in the country at large. Increases in equality can often only come at the expense of such liberty by, for example, evening out financial advantage to some extent through taxation revenue spent on education for all.
The interaction of liberty and equality is complicated. Over the past 50 years, for example, much larger numbers of young people have stayed in full time education beyond the years of compulsory schooling (at age 19, only 18 per cent were in full-time education in 1977, compared to 63 per cent by 2010) – this could be seen as an increase in ‘equality’. However, there are significant ‘inequalities’ within the tertiary sector: those in further and higher education now bear more of the cost of their education individually, while the site of ‘positional advantage’ has shifted, for many, to the post-graduate phase, where unfunded Masters degrees or unpaid internships continue to give those with access to private wealth competitive advantages in the labour market.
Another important value for schools, and less commonly heard in contemporary political debate, is what Bernard Crick called the ‘forgotten value’ of fraternity. Fraternity, stripped of its gendered overtones, is about personal face-to-face relationships. It involves empathy and emotion, relationships of warmth, affiliation and respect. Fraternity is a key purpose as well as a key value of democracy, where people are called to compromise and negotiate, share activities and share spaces, on a basis of mutual tolerance and respect. It is easy to ignore the interests of someone you never have to meet, much harder to do this face-to-face. In school settings ‘fraternity’, often missing from debates at a national or theoretical level, comes into its own. Many of the day-to-day challenges of school life can be boiled down to arguments about the balance to be struck between liberty and equality in a given situation – whose freedom is to be restricted to ensure greater equality? Fraternity, and its face-to-face recognition of the value of the other, eases the resolution of such potential conflicts of interests or values.
In my role as a headteacher within a school community, I often found that a fourth political principle, equity, also came into play in the daily life of the school: were the inevitable conflicts of interests or values resolved fairly? Pupils and parents would often accept a limitation on their freedom or an apparent inequality of input or outcome, if they believed that the process followed was fair, and those making the decisions were trusted. However, the pressures on schools to select and sort young people for different post-school destinations continue to make it difficult for schools to value all equally, when the only public measure of their achievement, the examination system, is clearly designed to do exactly the opposite.
Individuals may not have equal value in the labour market, or as potential tertiary sector students, but they do have equal value in their own right. The democratic principle that every human life has equal value should be reflected more fully at every stage of our school system. I have argued that Scotland should accord equal value to young people by developing a broadly based non-competitive graduation certificate, accessible to all at age 18 – one that includes examination success, but also the many other desirable attributes, skills and achievements which individual young people can cultivate and develop throughout their time in school education. The process of ‘graduation’ from school education, capturing equally for each individual their special character and talents, has the potential to balance the selective function of school education for potentially unequal futures with the core educational message that each individual is uniquely precious.
In 2015 Professor Richard Freeman from the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh convened a group to discuss inequality. They found their discussion so useful that they kept meeting and discussing. In 2017 all 22 participants contributed to Working for Equality: Policy, politics, people edited by Richard Freeman, Fiona McHardy and Danny Murphy. The book, from which this extract comes, can be purchased online from www.postcardsfromscotland.co.