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Why Further Assessing Our Children Might Only Be a Test of Patience

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has made an impressive commitment to children in Scotland. She has staked her political reputation to the aim of eliminating the gap in attaining qualifications between Scotland's richest and poorest children.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has made an impressive commitment to children in Scotland. She has staked her political reputation to the aim of eliminating the gap in attaining qualifications between Scotland's richest and poorest children.

School leavers from the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland currently do half as well as school leavers from the most affluent areas.

In 2008, just over 2 In 10 students from the most deprived areas of Scotland gained one higher or equivalent. In the last 6 years this has improved to around 4 in 10, but is still shockingly low and well short of the 8 in 10 which is the figure for their more affluent peers.

This shameful expression of the inequality between the rich and the poor in Scotland has been known and commented on for decades. The Office of International Economic Co-operation and Development stated more than ten years ago that the success of Scottish children as adults was largely pre-determined by where they live.

Since then, Scotland has sought, both at local and national level, to improve the environments for all of our children through a programme of targeted services and interventions. The Scottish Government have, over the years, supported programmes which consider health, housing, community development, early years and preventative spending.

In particular, our country's education system is undergoing a radical transformation. The development and implementation of the curriculum for excellence, with its focus on the holistic education, including health and wellbeing, of the child, is a world leader. It sets out to provide a coherent, more flexible, enriched curriculum for children aged 3-18years in Scotland.

However, despite all this policy focus and investment and programmes, inequalities in health, disadvantage; jobs and, in particular, the attainment gap between rich and poor, remains stubbornly intractable.

Recent data available from our world-class 10 year longitudinal Growing up in Scotland research study has presented more evidence of a growing attainment gap, showing a difference in children between low and high income households at as young as three years old, widening significantly by the time the child is five.

The gap is real and evidenced. We know it exists, yet we still struggle to address it.

But now, a number of actions have been announced by the Scottish Government. Not least amongst these is a £100 million investment programme starting in seven of Scotland's 32 local authorities with the highest concentration of poverty. Initially, this money, which forms a Scottish Attainment Fund, will be distributed amongst schools who will use the funding to improve literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing amongst their pupils.

Building on the evidence around the importance of early years, family support and preventative spending, investment in some of our most deprived areas and families can only be a good thing.

Alongside investment in our education services, we need to ensure that when children leave the school gates they return home to an environment that is conducive to their physical, social and mental development. We need targeted support for parents and carers so that they are empowered to provide a stable home environment, enabling children in their care to thrive.

We need to ensure that the safety nets designed to help families in need do not suffer, as many have over the past few years. Our welfare system for families living in poverty, whether or not they are in-work, is under threat. We need continuity of investment in local services that many vulnerable and economically deprived children and their families rely on.

In addition to the Attainment Fund, the First Minister and her Government have placed education at the heart of the Programme for Government, announced just earlier this month, and have outlined a new National Improvement Framework as a catalyst for widespread and long term change and improvement.

We know that education is the key to generational change. Supporting our young people to grow and achieve academically will ultimately provide them with the skills to succeed in adult life.

Rather surprisingly, however, "standardised assessments" will be "at the heart" of the improvement drive but the evidence of the need to assess children even more than they are at present and indeed the impact on their learning, has not yet been spelt out.

We are all clear that effective assessment is a fundamental skill required of teachers, but whether more assessment of children's abilities will help eliminate Scotland's attainment gap is an open question.

If significant assessment already takes place - which many feel it does - but has not led to eliminating the gap, is the answer to assess children more? I would suggest not. The real question is why the education system is not responding to what assessment is already telling us about the improvements needed?

There are also arguments that if there is a focus on producing information on school performance for comparison purposes, it will lead to league tables, despite the general agreement across the board that these can be unhelpful. Partial raw data alone does not give a fair picture of how a school and its pupils are doing. Considerable interpretation of different types of raw data is required before you can meaningfully compare an urban school in an area of deprivation to a rural area of affluence, or compare in-school differences in pupils' attainment.

We welcome the investment and focus of our Scottish Government, and the courage of our First Minister to address the attainment gap. But we need to be mindful that focusing on achool-age education alone will not close the gap. Action across the range of inequality challenges is required and must be sustained, including recognition of the massive significance of the early years on later attainment.

Support, both financial and practical, needs to be available across the full spectrum of low-income families- from statutory services, across the voluntary sector, and into the home - where our children, and their families, need it most.

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