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Socioeconomic inequalities in education are among those ‘burning injustices’ that Theresa May, in her first speech as prime minister, pledged to put right. With media attention focusing on English policies, developments in other UK nations have often been ignored. Ten years after the SNP’s coming into office, isn’t it time to see what new insights we could get from Scotland?

Social mobility or social justice?

The Scottish school system is built on democratic foundations and egalitarian traditions. Expanding on this heritage, the SNP has championed an ideal of social justice rather than weaker notions of social mobility, favouring equality over extending privilege, supporting values of cooperation and co-education over local competition and meritocracy. The SNP government has been aiming high, but how far has it gone towards a socially just school system?

Social justice starts with equality of access to school. In successive OECD reports Scottish schools are reported to be more socially inclusive, compared with the OECD average, a feature which can be attributed to the locally-controlled comprehensive system retained in Scotland. It would be unrealistic to claim, though, that local hierarchies do not exist. By contrast in England, the growth of academies and free schools with very different admission practices, instead of levelling the playing field, has encouraged forms of overt or covert selection.

This has been borne out by research showing how academisation is linked to higher levels of socioeconomic segregation. And the problem is unlikely to be relieved by the expansion of grammar schools, known to be detrimental to other local schools. The pupil premium policy itself, which ties additional funding for disadvantaged children to eligibility to free school meals, tends to establish a socioeconomic differentiation between two groups of children (those who are eligible for free school means and those who are not) within their school – a questionable principle.

School or society?

Early SNP policies have been marked by a rejection of the targeted, school-based initiatives focused on closing the attainment gap that the pupil premium exemplifies in England. Universalist principles have driven the policy agenda, from quasi universal early-years education to a definition of the curriculum around the needs and rights of all children to a ‘broad, general education’. The Curriculum for Excellence has been associated with programmes dealing with social and health inequalities, such as GIRFEC (Getting It Right For Every Child), and with an ambitious Child Poverty Strategy now backed by legislation. However, this global response around ‘the whole child’ does not fit in easily with the growing pressure on schools to perform, at a time of declining Scottish performance in international league tables. Besides, universalist policies do not always work to the benefit of poorer families. Over the last four years the Scottish government has moved towards a more targeted, school-based approach, with a Scottish Attainment Fund dedicated to closing the gap in the most deprived areas.

How we can learn from Scotland

We can learn a lot from Scotland, but probably not by replicating policies in a totally different political environment. Instead, we should consider the strengths of Scotland’s whole-system approach as well as its unresolved issues – which are also ours.

First, attainment has been raised for all children, but inequalities now concentrate at the end of compulsory education where the attainment gap is widest. What matters now is to gain the higher credentials required to compete successfully on the job market. In that respect Scotland, sticking to a free tuition policy, has done hardly better than England, although targets have recently been set for the admission of disadvantaged students to university. More needs to be done to make high-level technical education attractive to all sections of the population and to ensure that poorer students have access to prestigious institutions – which would be a good measure of equality of outcomes.

A second cause for concern lies in the financial commitment to the reduction of inequalities, in a context of continuing austerity and reform of the UK tax and benefits systems. In England as in Scotland, budget cuts have compelled local authorities to phase out essential support services such as youth or child psychology services, or children’s centres in England.

The SNP government, faced with competing budget demands, has failed to maintain pre-2010 funding levels in secondary education, leaving local authorities and schools cash-strapped. In such a context, how can either global schemes or targeted policies make up for the difficulties experienced day after day within and beyond the school gates?

Evidence makes it clear that higher family income and access to services make a significant difference in children’s life chances. Underfunding those services and failing to support low-income families will eventually jeopardise the most elaborate strategies to open up opportunities.

New fiscal and social security powers have been devolved to the Scottish government, which should give it more leeway to address this issue. Will this new policy cycle hold more lessons in store for us?

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