Scotland’s educational apartheid shames the nation

Original post from The Guardian


Joanne Martin, a student from Possilpark, who found it difficult to get on to a medicine course. Photograph: Martin Shields/Newsquest Media Group
Joanne Martin, a student from Possilpark, who found it difficult to get on to a medicine course. Photograph: Martin Shields/Newsquest Media Group

Those of us who fondly delude ourselves that Scotland is the global mecca for the socially progressive really need to snap out of it soon. A good place to start this process would be to read the case study of Joanne Martin, expressed in the Herald last month. This rather wonderful 18-year-old from Glasgow’s Possilpark district, Scotland’s second most deprived neighbourhood, described her personal odyssey in pursuing her dream of a career in medicine.

Her profound testimony tells you everything you need to know about how inequality and unearned privilege remain ingrained in Scottish society. The favourite pastime of us on the so-called liberal left and the chic radical websites we turn to when we need a comfort blanket is to lob fruit at Westminster and the private school elitism that drives it. Instead, we should spend more time studying the pattern of unfairness and discrimination that underpins life in Scotland.

Overcoming odds in her life that would have sunk the overwhelming majority of Scottish students, Joanne gained the required academic qualifications to study medicine at four of the country’s most elite universities. She was rejected by all of them, an experience that will be very familiar to many other pupils from Scotland’s edgier communities. Eventually, she was accepted after one of the universities took into account a volunteer teaching spell in Africa and the addition of an Open University course.

Joanne, whose mother works as a cleaner, never had the private tuition that has become the new growth industry in the likes of Giffnock and Newton Mearns. In these places where schools are fenced in by an impregnable ring of 4x4s every day, the mobile telephone number of a willing maths tutor is the golden ticket. Bright children, whose creativity has been siphoned out of them by years of expensive hothouse rote education purchased for them by their parents, are thus propelled into the best universities.

Such is the clamour to be a doctor or a dentist or a vet in Scotland that these courses are absurdly oversubscribed. In interviews, pupils from poorer backgrounds can often be at a disadvantage compared with those who have been reared in acceptably perjink neighbourhoods. Thus a form of social engineering ensues. Joanne’s struggles to become a doctor were always going to harder than those whose designer education was purchased by Daddy’s share options.

In Scotland, if you are unlucky enough to be born into a disadvantaged community, you can more or less forget about a career in medicine or veterinary science. Indeed, it is much more difficult to access any of Scotland’s most esteemed degree courses if you went to school in a poor neighbourhood. This state of affairs has persisted for decades and has defeated every Scottish administration since 1999. It’s a national disgrace. What is the point of any bid for independence if we can’t end such educational gerrymandering to suit the elite in this country?

A first step would be to end the charitable status of each of Scotland’s private schools. We ought also to be taking a closer look at the teachers who choose careers in these places. Having obtained their teaching qualifications only after a massive outlay by the state, they ought to be required to spend a minimum of 20 years teaching in the state’s schools.

Then we need to find ways of forcing our elite universities into more just and progressive behaviour. Universities commonly cite a high drop-out rate for refusing to give more chances to pupils from poorer areas. Is that it? Do they have no imagination or will in tackling this? If they or the government were serious about this they would be seeking out successful students from challenging social backgrounds and offering them opportunities to mentor pupils from poorer neighbourhoods. That would show they were serious about expanding the academic gene pool beyond the little uniformed clones bred purely for the purposes of obtaining a partnership in McHarg, Drummond and Watson.

Surely, too, there must be a way of identifying those who are obviously bright but whose school academic performance was undermined by a cocktail of adverse social circumstances. Our five top universities could all help to fund an annual intermediate finishing school that is designed for the sole purpose of helping these children to make the starting line for a university career.

If the Scottish government wants to address why schools in England’s most disadvantaged areas are obtaining results that our comprehensive schools can only dream of then it must establish what I would term “educational enterprise zones”. These would include a cluster of secondary schools in the country’s poorest districts. In Glasgow, for instance, you could encompass all the schools that range in a sprawling north-east stretch from Glasgow Cross to the Baillieston lights and designate this worthy of special and accelerated government measures.

These would include identifying student teachers with leadership potential and training them for an entire career in inner-city schools. We should be prepared to remunerate these special leaders and teachers at a premium rate. In these enterprise zones, local firms would be offered an array of benefits and tax breaks according to how many properly paid, modern apprentices they would hire from the schools. In this way, effectively, these employers would become partners and stakeholders in the schools. And if all this means that the dismal stranglehold that the EIS continues to exert on hiring and disciplining of teachers is broken then hallelujah.

The words of Joanne Martin are far more eloquent than any of mine in describing the potential benefits of such an approach. “I knew growing up that I didn’t want to live in this area all my life and my dream was to become a doctor and travel around rural African villages to help others suffering from preventable diseases and educate them on ways to manage and improve health. I stuck in at school, worked very hard and studied a lot, and I was over the moon when I obtained the grades I need for medical school.”

How many more Joannes are there and how serious is Scotland about trying to reach them?

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