RF HeadshotRobert Foster, a Labour Party activist from Irvine, says educational inequality won’t be solved by standardised tests, but by tackling the underlying problems in our schools, and by taking on wealth inequality across Scotland.


I have now watched, read and re-read what the First Minister had to say yesterday morning. She set out her plan for tackling the attainment gap in our schools, as part of her speech outlining the SNP programme for government for the next year, and I still can’t believe it.

The First Minister explained how she was going to improve attainment by introducing standardised national examinations for primary 1, 3 and 7 pupils and pupils in S3, as some sort of miracle fix to our failing education system that’s been letting pupils down for years.

My son started primary school a few short weeks ago, to the usual fanfare of picture taking and tie sorting all the way to the front door of his school. He was happy and relaxed as he took his seat at his desk, and there wasn’t a tear in sight as he waved goodbye to his mum and I. That was not the case for all the kids in his class.

It was obvious that some of the kids’ parents weren’t able to make it that morning. That may have been due to them being unable to get time off work; maybe it was due to illness; or maybe it was because they aren’t in their child’s life at the moment. I don’t know, but it definitely made me think about the possible reasons why it was grannies and aunties stepping up to accompany them on the exciting day they became “big school boys and girls”.

My son’s school is in an area classed as being in the poorest 20% in the country, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. So he and his classmates already have the odds stacked against them. When it comes to exiting the school system and trying to get a decent job, or a place at university or college, our postcodes and circumstances are a barrier.

All the kids looked great that day in their new wee uniforms, and not a single one of them was aware of the uphill struggle that they or their peers from across the country will face in years to come – unless we start now to talk about what needs done to make sure every pupil has the same chance to achieve, and reach their full potential.

Pupils in our poorest areas are not failing to achieve because there are too few examinations. They are not failing to achieve because their teacher, who works with them five days a week, suddenly can’t recognise who is struggling and who is not and now needs a spreadsheet to tell them. They are not achieving, and they are not reaching their full potential within our education system, because of wealth inequality.

The Scottish Government is aware that there is plenty of evidence that shows people from the poorest areas in Scotland probably won’t get a university degree – or even get in the front door of a university in the first place – and they will have far more health problems and shorter life expectancy.

Let’s put that really bluntly. My son and I, the kids in his class, and their parents, are more likely to be dead sooner than those living in the most affluent areas of the country. Our circumstances mean we just won’t live as long. Let that sink in.

That’s the real life impact of wealth inequality, and a few extra maths lessons aren’t the solution to those problems.

Like all parents, I want my son to have every chance available to him. I want him to leave school not only with good grades, but as a confident individual who cares about those around him and who wants to make a difference to the lives of others. This won’t happen for him and all of his classmates unless the Scottish Government start to tackle the underlying problems in our schools:

  • class sizes need to be reduced;
  • cuts to provision for pupils with additional support needs have to be reversed;
  • the teacher/pupil ratio must be improved.

But most of all, inequality must be tackled head on. It’s hard to learn how to give your children the best start you possibly can when your roof is caving in, when you’re worried where the next pound for a loaf is coming from or when you’re too ill to be the parent you want to be.

Every parent in Scotland should have the opportunity to provide a safe home for their child through a strong social housing programme. Every parent in Scotland should be paid a fair wage to enable them to put healthy food into their child’s stomach. And every parent in Scotland should know that regardless of what school their child goes to they will have the same chance of success as every other child in the country.

Until we start to address the real issues of educational inequality we’re all just kidding ourselves on.