Education, class and interwoven inequalities

Children in Glasgow

Melissa Benn (How do we end the class divide?, Long read, 24 September) makes a strong case for getting rid of private schools and developing an integrated education system but fails to recognise that if we are to make serious progress on addressing the class divide we need to paint with a much broader brush.

In 1977 Sir Douglas Black, then chief scientist at the Department of Health and Social Security, was asked to look at inequalities in health. The report, published in 1980, reached the commonsense conclusion that inequalities in income, education, housing and work were the causes of health inequalities. As the report says, “poverty remains the chief cause of disease, and it is a factor which is beyond the immediate control of medicine”.

By the time the report was published Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. I was head of the DHSS private office at the time and asked Sir Douglas what he thought would happen to his report. He said it would probably gather dust on a shelf because the necessary actions were too difficult and costly for politicians to contemplate. The report was buried but its reasoning is as valid today as it was then.

Unfortunately, tackling one area of inequality – education – without tackling the others might have an effect at the margins but it will not deal with the underlying issues. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, and with increasing rapidity since 2015, government policy has moved deliberately away from tackling the causes of inequality, which is becoming worse both relatively and absolutely, and this trend seems likely to continue as we head for Brexit.

 The Scottish government plan to get parents more engaged in their children’s education is to be welcomed, aiming to improve links between school and home, with the hope that it will reduce the educational attainment gap.

As organisations that support those with additional needs, we welcome the vow to increase the number of home-school link workers by the end of next year. They provide a service, working with pupils and their families, which often addresses specific issues, such as physical/mental health, attendance and family circumstances that may hinder or disrupt a pupil’s learning.

But Scottish government statistics show that over a third of councils have no home-school link workers. This is on the back of a worsening in overall numbers of specialist support staff for those with additional support needs, who now amount to more than a quarter of the pupil population. Closing Scotland’s educational attainment gap will be difficult to achieve unless the overall number of support staff grows substantially.
Tom McGhee Chair, Spark of Genius 
Duncan Dunlop Chief executive, Who Cares? Scotland 
Stuart Jacob Director, Falkland House School 
Niall Kelly Managing director, Young Foundations 
Lynn Bell CEO, Love Learning Scotland