A league table of elitism

wilson brian 3By Brian Wilson

The week’s least surprising news was that people in poor areas are dying from Covid19 at twice the rate of those in more prosperous ones. How could it be otherwise?

In the normal course of events, there are variations of over 20 years life expectancy between parts of Scotland which lie a decent walk, or social light years, apart from one another. So why would Covid19 strike differently?

This is a perpetual scandal yet so familiar it is barely commented upon far less addressed in any systematic way. Advances in the first decade of this century, particularly in reducing child poverty, have been squandered in the second.

Poverty is more likely to create “underlying health conditions”; wages are lower,  diet poorer, aspirations inter-generationally depressed.  The cycle is relentless and can only be broken at its starting point – the earliest years of life – which requires a sustained political will that simply does not exist.

It was grimly appropriate that this week also saw the annual ritual of School League Tables commanding headlines about “Scotland’s best and worst schools” according to this crude, cruel measurement.

Again at number one is Jordanhill, which sets entry criteria that shut out kids living far closer than many who are ushered through its gates.  Knightswood High along the road comes in at number 278. This slap in the face reflects a league table of elitism and nothing else.

It would be a major achievement in incompetence for the so-called “best” schools not to turn out far higher proportions of pupils with five Highers – the chosen measure – than schools which teach the children of the poor. So what exactly is being celebrated?

Publication of these tables began in the 1990s to underpin Tory mythology about “parental choice”.  On learning the relative standings of schools, aspirational parents in Wester Hailes [a deprived Edinburgh housing estate- Ed] would fill in a form and pack their little ones off to Boroughmuir [a fee-paying public school]. Aye, right.

As Scottish Education Minister in the pre-devolution interregnum, I got rid of these league tables. We set up a Working Group on Standards to devise more useful ways of informing parents, recognising success and setting targets.

The inspectorate produced “value added” tables which created a very different picture. When socio-economic  indicators were fed in to reflect catchment areas,  it became clear that some of the “best” schools were seriously under-performing while others far down the league were delivering miracles.

I need hardly say this approach was unwelcome in some quarters and little was heard subsequently of “value-added”.  It is even more disappointing, 20 years on, to find crude tables still feasted upon as if they proved anything other than the extreme range of economic conditions which exist within our caring, sharing little land.

The tables are not published by the Scottish Government but are based on published information. What is the point of this? Gaining five HIghers is a personal achievement rather than an institutional one. So why provide raw material that is so open to misinterpretation?

With overall standards falling against key indicators, who needs to reaffirm the obvious – that schools in prosperous areas turn out far  more pupils with five Highers than schools in poor ones? What else does that prove?

The challenge that matters should focus on levelling-up through investment and early intervention which – over time –  would transform educational outcomes and go far towards reducing other inequalities, culminating in the appalling disparities in life expectancy.

If Early Intervention had been the unremitting, number one priority in 20-plus years since devolution, we would be looking at a significantly different society, more than justifying the political and financial investment required.

There is much talk about “when this is over…” and how things must be different. Care workers must be valued. The NHS must be better funded, and so on.  Some of it will happen and most of it won’t.

The challenge least likely to be addressed is the most fundamental – a levelling-up of prospects for those who are statistically predestined for relatively short lives of under-fulfilment, in other words the poorest communities of Scotland and the UK.


Neil Findlay MSP, Castle View and Crosslet House care homes in Dumbarton and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

It is in the spirit of devolution that if there is different medical advice on relaxing lockdown, that decision should be taken in Scotland. I suspect there will be less variation than headlines suggest, but we shall see.

Equally, the Scottish Government has full responsibility for what is happening in care homes and it is entirely legitimate to scrutinise their approach as Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, did at First Minister’s Questions.

He asked: “Why on earth are we continuing to discharge patients from hospitals to care homes without establishing whether they are positive for Covid19? … Please stop that practice now to save the lives of residents and the great people who look after them.”

I have watched Mr Findlay’s contribution, read the transcript and can find nothing unreasonable in tone or content.  It is a question many will be grateful to him for asking.

In response, Ms Sturgeon said: “I do not think that a single one of us does not find the situation deeply and profoundly upsetting. So please do not ask such questions in a way that suggests that we are not all trying to do everything that we possibly can in order to do the right thing”.

Ms Sturgeon is political to her fingertips and knows the meaning of words. She therefore knew that no such imputation about ”trying” had been made and it was a diversion to pretend otherwise.  Mr Findlay’s straightforward question, I need hardly say, remains unanswered.

In due course, there are huge ethical and practical issues to inquire into in Scotland as elsewhere about failure to protect the vulnerable in care homes. It will not be impolite to ask such questions but absolutely essential.

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