Pupils from College Street, St Patrick’s, McLean Place, Hartfield and Dumbarton Academy, when poverty was commonplace and deprivation put the D in Dumbarton. Look closely at the jersey of the boy second left in the back row of the picture bottom left. This was my father’s class at College Street, and he too is in the picture. Jackie Baillie MSP and Mgr Hugh Kelly are also in the picture.

Special report by Bill Heaney

There was once a primary school in College Street, Dumbarton, which was known as “The Ragged School”.

It was where the children of the poorest of the poor, immigrant families who lived in a warren of “single ends” without indoor toilets or running water.

And, of course, the children struggled to keep clean in the ragged clothes and hand-me-downs they wore to their lessons.

Everyone called the busy street and teeming tenements The Vennel, but to many, the street became known as “University Avenue”.

This was because the children who went to The Ragged School – in truth there were two ragged schools, College Park Street School and St Patrick’s McLean Place Primary – were bright and hard-working.

They were encouraged by their parents and priests and local church ministers to stick in at their lessons.

Monsignor Hugh Canon Kelly, parish priest of St Patrick’s Church in Strathleven Place, urged them on.

“I have a great ambition for the children of this area not to become hewers of wood and drawers of water, but bright young men and women who go on from our schools to university, gain degrees and enter the professions.

“I want this community to have it own lawyers and teachers and for our young people to be well educated and equipped to raise themselves up out of poverty and deprivation and go on to become teachers, doctors and engineers.”

People who have been brought up and educated locally and who may have been marked down had they sat their exams today include world champion racing driver Jackie Stewart, Lord McFall, former chair of the Treasury Committee; AJ Cronin, world famous author; Bishop Ward of Sita and his brother, opera singer David; John Brown, astronomer royal; Bishop Holloway and Random Street, plus school badges for Vale and Dumbarton academies and Our Lady and St Patrick’s, where US diplomat and Ambassador to Poland, His Excellency Frank Meehan went to school. A Tom Hanks film was made recently about his escapades swapping spies between Russia and the USA in Berlin. Is this enough evidence to prove that people who come from deprived areas do not deserve to be marked down in their exams?

I don’t suppose the SQA ever heard of Monsignor Kelly or Episcopal Bishop Richard Holloway – distinguished author and radio presenter – who was brought up in poverty in a crumbling tenement Random Street, Alexandria, and educated at Vale of Leven Academy.

Catholic Bishop of Sita, James Ward, and his brother, David, a world famous opera star, were brought up in Brucehill with their brothers and sisters, three of whom were teachers. His Excellency Frank Meehan, from Dalmuir, stayed with the Wards for a time after his family home was destroyed in the Clydebank Blitz. Mr Meehan was a diplomat who became the US Ambassador to Poland.

Brucehill was designated the worst area of deprivation in Dunbartonshire at that time. Random Street was so bad that it had to be demolished. Some people in the Vale of Leven were still living in huts at Tullichewan and Dalvait Road, left behind by the military.

Returning to Monsignor Kelly, I do not agree with segregated education, but I understand why it happened. I believe it would be better even today, 100 years later, if all our children received their education together in the same school.

It is said segregated education leads to sectarianism conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Orange and Green, Billy and Dan, but this something the churches vehemently deny.

However, having experienced it, I’m certain it doesn’t help.

Let that be an argument for another day though.

Let’s discuss what happened this week when the Scottish Qualifications Authority scandalously marked down pupils from deprived areas – West Dunbartonshire is one such area – in their exam results.

Penalised because they are poor?

If I were a pupil, I would be dismayed about this.

Thankfully, I am not the only one. There has been an outpouring of dismay at the injustice of this, much of it from elected representatives and members of the teaching profession.

The pupils will be demonstrating today (Friday) outside the SQA offices in Glasgow.

Let’s hope they carry banners proclaiming: POOR LIVES MATTER.

There have been no dissenting comments from the SNP at large although I hear one MSP had the courage to stand up to Nicola the Nippy Sweetie and complain. Brave man.

Commenting on this week’s SQA exam results, Jackie Baillie MSP for Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Helensburgh, said: “After the challenges of a school year like no other, the pupils in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll & Bute can feel proud over how they have risen to the challenges of the pandemic.

“Pass rates are up, and I congratulate all the pupils who have worked so hard, and their teachers who faced a mammoth task of assessment.

“ It is clear though that too many young people have been hit hard by the SQA’s so called ‘moderation’.  Too many have seen their results lowered, often with passes turned into fails, damaging their prospects for university or college. 

“Worst of all, the SQA have done this on the basis of each school’s past performance, marking the school not the pupil, and baking in the attainment gap. 

“By simply downgrading students results based on their school, ignoring their teacher’s professional judgement means that the SQA has singularly failed to recognise individual academic achievement and has penalised pupils from working class areas rather than more affluent areas. That is a complete scandal.

“The Scottish Government were told that this system of moderation would be grossly unfair and it is. It’s a scandal that they are treating students so poorly and the professional judgement of  teachers’ with contempt.

“I have been contacted by a large number of local parents and students who are furious about the SQA’s action, its clear the SQA will now have a deluge of appeals. I do hope they are ready to deal with them properly.

“The Education Secretary [John Swinney] was repeatedly warned about all this, but, as usual, he has chosen to sit back and watch it happen with local young people in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll & Bute paying the price.”

Additionally, the number of teachers dropping out of the profession before completing their probation year has risen by almost three quarters since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister.

Ms Baillie said the additional stress of teaching during Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate the situation, and has called on the Scottish Government to address staff shortages and class sizes as a matter of urgency.

In 2013/14, the last academic year before Nicola Sturgeon took office, the cumulative number of probationer teachers no longer in post by the end of the summer holidays was 54.

By the end of the last academic year (2019/20), 95 probationer teachers had dropped out. This represents a 76 per cent increase.

In secondary schools, the number rose from 23 in 2013/14 to 38 in 2019/20 – the highest level in a decade. The figures were obtained via a Freedom of Information (a device used when you have to crew the information out of the authorities) request from Scottish Labour.

Jackie Baillie added: “These figures expose the scale of the challenge facing schools in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll & Bute when they re-open this week.

“Just as the Scottish Government left Scotland unprepared for the public health crisis, it also left Scotland unprepared for the resulting education crisis.

“This drop-out level is a real concern for maintaining adequate staffing levels in the coming academic year, it also underlines the fact that SNP ministers have failed to address workplace stress among teachers.

“With the added challenges of Covid-19 and the Scottish government’s shambolic handling of the education crisis, these drop-out levels could get worse.

“It’s time for the SNP Government to get a grip, and take urgent action to increase staffing, reduce class sizes and relieve stress among teachers.”

The average primary school class size in 2019 was 23.5 pupils, this is the highest since 2013 and is up from 22.8 in 2007. The proportion of P1-P3 pupils in small classes has decreased from 15.3% in 2007 to 12.3% in 2019, despite the SNP pledging to reduce class sizes to 18 or less more than a decade ago.

Ms Baillie said the failure to properly resource schools since the pandemic hit Scotland would also exacerbate the problem.

She added: “Even in the face of a major education crisis, the Scottish Government is not taking the issues of class sizes and staff shortages seriously.

“The additional teachers announced last week amount to less than half a staff member per school, and West Dunbartonshire & Argyll & Bute council, like others across Scotland, were given just two weeks to recruit them.

“If ministers had set out a route map for schools at the time they closed them, rather than making it up as they went along, they could have run this recruitment programme on a more realistic timetable.” 

Meanwhile, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has called for the Education Secretary to enlist Audit Scotland to investigate the measures used by the SQA to determine this year’s exam results.

More than 120,000 exam results were downgraded by the qualifications authority.

Mr Rennie said: “The Education Secretary and the SQA were warned for months that their moderation process would embed inequality and potentially damage the prospects of bright pupils for life. The SQA refused transparency, scrutiny and discussion of the methodology that has led to this injustice on a such large scale. Audit Scotland should now look into whether this methodology was fit for purpose.

“It is unacceptable that pupils have been downgraded for exams they didn’t sit based on the historical performance of their school. We must have confidence in the process used by the Scottish Qualifications Agency especially if next year’s exams are cancelled too and this exercise has to be repeated.

“A thorough investigation by Audit Scotland should be done to rectify these problems and ensure lesson have been learned.

“Young people have made tremendous sacrifices over the past six months. They do not deserve to see their futures carved up by a computer algorithim based on where they happen to live.”

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