James Bundy is a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the national chairman of Conservative Future Scotland, and the former chairman of the St. Andrews Conservative and Unionist Association.
For the past 11 years, the standard of schools in Scotland has slumped under the SNP. Standards in numeracy, reading, and writing are on decline yearly and the attainment gap in university application rates is increasing. The SNP’s response to every awful statistic is for more centralisation of powers in education to central Government in Holyrood. This response is only prolonging and embedding the practises which are damaging the education system that every Scot used to be proud of.
In Scotland, the state education system is made up of predominantly comprehensive schools. Advocates for this system of education argue that this will result in every child across Scotland receiving an identical level of learning. If this were the case, every school in Scotland would have similar results – but this does not happen. One of the key factors to predict educational performance is socio-economic status. Unfortunately, the results from various academic studies indicate a similar trend: the poorer your background, the more likely you are to have lower literacy and numeracy skills; the probability of misbehaving in class increases, and your chances of gaining entry into higher education decreases. These studies, therefore, suggest that a comprehensive school which has a catchment area in a wealthy area will have better performing pupils, and an overall better learning environment, than a comprehensive school which has a catchment area in a deprived area.
Parents naturally want to send their children to the best school possible. Regrettably, in Scotland, many parents are priced out of doing so. Due to the higher demand for houses in areas with an above-average comprehensive school, house prices have increased by £80,000 in some parts of the country. If renting, parents from a poorer background have been priced out and only those from a wealthier background have the opportunity to move in. The school you attend, therefore, is not determined by your academic ability but by your parent’s ability to afford a house in the catchment area of a good comprehensive school. This is the unfairness that currently stains Scotland’s education. This wealth-based discrimination is why I am in favour of a selective school system being introduced in Scotland.
I would be naïve if I did not recognise that an attainment gap does exist in the current grammar school system in England. According to the Education Policy Institute, 60 per cent of the attainment gap is already established by the age of 11, the age that the 11-plus is taken; therefore, the attainment gap that is associated with grammar schools is the result of the attainment gap that exists at the age of 11. Grammar schools do not cause the attainment gap at 11 but simply highlights its existence. This is why any Government that wants to lower the attainment gap in education must prioritise its focus on the funding and infrastructure of early years education.
Focusing on closing the attainment gap, however, must coincide with an education policy that allows every pupil to succeed and excel at their own unique talents. Every pupil is different with particular talents and skills. The one-size fits all approach that the Comprehensive system of education promotes fails to recognise these differences and that is why this style of education does not allow pupils to excel. For future generations of Scotland to shine, policy developers need to take into account the natural differences of talents and provide for this diversity. In England, Grammar schools allow for those who are academically gifted to succeed, with the Education Policy Institute stating that 96.7 per cent of grammar school pupils achieved A*-C GSCEs in England in 2016. If the attainment gap before the age of 11 narrowed, this would result in an education system that allowed children who are excelling academically, regardless of financial background, to specialise in academic subjects.
Critics of grammar schools would argue that this is a pursuit of academic excellence, which in itself is elitist, but this is not the case. Grammar schools, and pupils, in England suffer from the false perception that if you do not get into a grammar school you have failed. This allows the criticism of elitism to take hold. Any advancement in selective education in Scotland must overcome this false narrative. One way to do this is to emphasise that selective education is not being pursued for academic excellence but is being pursued so children can specialise in the area that they are excelling in. If a pupil is excelling at academic subjects, such as English, Classics and Geography, a grammar school is what is right for them. If a pupil is gifted in subjects such as Mathematics, Physics and Design Technology, a technical vocation is the correct path. Any Government that promotes selective education must regurgitate again and again that this system of education allows every pupil, regardless of background, to go down a path that allows them to gain superior knowledge in the area that they are naturally talented in.
After 11 years of SNP mismanagement, Scottish education requires a significant overhaul. The one-size fits all approach of comprehensive education has let every pupil down because it prohibits specialisation in areas of expertise. We should not be ashamed of specialisation; in fact, we should embrace it. Specialisation results in individuals succeeding more, which is great news for them and good news for our economy. In the pursuit of excellence, however, we must ensure that every child receives the same opportunities in education. We must close the attainment gap that exists before the age of 11 and the only way to do this is by investing in early years education. If we get the balance right, however, we can create an education system that allows every pupil, regardless of background, to prosper. By doing so, we will create a country that truly works for everyone.