Jenny Marra speech on Raising Attainment and Ambition in Young People

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

27 October 2011

A report that was published in the Sunday Herald last weekend, which has been referred to many times already in the debate, showed just how clear the link between attainment and poverty remains in the Scottish education system today.

There is little doubt that inequality still mires our education system. From the early years through to university level and beyond, the socioeconomic status of our children is much more likely to determine their ambition and attainment at school, college, university and beyond.

To propose that the situation is otherwise, as the motion unfortunately does in glossing over that important issue, is really to ignore the facts.

The gap in attainment between school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers cannot be overemphasised.

The attainment of school leavers from the most deprived areas of Scotland is a staggering 65 per cent lower than the Scottish average and 137 per cent below that of the richest pupils in Scotland—this is today, in 2011, in our democratic and sophisticated country.

Those figures are unacceptable.

Figures published just last week show that some children can be nearly 18 times more likely to attend university than those who live and are educated just seven minutes away.

Everyone who

read Paul Hutcheon.s report in the Sunday Herald would, I think, agree that it made for awful reading.

That postcode lottery is unacceptable and the achievement gap that it creates is worse now than it has ever been in the history of the Scottish Parliament.

Indeed, that was brought home to me when I read the Sunday Herald article, which talked about many areas in Scotland, not least Glasgow, and highlighted the attainment levels in my home city of Dundee.

It pointed out that at one secondary school in Dundee that is not far from where I live, the progression rate on to university has actually dropped since devolution in 1999.

That is extremely worrying and I hope that the minister will address it when he sums up.

When college budgets are being slashed—some principals reckon that the spending review cut to college budgets is 40 per cent in real terms—it is difficult to imagine the attainment of those from the poorest backgrounds and their aspiration for further education and training improving any time soon.

With one in five leaving school to join the dole queue, we must ask what impact cutting college budgets will have on our poorest children.s prospects of developing the essential skills and knowledge to be competitive in the jobs market.

Perhaps that is a rhetorical question because, for many of those students, college represents the first rung on the ladder of upward social mobility.

When colleges remain local and well-staffed, with a comprehensive curriculum, students can reach levels of attainment and ambition that will make them more competitive in the jobs market or, indeed, qualify them for university if they were not able to progress to that from school.

With that in mind, the Scottish Government needs to give concrete guarantees that colleges will remain accessible to students from the poorest areas in terms of not just proximity and physical accessibility but resources and student hours, numbers and places.

We have pressed the Government on all those topics this week; now it needs to give concrete guarantees on them, as the Minister for Children and Young People suggested, and stay true to what was suggested in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto in May.

In committee and in the chamber this week, guarantees on those have been undermined and, to my mind, now cease to exist.

Much of the work to overcome the inequalities in our education system must focus on widening access.

The Scottish Government must work to reduce barriers at each level of higher education in order to facilitate greater levels of attainment for people from non-traditional educational backgrounds. Its measures must go beyond statutory obligations on university admissions towards raising the ambitions and aspirations of people from non-traditional educational backgrounds.

It must tackle drop-out rates and the reasons why they are so high in some communities and universities in Scotland and why more higher education students in Scotland than their United Kingdom peers drop out.

Whether that is done through a package of incentives or a dedicated Government unit for Scottish mobility, more must be done.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to putting widening access on the statute book and Labour members look forward to the paper on that legislation and to working with the Government to ensure that we have the most robust widening access policy in Europe.



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