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10 September 2015, 07:19
The Scottish Government is being urged to consider how flagship legislation aimed at closing the gap in education between rich and poor can be made more effective.
A key aim of the Education Scotland Bill is to narrow the attainment gap that currently exists between youngsters from poorer backgrounds and those in more affluent communities.
MSPs on Holyrood's Education Committee said it could be "most effective'' if it helped identify good and bad practices, if it helped establish a "more strategic and co-ordinated approach to tackling the attainment gap'' and if it showed if measures were making a difference.
In its report on the Bill the committee said there "is not currently a comprehensive definition or measurement of 'attainment' across all ages''.
The MSPs added: "A further key issue that remains unresolved is the exact level of improvement that the Bill could realistically be expected to deliver (taking current measures of attainment and inequality into account) and the timescales that would be involved.''
The committee said that while work to try to tackle the attainment gap had been "underway for decades'' there was still "considerable progress'' to be made.
"This suggests that at least some approaches have failed and may also suggest that far more radical change is needed,'' it stated.
"These considerations go beyond the Bill, which is simply one part of a much wider programme of ongoing reform.
"Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that this legislation could be most effective it if helped to establish a comprehensive and transparent reporting structure that: effectively identified successful and unsuccessful practice; helped to establish a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to tackling the attainment gap; and clearly demonstrated whether positive outcomes were being delivered.''
The Bill, which is currently before Holyrood, sets out to impose duties to both local education authorities and Scottish ministers in relation to reducing pupils' inequalities of outcome.
The committee commented: "Education authorities and Scottish Ministers are to have ''due regard to the desirability" of reducing inequalities of outcome. Given the consensus amongst the Scottish Government, local authorities and other stakeholders that narrowing the attainment gap is of fundamental importance, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where an education authority would not consider a reduction in inequality to be desirable.
"We therefore ask the Scottish Government to look at how the provision can be made more effective.''
Concerns about the quality of policy documents published alongside the Bill were also raised by the committee, with MSPs calling on the Scottish Government to set out "the efforts it is making to improve the quality of information it provides''.
MSPs also said ministers had failed to consult on all the proposals in the legislation "in part because some provisions were added at a late stage''.
While the committee accepted it is "the Scottish Government's prerogative to introduce provisions later on'' they said this had made scrutiny of the Bill more difficult and added: "We recommend that detailed consultation should, wherever possible, be carried out in advance of a Bill's publication. If consultation is not undertaken, the Scottish Government should explain why this is the case.''
Stewart Maxwell, convener of the Education and Culture Committee, said: "That the attainment gap in Scotland persists in Scotland is a source of concern for us all. Over the past 50 years there has been a great deal of work focussed on narrowing this gap and improving the opportunities for some of the most deprived children in our society.
"While the Committee supports the general principles of the Bill, we believe a more radical approach may be required and this Bill needs to be part of that.
"This Bill, together with other measures announced by the Scottish Government, seeks to make a difference. This means there has to be a clear understanding of exactly what would be required to deliver improvement.
"We also believe the Scottish Government and local authorities should consult widely, to ensure their reports on tackling the attainment gap are as useful as possible. It is in no-one's interests for reports simply to list actions taken. What is needed is an understanding of what works so that positive outcomes can be repeated throughout the country.''
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Improving education and closing the attainment gap are fundamental to our aim of making Scotland fairer and more prosperous.
"That's why education is at the heart of our Programme for Government. Building on our investment in teachers, the £100 million Attainment Scotland Fund and other initiatives, this Bill contains several measures to help strengthen learning and tackle educational inequality across Scotland.
"We welcome the committee's report which recognises our efforts to close the attainment gap and we will consider the report's recommendations carefully.''