Knowledge is power, so they say, and there’s nothing we policy wonks like better than a big dollop of data. The denser the better.
So what to make of the decision last year by the Scottish Government to change how it publishes key data and statistics it gathers, especially in relation to education? Now, we get headlines and selective publication. Which is not to say the data is not available – it is, you just have to email all those nice people who work in government statistics, and past experience suggests they are only too happy to share the information. They like it when folk show an interest in their life’s work.
But selective publication makes everyone immediately suspicious. What are they trying to hide? Nothing, says the Scottish Government, this is just more cost-effective. Hmm.
The media has gone for splurge: in today’s newspapers, we are blinded by figures, and offered meaningless analysis. Labour reckons that there is “a quiet crisis brewing” in our classrooms while Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education, acknowledges progress is slow.
What has exercised everyone is the data relating to teacher numbers and contracts. I love it when we focus on what really matters in education. Teachers rather than weans: it was always thus.
It only matters if we can draw a straight line between teacher numbers and educational attainment, and this is where the difficulty with headline and snapshot reporting lies. Educational attainment is up; the number of pupils leaving for “positive destinations” (further education, training or work to you and me) is also up, despite the difficult financial and employment conditions; the total number of pupils is falling, in line with recent demographic changes. Taking all that into account, do we need more teachers? We should only be worried about teacher numbers if there is significant change in any of these other indicators.
But there is a big scarlet flag of concern relating to the numbers of children with additional support needs. In 2010, the total number of children in school with additional support needs – that’s children with disabilities, learning difficulties, or who are looked after by the state, or who have other issues, both short and long term going on in their lives, which create the need for extra help to do well at school – was 69,587. This year, the number appears to have rocketed to 97,492. That’s a third more in one year.
Last year, the curious category of children “assessed/declared as disabled” was missing from the officially published figures; this year, it’s back and according to the only statistic we have in Scotland that is gathered in any meaningful way, there are 14, 387 children with a disability. This is largely similar to what was published in previous years.
But it is wrong, very wrong. In fact, it is a gross under-estimate when compared to UK data for the number of children in receipt of Disability Living Allowance in Scotland which is well over 30,000. And it begs the question, if we do not know – if our schools cannot say and are not aware – how many disabled children with a likely learning support need there are, how can we ensure these children are being adequately supported to enjoy an equitable learning experience?
For years, the data gathered by schools, for schools has been inaccurate, and there have been sterling efforts to improve the recording categories and the quality of data input. It is likely that the huge increase in numbers of children with additional support needs is down to these efforts, rather than any explosion of children with such needs. But what we now do not know is if these children have equivalent levels of attainment and get to go on to college and university, training and work in similar numbers to other children, because this disaggregated data is no longer published.
This matters. Why?
Because we know that local authorities have cut and are intending to cut more learning, classroom and special needs auxiliary and assistant posts from their education budgets. So more pupils with more support needs, fewer people to support them.
And we also know – or at least I and others do – that the outcomes for children with disabilities and additional support needs have historically been significantly poorer than other children. Fewer gain qualifications, fewer go on to college and university, fewer go on to training or work, more are likely to be excluded. Unless we have access to the data showing all this we have no way of determining if we are making progress for some of the most marginalised children in our communities. And whether or not the cuts in assistants are having a detrimental impact on their life chances.
Moreover, we also know that in disadvantaged and deprived communities, there are likely to be more children with additional support needs. We need a more detailed breakdown of the figures in order to determine if the average statistics on things like attainment, teacher pupil ratios, state of the school estate, children with additional support needs and leavers’ positive destinations mask huge differentials between wealthier and poorer communities.
And maybe if we had easy access to this level of detail, we would be able to focus and comment on what really matters. Not teachers but children. And whether or not government policy, budgeting decisions by central and local government, and local authority practice are making a difference to the children who need our help most.
Is current education policy and practice reducing or sustaining inequality, poverty and social injustice? Be nice if anyone knew or indeed, cared.