What the education figures don’t tell us

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.


What women want… #6

Nearing the end of the series, but still some distinctive voices to hear from.  And few are as distinctive as the wonderful Jacqui Law’s.  Jacqui is mum to Dancing Queen Sarah and supports other families who have a child with additional support needs through her work with Contact a Family Scotland.  She also blogs at for Scotland’s Disabled Children (fSDC) as Jacqui’s Blog Off .

Like previous contributors, like all of us in some way or another, my feelings about politics, politicians and elections are heavily influenced by my upbringing.

My parents moved to Easterhouse when it was being built (or thrown up depending on whether you lived there or not).  My dad trailed the not even finished streets drumming up support for the Labour party. My mum voted but had no real understanding of politics. But like my father she had a very strong sense of justice and social responsibility.  Growing up in Easterhouse in the 60s and 70s I had a heightened sense of politics, social injustice and social responsibility.
There were 5 of us siblings and we all had different views and this was encouraged, as long as you could explain your position, and were smart enough to listen to someone else with a different view, because then you would learn.  The idea of someone not voting was just not acceptable to my family.  As I grew older I continued to be political, believing that we could change society.  I had seen violence, deprivation, warrant sales, wonderful people living difficult lives.  I had seen my father die aged 48 and my mother break her back in a factory to feed us, enrich us, empower and free us from her own lifestyle.  I thought I had seen every form of discrimination and social injustice. And still I believed in politics, not so much the politicians I had encountered but I had not only the arrogance of youth on my side but the passion it brings so I believed it would change.
But now here I am wondering who to vote for and whether there is any point . Because I hadn’t seen it all.  Not until Sarah was born.
My daughter is different. She was born with complex disabilities. And being a mother changed my life. Being a mother of a child like Sarah, well that changed everything.
Suddenly I became aware that the feelings of being an underclass I had encountered growing up in Easterhouse were nothing compared to being part of the world of disability and caring.  You reading this may find that strange.  After all hasn’t the role of carers now, finally, come to the fore in the manifestos this last week.  Isn’t the plight of the poor wee disabled wean highlighted every year with Children in Need.  Yes it is, and how we pat ourselves on the back for our contribution, how those in power pat me on the head for being so very, very dedicated.  Excuse me while I scream.
Over the years I have, time after time, been astonished that people don’t understand my situation or that of my daughter.  Apparently there is a wee fairy who gives people like me free cars, huge amounts of money and anything I ask for.  The wee fairy obviously lost my address.

It occurred to me that parents of typical children genuinely don’t see that they benefit from society. And this is probably because they are not constantly being told how much their loved ones cost society, whereas we are.  By newspapers, by politicians, by social work when they tell us how much our few hours of short breaks cost a week and how this means someone else isn’t getting.  And as awful as it sounds I have in the past used humour, sarcasm and fiction to make those people stop and think.

Now we have an election coming. Now is when, more than ever, we need people to understand that how our sons and daughters are treated is a yardstick for how we intend to be as a society. To realise that our issues are, indeed their issues.
What do I want?  I want a Government strong enough to be a moral compass for society.
I want us to remember that how we treat those most vulnerable is a yardstick for how we are as a society.  I want politicians to realise, and to make everyone aware, that giving me extra respite is all very well.  But…we have not even begun to address the blatant discrimination and lack of services for children like Sarah.
Would you, I wonder, be happy if your child had to go to the toilet in public?  Of course not, what a stupid, stupid question!  Why then is it acceptable for disabled children to be changed in car parks and waiting rooms because the toilet facilities in public buildings do not accommodate wheelchairs or have space for the young person to lie down.  Why are women I know working 3 jobs at minimum wage to buy continence products because there is a quota (yep there is actually a shit quota) on the amount of nappies you can have, and if your son or daughter is doubly incontinent and as old as Sarah you can expect to be paying out a lot of money.  See that wee fairy?  Would someone tell her where we all live please.
So yes, I want change, I want people to do the right thing.  I want to be able to go back to being that woman who fought for all people.  I still believe in those same values and I will fight for free education.  I will argue for an end to Trident.  I will support any government who gives people a living wage, who tries to address social and economic deprivation.  A government smart enough to know that changes do have to be made in the NHS, Education and Local Government and Civil Service.
And I even have suggestions!  Use the tax raising powers to find the money to fund the changes needed for kids like Sarah.  Use your not inconsiderable influence, First Minister, to persuade the Banks to set up a system whereby a set percentage of their profits is used to provide low and fixed rate loans to those in need – let’s kick loan sharks and all those shameful perfectly legal companies charging exorbitant rates out of our country.
Stop freezing council tax…yes you heard right.  Seducing the populace with a wee freeze and using the money which was meant for kids like mine is shameful.
And whilst I believe that a good solid base is needed and therefore, we have to make sure the policies are good.. I am sick to the back teeth of hearing about strategies and policies and forums.  If any local authority is spending more on discussing issues than resolving them, there is something wrong.  So… I want every local authority to buy a new App, yep a wee phone one for meetings.  You put in the salaries of all present, you press start and at the end of the meeting you work out how much it cost.  And I will bet it cost more than providing continence products, orthopaedic boots and wheelchairs.
Yes I want a lot.  I want us to be proud of who we are in this country but honest enough to know we need to change many things.
For me, if I could have one thing from this election I would ask that we have a society who accepts, respects and values my daughter for what she brings to this world and stop looking at what she costs us.  To see that she is not a child in need, but a child with rights.