Will Curriculum for Excellence Reduce Social Class and Gender Inequalities in Scot’s Education?

The latest Scottish educational reform, “Curriculum for Excellence” (CfE), has great potential to reduce inequalities in Scot’s education but in order to do so must overcome great obstacles within classrooms, schools and what happens extracurricularly. In this post, I begin by giving a definition of the concept of equality, will then move on to analysing and identifying issues in relation to gender inequalities and will afterwards consider how CfE and those executing it might influence these. Next I examine social class differences in education, their definition, expression and how CfE could aid lessen them. I conclude that CfE will help reduce inequalities, but it remains to be seen to what extent.

There are multiple concepts of equality within classrooms. Teachers are faced with choices of who to treat equally and why. Jencks divided these choices into four mutually exclusive pedagogies: 1) Give every student perfectly equal attention; 2) Give attention to reward justice and punish vice; 3) Give more attention to whom is left behind; or 4) Provide incentives for learning that reward only the best (Curren, p244). What arises from this is a burden on teachers to decide what educational equality means. For the purpose of this essay and in relation to CfE however, I shall use the simple definition of equality that arises from attainment. Since CfE aims to change the methodology of teaching rather than the content, it has direct influence over the afore mentioned concepts of equality. It was introduced after concluding that teachers had too much material to teach in too short time, students were too passive; did not see the links between bits of information and subjects and were not encouraged enough (BBC Scotland, 2010). It is not specifically aimed at reducing inequalities but we shall examine its relevant changes for gender and social class inequalities.

The gender gap originally formed as performance of girls increased faster than of boys. (Scottish Executive, 2006; Croxford, 2001, p1) but one ought to note that both gender’s attainment scores rose. The gender gap is generally consistent in total averages across the country, in the dispersal of ability and in subject choice. Quantitative studies found that the gap appears all over the social spectrum, ethnicities, religions or student funding models (Burgess 2008, p13 WP 3/84). The gap applies to everybody from every background.

It can be found most pronouncedly in subjects that are centred around reading or based on literacy (Burgess, 2008, p12), but not as much in subjects like Mathematics or the Sciences. The literature seems generally divided in theorising why that is. The two predominant theories are that this is either a biological or a social process. In the former case that existentialist or cognitive approaches are correct and the gender gap is only a naturally occurring difference between different cognitive maturities, then any change in Curricula would be entirely uneffectful since the difference in attainment lie in the genes of the students. Unfortunately for authorities there is much evidence to support this:

More girls in P1-3 are ranked well by teachers from mathematics to society-independent things like physical co-ordination and expressive communication (Wilkinson et al, 1999). There is a trend for girls to outperform boys in primary school reading and mathematics (Scottish Executive, 2000); yet at the end of P3 the differences in maths have disappeared mainly. (Scottish Office, 1998) There is a predominance of boys in the entire range of learning difficulties and they outnumber girls 2:1 in special school (Riddell, 1996).

There is a problem with this line of reasoning though: If the gender gap is purely sex-determined, then why have the statistics changed over time? The only explanation is that there is more to gender inequality than biological existentialism.

Shereen Benjamin stated that the heart of the problem is that there are “versions of femininity and masculinity that limit the possibilities of what girls and boys can do and who they can be. This may include, but is not limited to, a gender gap in attainment” (Benjamin, 2011). That subject choices are heavily gender determined (Murphy, 2007) and that boys dominate space (Jackson, 2006) would in her view be a result of the expectations that society places on the genders. This social view of inequality entails that gender differences are “man-made” and can be “unmade” (Connell, 2002, p14) and therefore can be tackled by CfE.

Far be it for me to dispute a fellow thinker at the Moray House but in light of psychological as well as ethnographic evidence this seems too simplistic. Qualitative studies found that children do have modern views of gender equality. Interviews revealed that unanimously children think that child-care is a joint responsibility. Students said that they took up the subjects they excelled in and thought would be useful for for the careers they were attracted to. Some reported influence of parents and peers, but it was only teachers that described the choices as “gender stereotypical with different perceived difficulties”. (Croxford, 2001, p11) If so then CfE must target these stereotypes by advising teachers to discourage them.

Salisbury proposed to do that by leaving less subject choice for S6 and S7. This would entail more balanced choices between the sexes and more equal positions to start tertiary education from (Salisbury, 2000). This is exactly what CfE is not doing. In fact teachers will have freedom to teach fewer subjects in greater depth and in their wanted style (BBC Scotland, 2010) This may not be a problem however. Croxford suggests to teachers that if they concentrate on conveying equal opportunities and confidence to lower the perceived difficulty of gender a-typical subjects then perhaps they will eventually disappear. From a biological point of view, teachers also ought to use many different teaching methods that do not favour a particular sex. Practical examples may include links to previous lessons, visual aids, variety of pedagogies, breaking tasks into sub-goals, pair and group work or self-evaluation. The freedom that CfE gives to teachers can impact this very positively.

Let us consider another dimension: Presently the problem is defined by boys doing worse in public examinations. Perhaps this is an incomplete definition of achievement. There are biological sex differences in relation to different assessment methods. With the introduction of Standard Grades, girls gained an advantage since boys do better on multiple choice tests (Sukhnandan, 1999). This unfortunately also cannot completely explain the gender gap since it predates Standard Grades. Still, Curriculum for Excellence aims to introduce more formative and different assessments which will help boys.

In one respect the literature agrees: Gender inequalities are less significant than social class inequalities (Burgess, 2008; Croxford, 2001; Croxford, 2009; Gillburn, 2000; OECD, 2007), by as much as only one fifth as significant, as can be seen on the diagram where the vertical distance between the graphs indicates different attainments in relation to the national standard for GCSEs in 1997 in percent (DfEE, 1999, p9, Table B; Gillburn, 2000, p22; England and Wales only).

“Simply put: The higher the Social Class, the greater the attainment” (Gillburn, 2000).

This gap is the single most important differentiation between individuals in Scot’s education and has grown during the last three decades (OECD, 2007, p14). There is much disagreement though about what exactly social class inequality is. Some see it as relationship of attainment and poverty for which the eligibility for free school meals may be a good indicator. Only one quarter of eligible students receive five good Standard Grades compared to the average half (DfES, 2006); and double as many do not get up to level 5 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. (Scottish Executive, 2006). Another indicator may be that the largest proportion of the bottom attaining pupils live in impoverished areas and twice as many students with no qualifications can be found in the 15% most deprived areas of Scotland like Craigmillar in Edinburgh (HMIE, 2006). A third indicator may be the occupation of parents as for instance in the diagram between manual and managerial professions.

This lack of definition makes it difficult to academically work with social class differences for there is little raw data available and the literature presents the subject inconsistently and incoherently. In fact, a high proportion of low performing students are in what is called the missing category, which means that no record of their backgrounds exists at school (HMIE, 2006). Furthermore a researcher must note that just because there is a correlation between any of these indicators, social class and attainment; that data does not entail a causal relationship (Gillburn, 2000); as well, there are still big differences within each class. Also the CfE has been vague in its documentation and definition of these issues and some teachers feel that authorities lack in explaining what exactly it is that they are supposed to tackle. (BBC Scotland, 2010) For the purpose of this essay I will assume that social class refers to the parents occupation as mentioned in the diagram.

Gillburn correctly derives that many reasons for the attainment gap is association with social class do not arise from outside school in parent’s position or income but from within (Gillburn, 2000). Quantitative research in Britain indicates that the working class is over-represented in lower ability groups if a school adopts such policies (Youdell & Gillburn, 2000). One wonders why more students from the working class would be deemed to be of lesser abilities. It is most likely influenced by teachers’ expectations of student performance which in turn is influenced by their background. By targeting this socio-economic reproduction teachers can greatly help reduce inequalities.

Achievement is intensely influenced by students’ attitude towards it. Findings using more qualitative ethnographic methods revealed in Northern Ireland that many boys in P4 detach themselves and retreat if they come from a lower social class. Also in Scotland children from different classes have different experiences at school. Less advantaged children often feel powerless over learning and become less receptive to teaching. This perception of teaching and teacher behaviour also differs by school background. In disadvantaged schools children complained that teachers shout at them were very aware of their class and its limitations on them at an early age (Horgan, 2007).

Another qualitative study with 13 year olds in Britain uncovered that children knew clear stereotypes of chav and posh children. To quote a girl in S1 from the field notes of a study by Sutton: “[…] if you’re rich you get to go to a posh school where teachers probably teach you with respect” (Sutton et al, 2007). Deprived children generally have less self-esteem and more fear. Fortunately CfE attempts to target just that. In fact one of its main pillars is the lifting of confidence in students. To quote former Scottish Minister for Education, Peter Peacock: “We will deliver new guidance which will increase opportunities for challenge, choice and motivation. […] [and] new way of recognising the achievements and attainment of all young people S1- S3” (Scottish Executive, 2004).

Another way of lifting that confidence of less advantaged children is encouraging out of school activities. One of the reasons that children from higher social classes have higher self-esteem is that they engage in more, more structured and more supervised extracurricular activities. More partnerships with Colleges to bring insight to pupils on higher educational activities and suitable recognition of their work as proposed in CfE would be an effective way of starting that process as are the new courses in skills-for-work for students age 14-16 (Scottish Executive, 2004).

What schools can do to encourage this evolution is to engage in noticeable school leadership. Having a clear image of one’s own school, celebrating accomplishments by staff and students as well as clarity and transparency in communication with the student body on difficult issues is how CfE defines such a school ethos (Scottish Executive, 2004). To give a practical example:

“In a large inner city school, the headmaster adopted a high profile role […]. He had a highly visible presence in the school and its immediate environment, being seen to engage with pupils, giving signals about school values and relationships, and being available, receptive and welcoming to parents. […] Extensive use was made of photographs celebrating activities, participation and successes.”(HMIE, 2006)

All of these policies are key parts of CfE and whilst not immediately connected with inequality issues, one must come to the conclusion that they will help reduce them in respect to social class as well as gender. There is evidence for a strong interaction between educational disadvantage, social class, pedagogy and gender differences that leads to boys being particularly failed by system. (Horgan, 2007). Therefore, if one of them is targeted, all will be affected.

In conclusion it lies with the teachers. Since they are the main link between any educational reform and the actual student, they must be supported by their school management to teach and live equality, which in turn must be supported financially and socially by local authorities. Only if these institutions work together unbureaucratically, transparently and with a clear vision of what inequality is, then CfE will reduce these inequalities in Scot’s education.


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