Jordan Campbell, former Springburn Academy pupil, describes his experience of having a mentor and reflects on the Scottish Government’s proposed investment to reduce the attainment gap.
Ever since primary school when I took part in the Young Football Journalist of the Year competition, I have wanted to go into Sports Journalism. Now halfway through what will be a four-year stint at Glasgow Caledonian University, I can confidently say that, having come through the application process, I probably wouldn’t have the status of being on the only doubly-accredited journalism course in Scotland if it weren’t for the help of the Intergenerational Mentoring Network.
Initially it was just my passion for football, along with the fact I could attend another game, but I soon realised though that it was the rudimentary concept of people enjoying the way I articulate my interpretation of the subject that really intrigued me. As I got older and began to realise that I may have an ounce of flair when it comes to writing, I soon noticed that the opportunity of combining the two things I value and enjoy doing (sport and writing) as a career was definitely the road I wanted to go down.
I am on a course with just over twenty students but there were several hundred people interviewed alone, never mind those who fell at the application stage. Without the help of my mentor I wouldn’t have had the same amount of industry experience to present in my personal statement or the advice to prepare me for the rigorous interview process which consisted of a voice test, a current affairs test, a newswriting test and a face-to-face interview.
Gaining the minimum grades for course entry is usually a necessity if you want to stand a chance of winning a place on such a competitive course so the aspect that tends to separate those who are successful and those who are not is usually down to whose CV is the most impressive.
While I may have had my appetite whetted by the industry experience I gained during my school years, the contacts, assistance and guidance that my mentor has given me – and continues to give whenever called upon – has been invaluable.
The mentoring began at the start of S5 when I was selected as one of the pupils from my year who the deputy-head had identified as having the potential to achieve five Higher passes. I wasn’t aware of the Intergenerational Mentoring Scheme at the time but, after being advised that I would be paired with a professional from the area I wanted to progress into, my interest was spiked. I was introduced to Sheila Waddell, a former journalist and English teacher, who I quickly realised was going to be a very good aide in terms of helping me with my studies and offering career advice.
We had regular weekly meetings where she would travel to my school to meet me during my lunch-break. I was sitting Higher English, Maths, PE, Modern Studies and Biology at the time, so Sheila focused on her specialist area, English, while getting an update from me on how I was getting on in my other classes.
I have always thought that I had considerable natural writing ability but my teachers would always say I had a tendency to waffle and not directly answer the specific question asked in critical essays – while I was never a huge admirer of close reading being used as a method to assess pupils’ grasp of the English language either.
Sheila would set me a question from a past paper each week which I would do at home and bring in for her to mark and give me feedback. She thought it would also be a good idea to brush up on my current affairs knowledge in order to prepare me for that part of the university assessment at GCU.
During sixth-year I decided to sit two Advanced-Highers – English and PE – as I thought it would prepare for me the pressure and discipline needed to write a dissertation over the course of a full year. I was required to write an in-depth comparative study of two novels as well as learn two plays to write a critical essay on.
Helping mould my personal statement was important too as she knew what important points I had to include and what triggers that would stand out to a university lecturer.
I found Sheila’s dedication and the interest she showed in my studies and my hobbies outside of school admirable as the mentors aren’t reimbursed for their services, it is purely on a voluntary basis.
Her husband, Andrew, also an experienced journalist came to meet me once and, as he shared a passion for sport, he discussed with me his coverage of the World Cup in Argentina in particular.
In the summer before I went to university, Sheila got in contact with the editor of The Sunday Herald over the possibility of helping me get work experience. I was invited to his office to discuss the possibility and, from that, I spent the week prior to the independence referendum at their offices, managing to get my preview of the Germany v Scotland Euro Qualifying match printed.
Sheila was always pro-active and was actually the catalyst for the creation of Glasgow City Council’s (GCC) ‘Determined to Report’ initiative. She approached my head-teacher at the time to inquire as to whether there were any journalism projects which I could be part of which resulted in the teacher getting in touch with Gary Condie at the GCC. He came to meet me and Sheila in the ensuing weeks and drew up a plan of how the scheme, aimed at giving aspiring journalists some practical experience, would operate.
As part of the initiative I was able to report on athletics and cycling events at the Chris Hoy Arena, become a member of the Scottish Media Academy – an eight-week programme based at Radio Clyde’s HQ – as well as report on the Commonwealth Games in 2014 for Future News where I travelled to various venues.
Myself and Sheila were also the case-study for The Herald’s feature-piece on how the IGM has helped pupils progress academically as well as how it has given the mentees a sense of satisfaction from seeing their help pay off.
During my time at Springburn Academy I never believed that the career path I wanted to take would be stifled by the area I was brought up in. However, while the recruitment process of Scottish universities may not be intentionally skewed in favour of kids from more affluent backgrounds, pupils from poorer areas do still have to accept that they will be starting off the application process in a disadvantaged position.
This is not a generalisation of the backgrounds and sorts of families these kids come from, as I too fall into this category, but there is an irrefutable correlation between the geography of where a pupil lives and their parents’ likely employment profession that means because of their parents’ lack of professional contacts they find it more difficult to gain experience and access to these networks. This is why the work of the Intergenerational Mentoring Network is so important in restoring some balance to the nature of the competition.
From my experience so far at university, the main difference I have found between myself – the only Glaswegian on the course – and those from more affluent areas, is that they tend to arrive at university with the confidence and ability to present in front of large groups whereas I have had to build those skills up by stepping out of my comfort zone.
It seems to me that this is a symptom of the disparate cultures within certain schools. From speaking to my course-mates, the tactic of positive reinforcement was central to the environment at their schools whilst, although my teachers were invariably brilliant, there didn’t seem to be the same emphasis on promoting self-belief. These personality traits may not be desirable in general but they are a necessity when you get to university and in certain professions, so that is one message that needs to be replicated and reiterated in all schools so it doesn’t hold them back in later life.
Reducing the attainment gap
Being labelled ‘disadvantaged’ purely based on my geography was a tag I was, and still am, uncomfortable with today. Those who face barriers to a university education aren’t, for the most part, in abject poverty; there are a large number characterised as hailing from working-class backgrounds that don’t have the contacts or family experience of attending university.
The systemic problems won’t be solved just by chucking money at the problem though, it has to be spent efficiently and on initiatives which have been studied and proved to have worked. Ahead of the Holyrood elections in May, the various parties have put forward their proposals of how they would fund the spending on the education sector.
Labour’s ‘fair start fund’ would give every primary school £1000 and every nursery £300 for each pupil from a deprived background – paid for by raising the top-rate tax for those earning more than £150,000 to 50p. They also propose to increase income tax by 1p across the board in order to raise £500m to offset cuts made to local authority (LA) budgets (Scottish Labour, 2016).
The SNP have pledged to invest £750m during the next parliament on top of the 100m attainment fund that covers seven LAs, but have decided not to mirror Scottish Labour’s method of raising the funds as they believe a tax hike could drive away businesses from Scotland. They have instead announced a steep increase in council tax paid by those in Band E homes and above to partly fund the costs of their commitment (SNP, 2016).
The Tories have put forward the suggestion of reintroducing tuition fees which would be payable on the completion of the degree. Compared to students south of the border the £6,000 would be considerably cheaper but many have viewed it as a stealth tax on education which could cancel out the 35% increase in the number of kids from deprived backgrounds attending university (Motherwell Times, 2016).
Tam Baillie, Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people, believes it will be “very difficult” to get rid of the attainment gap while local authorities’ budgets are being cut by £350m though (Green, 2016).
Even though the SNP made university education free for all students in Scotland, universities are facing cuts of more than 3 percent, while the country has the highest drop-out rate in the UK – partly due to the bursaries being cut by over a third. Instead of increasing the loan facilities available which saddles students with debt, restoring the bursary levels back to what they were is what is needed if university is genuinely to be open to everyone.
The Scottish Funding Council’s flagship plan, designed to get 1,800 more students from non-traditional backgrounds into university by 2016/2017 by funding extra places to reduce competition, won’t be receiving its fourth tranche of payments even after the £30m scheme saw 5,000 extra students from poorer backgrounds gain access to university. (Denholm, 2016).
Recognising that the benefits pupils from more affluent areas have, do, in fact, extend beyond three-o’clock every school day is crucial if there is to be a more holistic approach to changing the landscape of Scottish education. Two ways I believe the attainment gap could be closed are by establishing ‘enrichment vouchers’ – an idea researchers from Oxford University put forward in their study – and means-tested coupons which could be traded for educational perks.
They discovered that pupils from less affluent backgrounds are four-times less likely to receive one-to-one tuition and six-times less likely to partake in extra-curricular activities such as sport clearly shows there is a wider cultural issue when it comes to attainment. These ‘vouchers’, that would come from the Pupil Premium fund, would go towards ensuring these pupils went on school trips and encouraged them to read in their spare time, all of which contributes and helps cultivate an attitude which values education and engenders a habit of doing homework and revision on a regular basis (Garner, 2015).
The Sutton Trust, the charity who commissioned the report, Subject to Background, also endorse the idea of using the money generated from PP to provide lower income families with means-tested vouchers in which to purchase educational opportunities such as private tuition (Sammons et al, 2015).
Before further capital is injected into innovative projects like these, the immediate concerns should be on rising class-sizes and the lack of funding for after-school study sessions. The learning environment in a class of 30-odd pupils – which is becoming far more common – is far from ideal, and causes distractions and prevents teachers from forming a close working relationship with their pupils as the limited time they have to offer one-to-one guidance is inadequate.
From my own experience, several teachers – after providing endless after-school study classes out of their own time – eventually decided to work-to-rule due to them having to buy their own resources to teach and failing to be reimbursed for their efforts that went far beyond their remit.
Too much focus has been placed on orientating the framework around the children’s preferences in creating a Curriculum for Excellence instead of ensuring knowledge is grounded in traditional knowledge subjects. Inter-disciplinary projects require prior understanding of the separate compartments; pupils need to be prepared for either continuing their studies or entering the employment market, and for that, they need to be encouraged to immerse themselves in at least one of the ‘facilitating’ subjects – Maths, Sciences, Languages or English. The situation was summed up by Lindsay Paterson when he said that, while it is “speciously appealing”, “knowledge is discounted in preference to skills” (Paterson, 2016).
Introducing national tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Primary 1 is something that, reluctantly, needs to be supported. Educationalists around the world agree that data is needed to make progress and this can only be done if there are measurable standards throughout every stage of learning.
It is not right that parents are oblivious to whether their kids are making steady progress in school or not until they go to secondary. The only objection is that it will result in school league tables being created from the age of five but that is a price worth paying.
With reading standards dropping, it is essential that literacy is put at the forefront of the curriculum once again. Making more use of school libraries by ensuring there is funding for a full-time librarian is pivotal to creating a culture which advocates reading as a leisure activity, but making reading compulsory during registration each morning is something I would champion thoroughly.
Political parties are often accused of not engaging with the younger generation nearly enough in order to interest them in the machinations of the UK and Scotland’s fervent political climate. Embarking on a relationship with journalists form Glasgow universities to produce a current affairs magazine or news round-up for senior school pupils which covered the main talking points in brief and stimulated debate would give those kids who maybe aren’t privy to reading a newspaper regularly the chance to familiarise themselves with the latest events and potentially open their eyes to a career opportunity.
ITV 1’s programme School Swap: Class Divide gave an interesting insight into the differences between the environment at private schools and state schools and what lessons can be learnt through the symbiotic relationship developed.
At the private school – and this is something I noticed from visiting Glasgow Academy – there are constant reference points to the school’s alumni which act as inspiration and embody the clear path of progression which exists.
Having former pupils who have gone on to achieve, come back to their old secondary schools to give guest workshops on their career is a way in which pupils could relate and may encourage them to follow in their footsteps.
The arts, along with sport, have time and again proved to be a vehicle in which less academically gifted pupils can channel their talents or, in some more extreme cases, it has elevated them out of the cycle of poverty. There needs to be more use of sports and the wider values and discipline it can instil into pupils.
Pooling resources has to be at the forefront going forward as the facilities at certain schools are scarce compared to others which boast several playing fields and the latest artificial surfaces. Annual regional sports tournaments and competitive school sports days were jettisoned as they were accused of being unfair to those less athletically gifted. On that basis though, so too should exams and tests as they reward success, so the need to reverse these decisions and recognise sporting achievement is important.
Rebalancing the perceived handicap via the Top-Up programme is the wrong attitude to be emitting. Boosting pupils from poorer backgrounds’ grades may increase the numbers reaching the entry requirements but it does little to challenge the problems they face if they reach the next stage. It also breeds mistrust in the more affluent schools and reinforces class divides, as it suggests that those in schools such as mine are unable of achieving the same grades without a leg-up – which is demonstrably false. Even though this isn’t explicitly a ‘deficit model’ as such – where the required grades are lowered depending on your school – it discourages aspiration and, frankly, is quite patronising.
The Conservative party’s utopia of ‘academisation’ would see more powers being devolved to head-teachers. In this individualist approach, schools would be given the chance to develop their academies rather than conform to ‘local authorities’ top-down structure.
The ‘teacher first’ approach which sees ‘high fliers’ taken out of industry and placed into underperforming schools for two years to assess whether they have made discernible improvements is another ideology which is being peddled, but this has only happened in England.
Some point to Jordanhill as an example in Scotland – as it is a Free School in all but name – their success of having 78% of school leavers graduating with five Highers can be put down to the fact that the geography of the school has resulted in the gentrification of the catchment area, meaning more affluent families have moved house in order to seal their children’s place there (Houston, 2016).
Liz Ervine, a former head-teacher on the other hand, believes that the current set-up allows for the best of both worlds: independence for the head-teacher and a community of head-teachers working underneath the guidance of the local authority. She believes it enables the share of best practice while maintaining that sense of security a governing body brings.
Sir Tom Hunter’s report on Scottish education on STV was an illuminating piece of television. The First Minister’s message that “if something can be proven to work, we should try it” sounds patently obvious, but the resistance to implementing Pupil Premium and our version of London Challenge remains (Miller, 2016).
The implementation of Pupil Premium in England – a £2.5b fund allocated to schools in order to help children from poorer backgrounds – has closed the attainment-gap in England by a considerable margin but its success has been undermined by cuts made to schools (Rowland, 2016).
Alastair Wilson, senior research fellow at Strathclyde University, points out that London’s demographic is very different to Glasgow’s as they are an extremely multicultural city, while it is mostly white teenage boys that Glasgow needs to target. He also points out that, if the funding for reducing the attainment gap stayed the same, Glasgow would swallow up the whole budget on Pupil Premium alone. This dictates that Scotland has to come up with its own version or start problem-solving for itself rather than waiting until the world has moved on and then playing catch-up.
Scotland’s educational problems are complex and deep-seated, not only due to the generational problems of poverty but because of the systemically uneven nature of schools in relation to their location. Progression from less privileged upbringings to university will only be made simpler if there are fully-researched ideas implemented to suit Scotland’s specific needs. At the moment, this is not forthcoming.