The bitter lies of an elitist system

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Credit: Flickr / Jack Hynes

Emily Hay
Books Columnist

Following the publication of a league table which ranked all Scottish state secondary schools from best to worst, Emily Hay examines the false basis upon which these results are acquired and how damaging they are to schools and individuals alike.

Last week, The Sunday Times released its “School Guide”, ranking all state secondary schools in Scotland from 1 to 339. As predicted, the top performing schools are overwhelmingly located in the most desirable – ergo expensive – housing catchment areas. It would appear to show (to no real surprise) that in general, children from wealthier households in nicer areas perform better academically than their less well-off counterparts. Tell us something we didn’t already know.

Of course, what the list fails to mention is that, oftentimes, that disparity in education between wealthier areas and poorer ones isn’t down to the home situation or wealth of the child – it is due to the quality of education those schools are able to offer. Now, you may be thinking that this sounds ridiculous: every school on this list is a state school, therefore they all receive the same levels of state-funding, right? Wrong. Different local councils can spend different amounts on education (although, technically, schools within the same local authority should receive the same level of state funding). What these statistics fail to mention is that schools can also receive private funding and donations from wealthy parents and successful ex-pupils, which stretches their budget further than those which are receiving only the state bare minimum. These schools can then afford to pay more teachers and therefore run more classes than their less fortunate counterparts. That’s not even to mention that they can afford more equipment to use in the classroom and are able to replace things quickly when they get broken. They can afford to run more trips, thus supplementing their children’s education, and their children can usually afford to actually go on those trips. All of this culminates in the fact that those pupils then statistically go on to be more successful and in turn pay it back to the school that kickstarted their success. And so the cycle continues…

The system is rigged from the start and what’s most surprising is that a lot of us don’t realise that it is. I remember being pretty shocked when I discovered this disparity in my sixth year at high school. I too had thought that all state schools must be equal in the amount of classes they were able to run, or at least I’d never really thought about why they weren’t. My school – which came in at an impressive #296 on this year’s list – couldn’t afford to run the Advanced Higher classes a few of us wanted to take; but thanks to the dedication of some of our teachers, they tried their best to run the classes on a compromise. We had half of our lessons as taught, and the other half as “self-taught”, to save on teaching time. This was great (we were thankful to be able to take a class which we otherwise couldn’t have), until we realised that pupils from other schools, who at the end of the year would be sitting the same exams we were, would have had double the teaching time that we did. Ability level aside – which pupils do you think were going to do better with odds like that?

That’s my personal experience. Granted, it’s not the sorriest tale, given Advanced Highers are often seen as an extra as we don’t always need them to get into university in Scotland. On that matter, incidentally the “School Guide” bases its rankings on the percentage of pupils leaving with five or more Highers – which also happens to be a completely arbitrary and meaningless basis for ranking secondary schools. Aside from the fact that not everybody wants to continue their education, you can still get into a top Scottish university, including both Glasgow and Edinburgh, with four good Highers. Go ahead, check the entry requirements yourself. From English Lit to History, from Accounting and Physics, four Highers make up the typical entry requirements for a host of courses at this university – one of the best in the country and a Russell group no less (if that means anything to you) – and to the people making these rankings, it evidently does. So, if five or more Highers aren’t the be all and end all of our education, why is this the only statistic these rankings are based on?

I’ve seen people from schools which break the top ten state that they felt like a failure when they didn’t achieve the results the school wanted, or couldn’t cope with the amount of subjects they wanted them to do. I’ve seen others say that whilst their education was first rate, they were ignored when they struggled with their mental health. Just because a school performed better in examinations and the amount of classes they could offer does not make them the best school for everything else, when they should be offering a highly proficient service to young people at the most vulnerable point in their lives: pastoral care, education beyond the classroom and building a support network they’ll need to get through the years ahead. A quick twitter scroll and you’ll see a whole host of people stating the same thing in a multitude of different ways: these school rankings aren’t worth the keyboard they were typed on. Ranking schools based on one arbitrary set of exam grades perpetuates an elitist structure which feeds on classism and gives a false sense of intellectual superiority to those who can afford to live in areas where their children will attend the “best” schools – where they can suffer just as much if they aren’t attaining the results that school expects of them. On the other hand, those of us relegated to the lowest rungs of the ladder can feel a crushing sense of inadequacy and imposter syndrome when later down the line we realise that we’re alone amongst our peers in coming from a school so far down the list. Not a single one of my university peers who I spoke to about the ranking struck out further than 170; out in the lonely 290’s I felt like an outsider, even though I know I deserve to be here as much as they do. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we’re judged the rest of our lives based on where we came from, rather than our actual ability.

School exam rankings reduce a deeply complex, colourful, intensive programme of secondary education down to nothing more than one cold statistic. They ignore the dedication of individual members of teaching staff, who often go above and beyond for their pupils, particularly at schools at the lower end of the list. They ignore the effort exerted by support for learning departments and guidance staff who ensure the quality of their pupils time at school, in and out-with the classroom. And, they ignore the hard work of both pupils and parents if that hard work doesn’t culminate in the results (read “numbers”) that they expect. They have no place in a culture which supposedly believes in equality of opportunity. We’re always told that all we can do is try our best – so stop telling us, and our schools, that there’s only one way to be the best.