I suppose we should be thankful that Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged there’s a problem with Scotland’s public education system, even if she’s hit upon the wrong solution. Earlier this week, the First Minister announced that the Scottish -government would be trying out its version of ‘the London challenge’, a programme carried out by the last government, to address the chronic underachievement of Scotland’s most deprived children.
In the past, the SNP has deflected criticisms of its education record by pointing out that Scottish 15-year-olds did marginally better than their English counterparts in the 2012 Pisa tests. But the difference between the two groups is minuscule and both have declined dramatically since Pisa first started testing in 2000. More recently, the Scottish government has been embarrassed by the error-strewn roll-out of the Curriculum for Excellence. The Highers linked to the new curriculum were supposed to be introduced last year, but half of Scotland’s local authorities still haven’t managed it.
It’s not surprising that Sturgeon has alighted on ‘the London challenge’ as the model for improving Scotland’s schools, since it involves giving local authorities more money, rather than schools more autonomy. As a general rule, increasing expenditure on education is an ineffective way of boosting attainment, as the last government discovered. Spending per pupil more than doubled in real terms under Labour, but Britain’s schoolchildren continued their steady decline in the international league tables. Indeed, Andreas Schleicher, the man in charge of the Pisa tests, recently identified ‘It’s all about money’ as one of the ‘myths’ about high-performing schools. He pointed out that students in the Slovak Republic perform at about the same level as students in America, even though America spends more than twice as much per pupil.
But is ‘the London challenge’ an exception? Until recently, most people thought so, and on the left it became Exhibit A in the case for not reducing the role of bureaucrats in England’s public education system. Introduced in 2003 by Estelle Morris, it placed huge budgets in the hands of national and local officials, who spent them on ‘training programmes’ for ‘school leaders’, i.e. residential courses for London-based teachers who agreed to be lectured by Marxist professors in return for free food and wine.
Ten years later, Chris Cook wrote an article in the FT in which he marvelled at what he called ‘the London effect’. Cook drew attention to the fact that London had gone from being one of the poorest-performing regions in England to one of the best. Children living in London’s most deprived neighbourhoods could now expect to do better than the average pupil living outside the capital. Even though ‘the London challenge’ was shelved in 2010, most of the experts quoted in Cook’s article claimed it was the cause of this dramatic improvement.
It didn’t take long for the myth to be debunked. Last October, the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University published a research paper by Simon Burgess arguing that the higher progress made by pupils in London’s schools compared with the rest of England could be entirely accounted for by immigration. ‘Ethnic minority pupils have greater ambition, aspiration, and work harder in school,’ wrote Burgess. ‘London has more of these pupils and so has a higher average GCSE score than the rest of the country.’
To test this, Burgess compared the progress of white British pupils in London’s schools with the same demographic group in the rest of the country. If the various ‘interventions’ put in place by Estelle Morris’s crack team of bureaucrats were responsible for ‘the London effect’, you’d expect to see all pupils in London’s schools outperforming their counterparts in the provinces. In fact, white British pupils fare just as badly in London as they do elsewhere. Once you control for the ethnic composition of London’s schools, the ‘London effect’ vanishes altogether. Put simply, the reason poor children in London are likely to get better GCSEs than children in the rest of England is that they’re less likely to be white.
I can confidently predict that Sturgeon’s plan to pour more money into Scotland’s local education authorities — no doubt funded by the English taxpayer — will have zero impact on the attainment of Scotland’s poorest pupils. If she wants to see Scotland climb the international school league tables, she’d be better off encouraging more Indians, Chinese and Africans to settle in Glasgow. Unfortunately, with the collapse of global oil prices, she’s unlikely to have much luck.