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The data deficit effect

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Conor Ryan on how a dearth of data helped the Sutton Trust make news in Scotland.

A funny thing happened with our Global Gaps report a couple of weeks ago. John Jerrim’s excellent look at the different performance of highly able 15 year-olds from different social backgrounds gained some good – but not spectacular – coverage in the London media.

But on the same day it became the top political news story in Scotland. The report included breakdowns for the four UK nations and we had targeted stories at outlets in each.

The Scottish data was marginally worse than that in England – and crucially it showed that science results had dipped over the last ten years significantly – but this was enough to create front page splashes in some papers and much bigger stories in Scottish editions than in their English counterparts.

Crucially, too, the opposition took the data and ran with it. The two year gap in performance between poor and better off teenagers hit a nerve, and fed a narrative that the Scottish government has been failing on education. So much so that both Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader and Keiza Dugdale, the Labour leader, majored on the report at First Minister’s Questions.

That took the story into a second day of front page news and saw the BBC’s Scotland political editor filing a lengthy report for the evening news bulletins. By the time last Thursday’s Question Time was broadcast from Glasgow the story was still fresh enough to warrant a separate discussion.

I’ve been reflecting on why this happened. There were some strong political reasons. Opposition politicians clearly leapt on the report with a vigour long lacking in their London counterparts, and that certainly gave the story more legs than had it been solely a Sutton Trust press release and report.

Education is also a much bigger issue in Scotland, both because Nicola Sturgeon and her education secretary John Swinney have made narrowing the attainment gap their big issue in this term, which means that any signs of failure get seized upon.

But I think another factor is just as important – the data deficit North of the border. I became acutely aware of this when I served last year on the Commission on Widening Access in Scotland. The dearth of data was the main reason I subsequently commissioned researchers at Edinburgh to produce the Access in Scotland report.

At school level, this data deficit is particularly significant. Swinney is now introducing a more rigorous – if controversial – testing system this autumn. Along with Wales, Scotland scrapped national testing in the mid-2000s. The result was predictably disastrous in Wales, which has been edging back towards testing, and the PISA results suggest it saw a slide in Scottish results too.

Potentially the reintroduction of national testing could do a lot for research into social mobility in Scotland, something the critics of testing often wilfully ignore, as well as ensuring that aspirations for able disadvantaged students are stretching.

Combined with the introduction of a Scottish version of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, currently being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation with Education Scotland, this could have a genuinely beneficial impact on less advantaged pupils’ results.

Contrast the dearth of data in Scotland (and Wales) with its abundance in England. The National Pupil Database is an invaluable resource with the potential to improve social mobility as it shows schools how others succeed in similar circumstances and with linkage to other databases including HMRC it allows researchers to measure how well students from different backgrounds progress from the start of school to the workplace.

PISA is useful for its comparability in that respect, but is not sufficient – hence the excitement surrounding our recent report. Gratifying as it was to have such great coverage, I look forward to the day when such data doesn’t cause so much of a stir in Scotland because there is much more data available on the progress of Scottish children – and teachers have the tools to compare their pupils with similar pupils elsewhere in the country.