Exploring ‘middle’ outcomes in Scottish school qualifications

In the 1980s Phil Brown stated "there is an invisible majority of ordinary pupils who neither leave their names engraved on the school honours board nor gouged into the tops of their desks."

School qualifications play an important role in the transitions young people make, and the educational and employment pathways they follow. CPC member Vernon Gayle has produced new work with Christopher Playford, Roxanne Connelly and Susan Murray which focuses on outcomes in School Standard Grade qualifications in Scotland in 2007-2011. The results from this work clearly indicate that there are two distinctive groups of Scottish pupils with 'middle' or 'moderate' school Standard Grade outcomes, and that little has changed since Phil Brown's statement.

Using a latent variable modelling approach, and newly available administrative data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority linked to individual and parental information from the Scottish Longitudinal Study, the analyses uncovered four main latent educational groups.

• Group 1 (Low Outcomes): 46% of pupils were in this group characterised by very poor Standard Grade outcomes. Pupils in this group were generally from more socially disadvantaged families.

• Group 2 (Middle Non-Science): 14% of pupils were in this group characterised by moderate overall Standard Grade outcomes. They were more likely to gain a Credit pass (grade 1 or 2) in English, but were relatively less likely to gain Credit passes in Mathematics and Sciences.

• Group 3 (Middle Science): 14% of pupils were in this group. This group also had moderate overall Standard Grade outcomes. They were unlikely to gain Credit passes (grade 1 or 2) in English and Mathematics, but were more likely to gain Credit passes in the Sciences.

• Group 4 (High Outcomes): 27% of pupils were in this group, they had very high overall Standard Grade outcomes. Pupils in this group were from generally more socially advantaged families.

By using latent class analysis this research was able to uncover detail about 'middle' groups that other types of analysis couldn't since the two middle groups had similar overall levels of achievement, but their subject area level outcomes were notably different. By using this approach Gayle et al have provided a set of typologies that can be used to better understand patterns of educational outcomes. Iannelli, Smyth, and Klein (2015) argue that taking account of school subjects provides a more complete understanding of the processes that shape social inequality.

The evidence showing hidden groups of 'ordinary' young people with different patterns of educational outcomes is important, especially as these pupils may require assistance and encouragement in different areas of the curriculum. These typologies are important because they can directly inform current debates on raising standards in Scottish schools, improving pupils' knowledge, and developing their skills. This work links to the 'Getting it Right for Every Child' approach to improving the wellbeing of children and young people in Scotland, and other projects such as the 'Curriculum for Excellence reforms' and the Westminster Government's strengthened approach to tracking the life chances of Britain's most disadvantaged children.

Read the full working paper here


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