At Aultmore Park primary school in Glasgow’s Easterhouse area, it is just before 9am. Parents are dropping off their children and the smell of cannabis smoke lingers in the air.
Statistics published this week indicate that more than four in ten of the school’s pupils are underperforming in writing and less than 70 per cent are achieving the required standards in reading and numeracy. It is no coincidence that more than 90 per cent of its pupils live in the most deprived parts of Scotland.
Six hours later, on the other side of the Clyde, mostly middle-class parents mingle outside the gates of Langside primary in Shawlands as they wait for their children. Less then 10 per cent live in an area associated with extreme poverty. In all four areas of attainment measured, more than 90 per cent of the school’s pupils are achieving their Curriculum for Excellence benchmarks.
The two schools, less than ten miles apart, are in many ways in different worlds. The clear link between poverty and educational achievement is repeated throughout the country.
Nicola Sturgeon has staked her reputation on reducing the attainment gap between rich and poor and Gillian Kierans, the head teacher at Aultmore Park, is on the front line in delivering the first minister’s “defining mission”.
Ms Kierans, 44, who was recently the runner-up in a UK-wide head teacher of the year contest, faces issues that her counterpart at Langside will rarely encounter. Drug and alcohol abuse among parents are problems at every school, she said, but many on her patch have also been targeted by loan sharks in the run-up to Christmas. Some children, she admitted, turn up not as well fed as she would like, while many of their parents lack confidence and have few books at home.
Her office is something of a shrine to improving the life chances of the children at her school — a display on the wall features slogans such as “equity” and “closing the gap”. There is now a focus on improving attainment because of politicians’ interest, Ms Kierans said, but for her it has been a lifelong mission.
She said that the figures, published as part of a package of reforms by John Swinney, the education secretary, may be misleading.
“There’s an awful lot of other things going on in a school apart from statistics,” she said. “We’ve always looked to close the gap for our children. We’ve always had a very clear focus on reducing inequality. Part of it is looking at parents and looking at how we can support them.”
The school has recently begun inviting a parent counsellor in once a week. There are regular visits to museums, while a few years ago Ms Kierans organised a school trip to Paris.
She already has plans for how to spend the £1,200 allocated for each child entitled to free school meals that was promised in this week’s budget, adding that it may allow her to buy new maths equipment or embark on more school trips away from Glasgow.
She said: “There’s always going to be some level of a gap, but it can be much smaller. It’s a social justice thing, it’s not just education that’s going to close it.”
Some parents, though, are pessimistic. Many use profanities when asked about the school, while others refuse to engage.
“I think it’s quite weak,” said William Logan, 44, whose son, Benjamin, six, attends the school. He says he is unsurprised by the underperformance revealed in this week’s statistics. “It’s just typical for an area in poverty. Not enough’s being done. If it was in the West End, it’d be better funded with better teachers.”
At Langside, it is a different story. Parents are universal in their praise of the school, citing the efforts of Christine Wilson, its recently retired head teacher. As well as providing inspirational leadership, there is strong engagement from parents.
The school is by no means dominated by the super-rich, but many parents are in well-paid professions. Remco De Blaaij, 37, who is orginally from Holland, sends his son Joas, six, to the school. Mr De Blaaij is curator at the Centre for Contemporary Arts on Sauchiehall Street.
Another parent reveals that she did not apply for a job after learning that it paid only £27,000 a year — a salary that would be considered astronomical for many in Easterhouse.
When one parent, Richard Brown, 59, a former journalist, was asked what would happen if a bad teacher appeared at Langside, he replied: “It wouldn’t be tolerated.”
Anne Poole went to school in Parkhead, a deprived area of Glasgow, and says that her children’s experiences at Langside contrast sharply with her own. “When it comes to parents and teaching, there have never been any problems at all. I think money is the difference — both how much the school has and how much the parents and children have.”