Widening access to Scottish universities.

As somebody who grew up in one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, I welcome any measure which gives students from poor background a fairer chance of accessing university. Indeed, as somebody who works in a Scottish university and runs one of the UK’s top engineering programmes I know the challenges students from poor backgrounds face.

The problem universities face, however, is that schools serving deprived areas are simply not producing enough students to enable universities to meet the aspirations of SNP Government. A situation which is set to worsen if the real drop in literacy and numeracy standards in Scotland is evidenced in S5 and S6 exams results.

Universities have responded to this in three ways. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who have the entry qualifications.  Secondly, they now work harder to get more students from deprived areas to consider a university education. Thirdly, universities have lowered their intake scores for deprived areas to below the minimum acceptable. This approach has had some success, but access to university in Scotland still lags far behind the rest of the UK and the drop-out rate is a challenge.

Whilst Universities Scotland has announced a welcome enhancement to this approach, it does not address the real problem – schools in deprived areas are not producing sufficient numbers of students which meet the entry criteria.

The real solution is obvious – we must invest in our most vulnerable communities. In the short-term, the SNP Government’s significant cuts to the grant for poor students must be reversed. Above all else, however, we must reverse SNP Government’s cuts to teacher numbers and education spending. Only by doing this can we reverse the decline in literacy and numeracy we have seen in Scotland’s schools. This will give the next generation of Scots the grades they need to get to university and ensure they reach their full potential.

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Are Scottish universities turning away students from deprived backgrounds?

“While more youngsters from our least well-off communities are now going to university, the numbers are still far too low.” – Nicola Sturgeon 

Students from the 40% most deprived areas (SIMD40) in Scotland account for only 30% of the total student population. Only 14% come from the 20% most deprived areas (SIMD20). Despite there being no tuition fees in Scotland, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has indicated that Scotland has the lowest level of university access from vulnerable communities in the UK.

In 2012 St Andrews University claimed only 2-3% of school-leavers from our most deprived areas get good enough grades to win places at elite universities. They’d know, in 2011 they admitted only 14 students (yes, 14!) from SIMD20 areas. In 2012, the SNP Government accepted the target St Andrews set themselves to improve on this – an extra 6 students (yes, 6!).

The analysis provided to the SNP Government by St Andrews University is quite insightful:  “In publishing a new target to increase its annual intake of students from SIMD20 areas by 45%, St Andrews said that it had faced a stark choice – lower its academic standards significantly or live with continuing criticism for slow but steady progress to recruit more students from the most deprived areas.”.

What was the SNP Government doing? Keep in mind that all the data showed that a lack of suitably qualified students coming from deprived areas was the problem. The logical response would perhaps have been to invest in education from pre-school to high school? Nope, instead the SNP mandated universities to accept more students from deprived areas. Those that failed to do this, despite the lack of supply of students, would suffer “financial penalties where insufficient progress is made“.

So where would universities find these students? Keep in mind that Scottish students from deprived areas who do achieve university entry-level qualifications at school are more likely to go to university than their more advantaged peers – 37%-40% of all pupils that satisfy entry criteria from SIMD20 areas go on to university compared to an equivalent figure of only 30%-33% of all pupils from the most advantaged areas.

Universities did three things. Firstly, there is now more competition for the few students from vulnerable areas who had the entry qualifications.  Secondly, they now work harder to get more students from deprived areas to consider a university education. Thirdly, universities have lowered their intake scores for deprived areas. In some cases students are accepted on to courses where they did not meet the entry standard.

What’s the result? The number of students attending university from SIMD20 backgrounds increased by 0.7% last year (yes, 0.7%!) to 14%, but the improvement since 2011 is just under 5%. Not good enough.

To make serious progress, we must do what we should always have done –  invest in education from pre-school to high school. Back in 2012 St Andrews university told the SNP Government what we all know to be true: “Scotland now needs a wide societal effort to build a much more resilient culture of attainment, beginning in the nursery years, and it is time to stop demonising higher education for poor progression rates“.

We must  invest in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, we must reverse SNP cuts to teacher numbers and education spending. Only by doing this can we reverse the decline in literacy and numeracy we have seen in Scotland’s schools. This will give the next generation of Scots the grades they need to get to university and ensure they reach their full potential.

It is time for action. As Kezia Dugdale said last week: The SNP have spent the last eight years tapping their pencil and staring into space on educational inequality. Parents are anxious, teachers are over-worked and stressed. Students are losing out.

Any government which has a plan to tackle the attainment gap deserves our support.

Any government which has a plan to tackle inequality by reducing the attainment gap in our education system deserves our support. However, on reading Angela Constance’s thoughts on the issue I am not exactly sure what she plans. Given that her SNP Government has had full control of education in Scotland at all levels since 2007, this is quite concerning.

The context is grim. The authoritative “2014 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy” found that attainment in Scottish schools has dropped in recent years. Worse than that, the attainment gap between the least and most deprived students has increased in both relative and absolute terms.

Further to this, last year the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSA) noted with concern that the SNP Government was withdrawing Scotland from two key international benchmark studies: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and Trends in International Maths and Science Survey. It remains part of a third study, the Programme for International Student Assessment, which the RSE concluded was of “limited value to an evaluation of a curricular reform” such as we have seen in Scotland. These moves carry all the hallmarks of a government which has no confidence in its own education system.

Indeed, in her speech Ms Constance said “Every school and every local authority must own its attainment gap and take action”. Closing the attainment gap is therefore now the responsibility of our cash-strapped Local Authorities, not her Scottish Government – although I am sure she will take the credit for any success.

To close the attainment gap Ms Constance must invest in our most vulnerable communities. Above all else, she must reverse her government’s cuts to teacher numbers and education spending.

It is time for action. As Kezia Dugdale said this week: The SNP have spent the last eight years tapping their pencil and staring into space on educational inequality. Parents are anxious, teachers are over-worked and stressed. Students are losing out.

The SNP Lacks Credibility on the Attainment Gap.

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One of the great contradictions of contemporary Scottish politics is the emphasis the nationalists have placed on tackling inequality despite having done virtually nothing to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

The Scotsman today suggests there is some movement in the SNP on this issue and, after eight years in power, they will adopt a successful Labour education policy.

However, I am unsure that this initiative alone will be enough. Authoritative analysis by Unison has estimated that the council tax freeze has cost £2.5 billion and thousands of job losses in local authorities – this has had a direct impact on every state school in Scotland. Class sizes are rising and Scotland has 4275 fewer teachers. In addition to this, our colleges have been cut and university students from poor backgrounds receive the worst grant in Western Europe.

These cuts have taken place to enable the SNP to deliver populist policies which in many cases have also worsened economic inequality as well as the attainment gap. For example, the council tax freeze gives an annual saving in Band A of  £60, or 0.3% of net household income, compared with £370, or 0.8% of net household income, for Band H residents. This is good news for those living in mansions, but those on low incomes face high costs for everything from school meals to people with learning difficulties being charged for access to day centres.

Let’s get serious about the attainment gap. Let’s tackle educational inequality from pre-school to university. Let’s fund it by having the wealthiest Scots pay a fair share, not cutting service to the vulnerable in Scotland.

Education & Inequality in Scotland

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The link between education and deprivation is clear, the problem is that the there is no short-term solution to deal with it. It requires education to provide opportunities for children from pre-school through to university.

I grew up in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – a council estate in Kirkcaldy during the 1980’s miner’s strike. My route out of that was to work hard at school and go on to complete a degree and eventually a PhD. This solid educational base has led me to a career which has taken me right around the world – from Australia to Brazil, Japan and Dubai.

My experience tells me that education is fundamental to reducing inequality in Scotland and elsewhere in the world. As a lecturer who manages one of the UK’s leading engineering programmes at a Scottish university I continually come across students who must leave university because they simply cannot afford to support themselves.

The Scottish Government deserves great credit for abolishing the £2000 “Graduate Endowment Fee” in 2007 and thereby making higher education fee in Scotland. However, they also halved the grant payable to the very poorest students to the lowest in the EU – £1,750 per year (less than I received from Margaret Thatcher in 1987).  Students from poor backgrounds must now either work long hours or accumulate massive debts.

I recently came across a student from one of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh who as well as studying full-time also managed a supermarket full-time.  He was one of the very best students I have encountered, and was evidence that whilst Scots growing up in poor communities may lack opportunity, but they don’t lack commitment, intelligence or ambition.