Daily Archives: December 13, 2016

The Scottish Government’s holistic education policy: a story of profound success or failure?

The Scottish Government experience of education can give us all a profound lesson, but I’m not yet sure what that lesson will be. The positive lesson might be that you can have a holistic approach to education provision, which has a strategy for childcare, early years, and schools that support further and higher education policy effectively. In particular, its key aim is to address inequality in attainment from a very early age, to solve one driver of unequal access to higher education. More people have a chance of a place at University and higher education remains free.

The negative lesson might be that if you don’t solve the problem at an early stage, your other policies look regressive and reinforce inequalities. Instead of seeing a government committed in a meaningful way to reducing educational inequalities throughout a life course, we see government hubris in one area supporting a vote-chasing and damaging policy in another. Free University education remains a benefit for the higher attainers, and inequalities are reinforced by the lack of financial support for low income students.

In a party political context, we can decide very quickly what lesson to take: for the SNP and its supporters, we are on course for a game changing education policy at all levels. Free tuition fees will become the symbol of its overall success. For their critics, policy is failing at almost every stage and the SNP is saved only by our fixation on the constitution as the beacon for our attention and source of policy obstacles. Every pound spent on free tuition fees for the middle classes is a pound not spent on tackling the worrying levels of attainment inequalities in schools (a point that the Scottish Government often seems to support, with reference to the ‘Heckman curve’ on the greater benefits of spending on high quality education at an early age).

As usual, the truth is likely to be in the middle but, because superficial partisan positions are often so extreme, the middle is a very large space. Without more honesty about what we can generally expect from government policies, and what we can reasonably expect from specific current and future initiatives, this debate will remain a source of poor entertainment, not enlightenment.

What can a government do to reduce educational inequality? What will it do?

The main focus of our ‘game-changer versus hubris’ debate comes from a striking speech by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the SNP Government’s aim to abolish inequalities in education attainment. Note how starkly Sturgeon expressed this aim in August 2015:

‘My aim – to put it bluntly – is to close the attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight – I accept that. But it must be done. After all, its existence is more than just an economic and social challenge for us all. It is a moral challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it goes to the very heart of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation’.

Sturgeon’s uncompromising language suggests that Scottish governments can and will produce a profound level of influence on socio-economic outcomes.

UK government ministers have abandoned such language partly because they frame the problem increasingly as an individual, not structural, problem. They have no stated ambition to go to the ‘root cause’ of the problem to reduce the socio-economic inequalities driving many attainment inequalities through a far more redistributive tax and benefits system.

It is therefore striking that the SNP-led Scottish Government also has no plans (and a limited ability) to take a ‘root cause’, majorly redistributive fiscal, approach. Instead, we see the use of public services to mitigate the effects of socioeconomic inequalities. This strategy relies heavily on ‘prevention’ policies to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives – through parenting programmes and childcare provision – to improve their chances.

Further, I have not seen another speech like it. Instead, the SNP manifesto in 2016 restated its commitment to free tuition and presented far more modest language on making: ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’.

What can we realistically say about their likely effects?

In that more realistic context, you get the sense that these attainment-reducing initiatives will have limited effect. They include £100m fund to encourage new initiatives and learn from success stories such as the London Challenge, the partial return of testing pupils at key stages in schools, as part of a National Improvement Framework for Scottish education, to ‘ensure that we are making progress in closing the gap in attainment between those in our most and least deprived areas’, and possible reforms to local and regional governance to encourage learning between schools. These school-based measures come on top of substantial plans to increase or maintain childcare entitlement for 3-4 year olds, and for 2 year olds whose guardians meet income-based criteria.

In terms of the effect of attainment strategies on future University entry, we can say that the Scottish Government expects substantial results from schools in 10 years and from its expanded childcare provision (to vulnerable 2 year olds) in 15 years. As described, this does not seem like a holistic or joined up policy anymore, because it involves a gap, between the effect of one policy on another, so large that it seems unreasonable to link the two together.

An early years and attainment strategy this long-term provides almost no cover to its HE policy. Instead, we have free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the long term presence of an attainment gap, reinforces inequalities in education in several ways: a reduced likelihood of University attendance in school leavers from a deprived background; a tendency for HE policy to benefit the middle classes disproportionately, since the debt burden is higher on poorer HE students, and University funding seems to come at the expense of the college places more likely to be filled by students from lower income backgrounds; and a failure to take the Heckman curve seriously enough to prompt a major shift in funding from Universities and schools to early years.

Overall, I expect that we will look back on that one speech – on the ‘moral challenge’ to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ – as an outlier. It is an aim that sounds impressive as a rhetorical device, but it is not backed up by a coherent set of public policies designed to fulfil that end, and – even with the best will in the world – it is not a policy designed to remove the regressive effects of free HE tuition.

 

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What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

caspi-et-al-abstract

Avshalom Caspi and colleagues have used the 45-year ‘Dunedin’ study in New Zealand to identify the ‘large economic burden’ associated with ‘a small segment of the population’. They don’t quite achieve the 20%-causes-80% mark, but suggest that 22% of the population account disproportionately for the problems that most policymakers would like to solve, including unhealthy, economically inactive, and criminal behaviour. Most importantly, they discuss some success in predicting such outcomes from a 45-minute diagnostic test of 3 year olds.

Of course, any such publication will prompt major debates about how we report, interpret, and deal with such information, and these debates tend to get away from the original authors as soon as they publish and others report (follow the tweet thread):

This is true even though the authors have gone to unusual lengths to show the many ways in which you could interpret their figures. Theirs is a politically aware report, using some of the language of elected politicians but challenging simple responses. You can see this in their discussion which has a lengthy list of points about the study’s limitations.

The ambiguity dilemma: more evidence does not produce more agreement

‘The most costly adults in our cohort started the race of life from a starting block somewhere behind the rest, and while carrying a heavy handicap in brain health’.

The first limitation is that evidence does not help us adjudicate between competing attempts to define the problem. For some, it reinforces the idea of an ‘underclass’ or small collection of problem/ troubled families that should be blamed for society’s ills (it’s the fault of families and individuals). For others, it reinforces the idea that socio-economic inequalities harm the life chances of people as soon as they are born (it is out of the control of individuals).

The intervention dilemma: we know more about the problem than its solution

The second limitation is that this study tells us a lot about a problem but not its solution. Perhaps there is some common ground on the need to act, and to invest in similar interventions, but:

  1. The evidence on the effectiveness of solutions is not as strong or systematic as this new evidence on the problem.
  2. There are major dilemmas involved in ‘scaling up’ such solutions and transferring them from one area to another.
  3. The overall ‘tone’ of debate still matters to policy delivery, to determine for example if any intervention should be punitive and compulsory (you will cause the problem, so you have to engage with the solution) or supportive and voluntary (you face disadvantages, so we’ll try to help you if you let us).

The moral dilemma: we may only pay attention to the problem if there is a feasible solution

Prevention and early intervention policy agendas often seem to fail because the issues they raise seem too difficult to solve. Governments make the commitment to ‘prevention’ in the abstract but ‘do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task’.

A classic policymaker heuristic described by Kingdon is that policymakers only pay attention to problems they think they can solve. So, they might initially show enthusiasm, only to lose interest when problems seem intractable or there is high opposition to specific solutions.

This may be true of most policies, but prevention and early intervention also seem to magnify the big moral question that can stop policy in its tracks: to what extent is it appropriate to intervene in people’s lives to change their behaviour?

Some may vocally oppose interventions based on their concern about the controlling nature of the state, particularly when it intervenes to prevent (say, criminal) behaviour that will not necessarily occur. It may be easier to make the case for intervening to help children, but difficult to look like you are not second guessing their parents.

Others may quietly oppose interventions based on an unresolved economic question: does it really save money to intervene early? Put bluntly, a key ‘economic burden’ relates to population longevity; the ‘20%’ may cause economic problems in their working years but die far earlier than the 80%. Put less bluntly by the authors:

This is an important question because the health-care burden of developed societies concentrates in older age groups. To the extent that factors such as smoking, excess weight and health problems during midlife foretell health-care burden and social dependency, findings here should extend to later life (keeping in mind that midlife smoking, weight problems and health problems also forecast premature mortality)’.

So, policymakers find initially that ‘early intervention’ a valence issue only in the abstract – who wouldn’t want to intervene as early as possible in a child’s life to protect them or improve their life chances? – but not when they try to deliver concrete policies.

The evidence-based policymaking dilemma

Overall, we are left with the sense that even the best available evidence of a problem may not help us solve it. Choosing to do nothing may be just as ‘evidence based’ as choosing a solution with minimal effects. Choosing to do something requires us to use far more limited evidence of solution effectiveness and to act in the face of high uncertainty. Add into the mix that prevention policy does not seem to be particularly popular and you might wonder why any policymaker would want to do anything with the best evidence of a profound societal problem.

 

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Public health, public policy