Tag Archives: compulsory education

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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How should we interpret the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy?

SSIN

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2015 is now out. It is a great example for students of agenda setting and framing because an apparently dry account of recent trends may come to dominate the highest level debates in Scottish politics.

The stakes are high because the figures – showing some drops in attainment at key stages, and major gaps in inequalities of attainment at all stages – are being interpreted in this context:

Allegations of government shenanigans

The SNP Government’s opponents reckon that it delayed the results because they were so bad as to undermine the SNP vote in the Holyrood elections in 2016.

Allegations of misplaced priorities

The SNP Government’s critics reckon that it has funded free tuition for the middle classes at the expense of funding to reduce attainment gaps at school (which make it less likely for people in deprived areas to go to benefit from free University education).

SNP Government priorities

Education will be the big focal point from 2016-21 because the SNP has signalled it as the top priority (symbolised by the fact that John Swinney is now in charge). Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon promised at one point to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ (report on original speech).

The SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more of a mix of aims (using more equivocal language). Its promise to ‘close the attainment gap between young people from the most and those from the least affluent backgrounds’ really means reduce (‘our mission is to make significant progress in closing the gap within the next parliament and to substantially eliminate it within a decade’), while its promise to deliver ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’ betrays the sense that it does not really know how to tell how far it can reduce the gap and declare almost-complete success.

This background gives us a lens through which to view most analysis of the figures

As you’d expect, so far the immediate reaction is rather critical:

The SNP Government response will be trickier-than-usual for the following reasons:

  1. Free University tuition is non-negotiable.

It won’t give up on free University tuition (for Scottish students and, in effect, EU students outside the UK), and it doesn’t accept the argument that its spending on University tuition comes at the expense of its spending on pre-school and school spending. So, it has to find the money, to reduce the attainment gap, from other areas (producing the possibility of limited success in education and worsening results in other high profile areas such as health).

  1. Its ability to link the issue to Scottish independence is now more limited.

The usual (and often plausible) response to the inequalities in attainment gap is to argue that: (a) it is caused largely by socio-economic conditions such as poverty, rather than teaching; and, (b) the Scottish Government does not have the tax/ spending power to reduce the problem at source. Yet, Sturgeon has staked her reputation on making a difference despite these constraints.

So, what happens next?

At some point, we might have a less emotive, less partisan, and more considered look at these figures. If so, I’d like to be clearer on three different kinds of question. The first two are about setting milestones so that we don’t wait until the figures come out before we pronounce success/ failure, and the third is about the figures themselves:

  1. What level of inequality of attainment is OK?

Whatever language the SNP uses, it won’t close this gap completely. Instead, we could benefit from an honest and pragmatic discussion about the level of inequality in attainment that we think is acceptable (at least at each stage of policy development). In Scotland, we tell a good story about consensus politics, but it won’t mean much if the government pretends to hold on to aims it doesn’t think are achievable, while the opposition criticises any gap regardless of progress.

  1. What trends are acceptable?

In agenda setting studies we note the profound effects of trends in data, which can be more important (in gaining attention) than the baseline figures. If we want to try to avoid getting sucked into these lurches of attention to often-minimal change, we could benefit from a sense of perspective on trends. Is any positive effect a cause for celebration or negative effect a cause for prophecies of doom? No. Yet, the stakes are so high that people are ready to pounce at any minute, or at least every year. Governments play that game too, with performance management systems that really don’t help (and, for example, Robert Geyer has a different way to consider long term success and failure).

  1. What do these figures really mean?

I don’t think the survey was designed with these high political stakes in mind. If they are to remain so crucial to political debate, I’d like to see more explanation – to the public and political commentators – of the method and results, to give a clearer sense of how to interpret the baseline figures as well as the trends.

Otherwise, for example, people will point to the wacky drop in attainment progress in S2 (compared to P7) and wonder what the hell happened (particularly since it exposes the major gap in attainment linked to deprivation). The report itself mentions the well-discussed problem of transition from primary to secondary school, but could discuss more the likelihood that this statistical dip is caused partly by measurement (possible explanations include: the expectation for S2 is disproportionately high, given the problems of transition; or, secondary and primary teachers have different view on how well someone is doing when they enter S1).

For further reading, see Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s site Adventures in Evidence, which provides more frequent and in-depth (and critical!) coverage of Scottish education policy than mine.

See also A memo to John Swinney

For some of the coverage, see for example:

Numeracy rate falls among pupils in Scotland, latest figures show

 

 

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