Tag Archives: education policy

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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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable (version 2)?

This is an updated blog post. The original post provided notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the  Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions. I had written it before the vote in the UK to leave the EU, which provided the only realistic chance of a second referendum on Scottish independence. So, the background sections remain the same, but I update the contemporary section with reference to Brexit and its consequences.

The advertised abstract read:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

My aim is to:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.
  • Provide a brief update on the impact of the EU referendum, bearing in mind that I am no less hopeless than anyone else about predicting the future.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

Before the Brexit vote, I tried to sell the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums (2014 and 2024): a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. In the meantime, the SNP and Greens would produce some vague triggers (like a surge in opinion poll support).

Now, if a second referendum is to happen, it is because of the constitutional crisis prompted by Brexit. Overall, most UK voters chose to leave the European Union, but most voters in Scotland chose to remain. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on that basis, with reference to a ‘democratic outrage’. It possesses the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and needs some cooperation from a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change. It is difficult to see why the Conservative government would oppose a referendum under those circumstances (rather than allow it to take place and argue for the Union) even though UK government ministers have rejected the idea so far.

If a second referendum happens, it could happen before 2020. I am hesitant to say when exactly, partly because there is so much uncertainty, which too many people try to fill with needless speculation. For example, Sturgeon confirmed that it could happen as early as 2017, but only because the BBC asked her what she would do if the UK government behaved unreasonably.  In the same interview, Sturgeon also suggested that it may take a long time for the UK to invoke ‘Article 50’, which triggers a notional two-year negotiation period before the UK leaves the EU.

Before we know if a second referendum is likely, and the likely date, we need clarity on two things: (1) the extent to which the UK can (and is willing to) negotiate a deal with the EU which satisfies the SNP and Scottish voters (by becoming Brexit-lite or providing Scotland-specific provisions on key issues like free movement of people); and, (2) the timing of Brexit, since a Scottish referendum would hopefully not take place until we know what we are voting for (which might not happen until near the end of the notional two-year negotiations). Still, it is likely that the vote would be binary, as some version of: stay in the UK out of the EU, or leave the UK and stay in the EU.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

Recent events reinforce the sense that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, until recently, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, before Brexit, we had two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

Now, things are a bit more complicated, since devolution is no longer simply about Scotland’s position in the UK. Scenario two now has to be accompanied by the sense (however true) that the Scottish Government is able to negotiate a distinctive relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK.

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy (although Brexit will remove a level from many of those relationships!)
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

In the original version of this post, I signed off by speculating: ‘maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement that that we are not just killing time until the next referendum’. It already seems like an out of date hope: the constitution is back at the top of our agenda, and I can’t remember the last time I read a story about domestic policy in Scotland.

 

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The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable?

This post provides notes for my lecture on the 15th June at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, as part of the Ringvorlesung: The Future of the UK: Between Internal and External Divisions.

The advertised abstract reads:

The vote to remain in the UK, in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, did not settle the matter. Nor did it harm the fortunes of the pro-independence party, the Scottish National Party. Instead, its popularity has risen remarkably, and major constitutional change remains high on the agenda, particularly during the run up to a referendum on the UK’s exit from the EU. This continued fascination with the constitution overshadows the day-to-day business of Scottish politics. Cairney highlights one aspect in particular: the tendency for limited public and parliamentary scrutiny of substantive policy issues when they are viewed through a constitutional (rather than substantive policy) lens, producing an image of weak accountability.

I’ll begin my talk by apologising passive-aggressively for not being a specialist in this field. I know some things about Scottish politics, but specialise in public policy rather than elections, referendums, social attitudes, and the future. On that basis, I’ll:

  • Explain why the Scottish National Party’s popularity is remarkable
  • Note that none of us have predicted it – or indeed much of the short history of devolution – too well, and use this point as a cautionary tale
  • Describe why independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)
  • Shoehorn in some analysis of the links between our fascination with the constitution and the more humdrum world of actual policy.

The remarkable popularity of the SNP

The SNP’s popularity is remarkable in two main ways:

  1. In 1999, the main party was Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour had dominated Westminster and local elections in Scotland for decades before the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999 (it also won a plurality of European Parliament seats, but with far lower margins):

  • Westminster (plurality electoral system). Labour won most Scottish seats in every election from 1959-2010. In 1997, it won 46% of the vote and 56 (78%) of 72 Scottish Westminster seats (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 45). The SNP won 22% of the vote and 6 (8%) seats. A similar pattern continued until 2010: Labour dominated Scottish Westminster seats even when the SNP began to win Holyrood elections.
  • Local elections (plurality until 2003, single transferable vote from 2007). In 1995, its 44% of the vote translated into 613 (53%) of 1155 seats and it remained the largest party until 2007 (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 51).

This dominance produced an expectation that Scottish Labour would become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament for the foreseeable future. In that context, the fortunes of Labour and the SNP changed remarkably quickly (see table 3). In 1999 and 2003, the main limit to Labour dominance was the electoral system: it won the majority of constituency seats comfortably but few regional seats (it also won most constituency seats in 2007). By 2011, this position had reversed and, by 2016, the regional list was the only thing standing between Scottish Labour and electoral oblivion.

In contrast, by 2011 the SNP achieved a majority of Scottish Parliament seats because the regional element of the mixed-member proportional system (56 of 129 seats) was not large enough to offset SNP dominance of constituency seats. This is a remarkable outcome if we accept the well-shared story that Holyrood’s electoral system was ‘chosen by Labour to stop the SNP ever the getting the majority it needed to push hard on the independence agenda’ (Cairney, 2011: 28).

  1. The SNP’s popularity did not dip after the 2014 referendum

You could be forgiven for thinking that a No vote in the referendum on Scottish independence would damage the SNP. If it is a single issue party, and most voters rejected its position on the issue, wouldn’t you expect it to suffer? Yet, here is what happened instead:

It’s not so remarkable if you know that the SNP is not a single issue party. Instead, it is a highly professional organisation which has won elections on the back of valence politics as well as identity.

The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s national identify and support for independence).

So, (a) it’s worth noting that the SNP is doing well partly because 45% of the vote will not win you a referendum, but it (plus a bit more) will do very nicely in a not-super-proportional election system, but (b) there is far more to the SNP’s story than a translation of national identity into support for independence into support for the SNP.

None of us predicted it well: a cautionary tale

You’ll always find someone who claims that they predicted these developments correctly, but that’s because of the immense number and range of hyperbolic predictions – from the claim that devolution provided a ‘stepping stone’ to independence, to the claim that it would kill nationalism ‘stone dead’ – rather than the predictability of politics.

So, for example, in retrospect we can say that devolution provided an important new platform for the SNP, but at the time we did not know that it would use this platform so effectively from the mid-2000s.

Similarly, maybe some people in the future will look back to argue that Scottish independence was inevitable, but without being able to predict the detailed mechanisms of decisions and events.

Scottish independence is not inevitable (even though it often seems likely)

I’ll try to sell you the idea that 10 years is the magic figure between Scottish referendums: a short enough distance to keep pro-independence actors content, and long enough to hope that enough people have changed their minds. We now have 5-yearly elections, so it would be a commitment in the 2021 Holyrood election to hold it in 2024.

However, it’s no more than an idea because nothing about this process is inevitable:

Even a second referendum is not inevitable

In the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote this month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the main obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

In the absence of this constitutional crisis, is difficult to see how the SNP could justify – and, more importantly, expect to win – another referendum within five years of the first. This problem is reflected in the SNP’s manifesto and Sturgeon’s defence of its vague position. It appears to want to keep independence on the agenda for the long term without proposing a referendum within five years. So, its idea is that, in the absence of a Brexit crisis, the only other prompt is a major and sustained upswing in support for independence:

the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people’ (Scottish National Party, 2016: 23).

Sturgeon confirmed that this measure would be from opinion polls – ‘We would have to see, in a range of polls over a period of time, that independence had become the preferred option of the majority’ – but without stating how many polls, what level of support, or how sustained (BBC News, 2016b).

The unsatisfactory nature of this position seems reinforced by the SNP’s electoral position in 2016: the last referendum was fairly recent, it lacks a strong statement of intent in its manifesto, it now relies on the Scottish Greens (2016: 35) to produce a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, and the Greens’ trigger for a second referendum – a petition by maybe 100,000 voters – seems equally vague and problematic.

Don’t assume that we can predict the future (revisited)

These limitations are not problematic in the longer term: the SNP can afford to wait until the time is right for a second referendum. Yet, think about some of the other conditions that need to be met before a second vote is worthwhile:

  1. There is a sustained rise in support for Scottish independence. From opinion polls, the SNP would be looking for levels of sustained support (high 50s, low 60s?) that are not present even in single surveys.
  2. The SNP sustains a Holyrood majority, or it has enough pro-independence allies in Holyrood. At the heart of our short-term discussion is the assumption that the SNP continues to do remarkably well in elections. Yet, Scottish Labour provides a cautionary tale, or the evidence of how quickly a party’s support can disappear. Further, the SNP wouldn’t even have to lose much support to give the sense that it lost ‘momentum’.
  3. The SNP can recreate 2011. Instead, it would just have to lose the sense of moral victory that it secured in 2011: the appearance of its Holyrood ‘avalanche’ election victory made a referendum difficult to oppose; its opposition lost ground, and the UK Government struggled to explain why it would not support a referendum. This feeling is difficult to recreate even if (as in 2016) it secures a similar proportion of votes.

Dissatisfaction with devolution is not the same as support for independence

It is possible that Scottish devolution will never seem like a ‘settlement’. Instead, we have had a routine process in which: (a) there is a proposed devolution settlement, (b) it sticks for a while, (c) there is a rise in support for independence or further devolution, (d) there is another settlement.

So far, this has happened in 1999 (the first modern settlement), from the SNP’s first Holyrood win in 2007 (producing the Scotland Act 2011), and during the referendum itself (producing the Scotland Act 2016).

The difference this time is the sense – often generated by supporters and opponents of independence – that the 2016 Act is the final offer. If so, we have two key scenarios:

  1. This offer proves to be too unpopular to maintain support for devolution, there is a further referendum, and no-one can offer more devolution in exchange for a No vote.
  2. The 2016 Act finally helps address the idea of a ‘democratic deficit’ in which (a) most people in Scotland vote for one party in a UK General election (usually Labour, now SNP) but get another (often Conservative), and (b) this problem helps produce the sense that the UK Government is imposing unpopular policies on Scotland. For the new Act to work, you would need to generate the widespread sense, among the public, that a Scottish Government could choose to mitigate the effects of a UK Government (perhaps without raising taxes).

What happens in the meantime? The humdrum world of scrutiny and policymaking

In the meantime, Scottish politics exhibits an unusual twist on the usual tale of Westminster politics:

  1. We have the familiar disconnect between two understandings of politics, in which (a) we use elections and some parliamentary scrutiny to praise or blame governments, but also (b) recognise the limits to central control, which undermine a meaningful sense of accountability.
  2. This confusion is complicated by devolution and ‘multi-level governance’ in which we are not always sure about which level of government is responsible for which policy.
  3. It is complicated further by the 2016 Act, in which there are many new shared responsibilities between the Scottish and UK Governments.
  4. So, politicians tell very different stories about what the Scottish Government can do, who is in charge, and who should take the blame for policy outcomes.
  5. And the Scottish Parliament continues to struggle to know how best to try to hold the Scottish Government to account (and it might soon struggle a bit more).

Perhaps one possible exception is the new debate on educational attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon staked a large part of her reputation on reducing the gap in attainment between students in the most and least deprived areas of Scotland. Before the election, she promised to ‘close the attainment gap completely’.

Although the SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more equivocal language (reflecting the sense that it does not know how much it can reduce the gap), it remains significant: as an issue in which there are constitutional complications (the Scottish Government does not control fully the economic and social security ‘levers’ affecting levels of deprivation), but the SNP is not using them to qualify its aims.

This example supplements several ongoing debates of high party political importance, in which there is not a constitutional element (on, for example, the Scottish Government’s ‘named person’ policy and legislation on ‘offensive behaviour’ in relation to football).

So, maybe such cases suggest that, for at least the next few years, we will pretend that there is a Scottish devolution settlement, and that we are not just killing time until the next referendum.

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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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Case studies: early years, compulsory, further, and higher education #POLU9SP

This is the third of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

One of the SNP Government’s main aims is to abolish inequalities in education attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put it in this stark way in a speech in Wester Hailes in August:

‘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’.

This specific aim raises important questions about the likely success of such policies when governments (a) seek to reduce the impact, not existence, of socioeconomic inequalities, (b) recognise the limits of their powers, and (c) make choices which seem to undermine their aims. In other words, we need to compare these high expectations with other statements, expectations, and policies pursued in other parts of education and government.

Sturgeon’s uncompromising language is important for three reasons

First, it implies that governments can have this profound level of influence on socio-economic outcomes. It reminds me of two former ambitions of the post-war UK governments: to maintain ‘full employment’, an aim long abandoned by both UK political parties; and to reduce health inequalities by setting up a National Health Service, an ambition exposed as unfulfilled by almost every major publication since the Black Report in 1980 (see also the previous lecture on health). These days, ministers don’t tend to make such bold statements of their likely success (for good reason).

Second, we should remember the point that normally remains unsaid: the SNP-led Scottish Government, like the UK Government, has no stated ambition to go to the ‘root cause’ of the problem to reduce the socio-economic inequalities through a far more redistributive tax and benefits system. It is not yet possible for the Scottish Government to take an approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through fiscal policy. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive. Nor has the SNP made a firm commitment to redistribution in the event of Scottish independence in the future.

Instead, in almost all cases, we are talking instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects: a strategy that relies largely on the idea of ‘prevention’ policies to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives – through interventions such as parenting programmes – to improve their life chances.

Policymakers’ language is normally more realistic

Third, it is a language that stands out from most other Scottish Government discussions of education attainment, which reflect a more careful, or less ambitious, focus on realistic progress and change at the margins (as well as the continuous reminder of the Scottish Government’s limited policymaking powers while it remains part of the UK Government system).

One aspect of the more careful language relates to the limitations of government, and Scottish Government in particular. In February 2015, Sturgeon stated: ‘We must do all we can within the powers and resources we have to narrow the gap and drive up standards at all levels’.

This statement accompanied Sturgeon’s announcement of a £25m per year (over 4 years) scheme to encourage new initiatives and learn from success stories such as the London Challenge, a project driven by a similar ‘moral imperative’, and combining a focus on leadership/ collaboration and the relative performance in schools situated in areas with similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Sturgeon followed up this announcement with a focus on the partial return of testing pupils at key stages in schools. This plan forms part of a National Improvement Framework for Scottish education, which ‘will ensure that we are making progress in closing the gap in attainment between those in our most and least deprived areas’.

These decisions will take time to play out, and will involve some Scotland-specific debates about more uniform testing. Testing in this way is a strategy that was previously rejected in Scotland, and opposed by teaching groups, largely because of its association with a system in England built increasingly on league tables of performance, increased school autonomy (from local authorities), competition, and parent/ consumer choice. In other words, note the symbolic as well as substantive importance of testing. However, it may be necessary to have some kind of testing regime to gather data to allow the Scottish Government to demonstrate progress in attainment at key stages.

Is this new aim consistent with older Scottish Government choices?

Education policy sums up the political limitations to broad strategies such as ‘prevention’. The broad idea of ‘early intervention’, to make an impact on people’s lives as early as possible, to help reduce inequalities and the costs of public services, enjoys magnificent levels of cross-party support. Yet, it competes badly with more specific political commitments with the potential to undermine these broad aims.

In Scotland, the best example is current policy on free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the presence of an attainment gap, reinforces inequalities in education three-fold. The first relates to the reduced likelihood of University attendance in school leavers from a deprived background. Lower educational attainment is linked strongly to poverty, and Scotland exhibits a significant gap in attainment in key areas.

Second, as Riddell et al argue, funding inequalities are often masked by a ‘universal’ approach in which higher education is free to eligible Scottish students. Yet, the absence of tuition fees benefits the middle classes disproportionately, while the debt burden is higher on poorer students. The maintenance of University funding also seems to come at the expense of the college places more likely to be filled by students from lower income backgrounds.

Third, there is a famous description of education spending by James Heckman, who argues that spending on early intervention and pre-school education is far more effective in reducing inequalities than spending on schools and universities (an argument that seems to be accepted by the Scottish Government). So, although the Scottish Government has made a commitment to extend funding on pre-school provision and early intervention programmes, these efforts at ‘transformational’ change compete with resources to maintain University funding.

Is there much money available for attainment and early intervention?

The new agenda on abolishing the attainment gap in schools has the potential to address only one of these issues, and it is potentially undermined by the high financial costs of the commitment to maintain other policies such as free tuition fees. Further, most of the real rise in education spending since devolution – e.g. 46% from 2000-11 – relates primarily to a combination of a new teacher contract and a commitment to a target of 53000 teachers, in part to further related targets such as on reduced primary school class sizes (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 229). In the past, when challenged on the value for money of such initiatives (in the early to mid-2000s), the then First Minister Jack McConnell defended the policy as a way to aid industrial relations and overall education attainment without identifying progress on inequalities in attainment (Cairney, 2011: 194). These policies continue (and take up most education resources) at the same time as new initiatives on inequalities.

Overall, I expect that we will look back on this 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 (at least in my lifetime).

 

 

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Would Scottish Independence Save the NHS and Keep Education Free?

There have been two quite-surprising messages from the Yes campaign recently: independence is the only way to protect the Scottish NHS, and independence is the only way to keep Scottish compulsory education free. I say ‘surprising’ because both areas have been devolved since 1999 and the Scottish Government has developed or maintained distinctive policies without much interference from the UK Government. It is tempting to conclude that these arguments represent little more than the hype that campaigners feel they have to generate to get attention – and No campaigners have generally been dismissive of these claims. Beyond the hype, what is the argument in each case?

In health, there are two arguments. First, the UK Government is cutting (or will cut) NHS spending in England, which has a knock-on effect for the Scottish budget. The Scottish Government would either have to cut Scottish NHS spending or find the money from another service (as in higher education, if UK spending falls when it charges fees). Second, the UK Government is pursuing a ‘privatisation’ agenda, which is anathema in Scotland. Yet, so far, this relates largely to the use of the private sector to deliver services. The NHS remains tax funded and, in most cases, free at the point of delivery.

In education, the argument from Teachers for Yes seems to be: if you vote Yes, you can stop funding nuclear weapons and give education greater priority in the budget. This can be used to fund education directly – teachers, buildings, equipment – and indirectly, by reducing poverty and, therefore, reducing inequalities in education outcomes (or, for example, spending more on childcare and pre-school services). Independence would also give the opportunity to enshrine a right to education in a written constitution. The press release contrasts this vision with a UK future of austerity, with reduced spending on education in England having a knock-on effect on Scotland.

There is a more sophisticated case that could be made by the Yes campaign, which could go something like this:

  • our priority is to reduce inequality
  • at the heart of health and education inequality is income inequality
  • only independence gives us the levers to introduce a more progressive tax and benefits system and reduce income inequality.
  • This might be boosted by the desire of many to reduce spending on areas such as defence and, for some, to increase taxation.

Or, it could simply argue that everything is connected; that a tax and benefits system underpins all efforts to ‘join up’ the delivery and funding of public services. Some of that argument is in the Scottish Government’s White Paper.

However, I don’t think that the Yes campaign is making that sophisticated case. Or, at least, I haven’t yet seen it. Instead, the focus is on the idea that staying in the UK means sticking with the austerity agenda – and less money for public services such as health and education. What it doesn’t address is that the austerity agenda would be faced by an independent Scottish Government as much as a devolved one. What it doesn’t address is that, under devolution, the Scottish Government has been responsible for using a devolved budget that has generally been very large and has only now begun to shrink – and that, if UK austerity really does start to ‘bite’, a devolved Scottish Government will have some scope to borrow and tax to offset the effect (although I qualify that statement here). Consequently, it is too easy to dismiss. While it might have an effect on some voters inclined to vote Yes, it is also vulnerable to ridicule and could easily backfire.

See also: a discussion of the Barnett formula, which underpins a lot of this debate

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