Tag Archives: higher 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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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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Tuition fees for England and Scotland: two very different stories which are difficult to challenge

Tuition fees remains a hot button topic, and one which differs markedly in Scottish and English debates. Policy for England now relates to Labour’s plans to reduce fees to £6000 per year. My impression is that this move has been received remarkably badly under the circumstances. Consider the fact that, as recently as 2010, the idea of putting fees up to £9000 was highly controversial. It is the issue that helped the Liberal Democrats break their pre-election promise (no fees) in a spectacular way, and showed that the Conservatives wanted to go much further than the Browne review’s recommendation of £6000. If Labour had been elected in 2010, and put fees up to £6000, it would have been heavily criticised. Now, it is being criticised for reducing them to that level. What does this experience show us? First, the centre of gravity can shift very quickly, and parties have to address a tendency towards treating the status quo as the normal position. They are now asked routinely where the money would come from to fund the policy, which has become an effective limit on party ambitions even though the question is rather artificial (governments don’t plan overall funding in this ‘rational’-looking way). Second, the UK coalition has a good story to tell about the £9000 fees: Universities get more money, they use some of that money to give grants or services to students from low income families, and people on low wages may end up not paying the fees anyway. This is hard for Labour to challenge, since its policy can be portrayed as spending money (when times are tight) to subsidise the students that will have higher wages after graduation. Of course, the figures are rather arbitrary (why not raise fees to £12000 and have the Universities redistribute even more?) but the status quo is important.

In Scotland, we can see the other extreme: tuition fees remain free for Scottish and EU students, and there appear to be very few votes in a policy to increase them. Rather, the SNP has made it a line in the sand to keep zero fees (note Alex Salmond’s ‘the rocks will met in the sun’ remark, now immortalised on a stone carving) and Scottish Labour is now claiming that it abolished fees in 2000 (in fact, it reduced fees to £4000 over four years, renamed the repayment the ‘graduate endowment’, and removed the up-front element of payment – which makes little difference when students take out a loan, payable after graduation, anyway). In this case, parties tell a different, but equally effective, story: the Universities get a lot of money direct from government, and student debt is much lower in Scotland than England.

We now have the odd position in which policy for England increases overall debt but can reduce inequality, while policy for Scotland reduces debt – a student in Scotland generally pays less than their equivalent in England – but increases inequality within Scotland. Both systems are remarkably different, and underpinned by very different stories, but they both represent the default position in two areas of the same country during a UK general election.

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