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.