Des McNulty: Poor can’t afford this educational free-for-all

WE trail the rest of the UK in access to universities for the most disadvantaged and someone needs held to account for it, writes Des McNulty

Figures released this week showing only 27 per cent of students at Scottish universities came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, compared with 31 per cent in England, are a salutary reminder that Scotland is not a fairer place than other parts of the UK.

Many Scots pride themselves on the notion our country is different, that people here have rejected the values and the policies of the Conservative-led government at Westminster. We do so against figures that show West Dunbartonshire and East Ayrshire to be the hardest places in the UK to find work, and child poverty statistics reveal that 13 Scottish councils have wards where more than 30 per cent of children live in severe poverty.

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A high percentage of young people from our poorer communities are brought up in poverty; we have communities where 40 people are chasing every job; and young people from poorer backgrounds are less likely than their counterparts in England to get a university place. Our values mean nothing if the life chances of young people from poorer backgrounds are falling further behind the rest of the UK.

Universities have been running participation schemes in deprived areas for years and this is slowly increasing the proportion of young people from poor backgrounds getting into university. But we are still behind England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

When these figures were released, Scottish universities were quick to try to deflect blame, pointing to intervention in the early years of a child’s life as most likely to impact on wider access. It is true attainment among secondary pupils from deprived areas is markedly lower than among their contemporaries from middle-class areas. But both these things are true south of the Border, too. So why are we delivering worse outcomes? There are three issues to confront.

The first is the belief that our secondary education system is performing well. It is not. We have some excellent schools and teachers. But our system lacks the diversity that could better meet the needs of different pupils. Comprehensive education should not mean every school offering the same choice and a similar classroom-based learning approach. Why, for example, can’t Scotland experiment with different learning styles on a whole-school basis, as in studio schools south of the Border?

There is a marked reluctance to embrace change and to drive it. Between them, the teaching profession and the local authorities choked any long-term educational benefits from the McCrone agreement – taking the money but not delivering. The implementation of Curriculum for Excellence is a further demonstration of the lack of effective and joined-up leadership in Scottish education.

There is also, especially in many state schools in the west, a worrying parochialism. The number of pupils going to St Andrews or Edinburgh or universities outside Scotland is pitifully low, because most schools don’t encourage their best performers to apply. In areas where fewer parents have professional jobs, we have to work harder to make pupils aware of opportunities and build pupils’ capacity to make informed choices.

Secondly, we need to accept that there is a cost to promoting equality and that there is a difference between free and fair. In Scandinavia, quality is high, charges where applied are low, those who cannot afford to pay are subsidised, regulation is strong and fairness is central to service design.

Some of our own free services, such as hospital care, are progressive in that people with the greatest need benefit most. In Scotland, poorer pensioners make more use of free bus travel. This delivers fairness. But other “free” policies such as the removal of prescription charges and “free” higher education work in the opposite direction. Subsidy is going disproportionately to the better-off.

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In higher education those from lower socio-economic groups are being disadvantaged as resources that could have been used to improve their life chances are being used instead to deliver a populist promise of free higher education.

If we want to remove the barriers preventing people from poorer backgrounds getting to university and tackle worrying trends in social mobility we have to shake the complacency and acceptance of mediocre outcomes that has dominated educational thinking. We have to confront the siren voices suggesting we can afford to pay for everyone to enjoy free higher education or prescriptions without someone losing out.

We can’t let the universities off the hook. Their energies have been devoted to pleading about funding changes, in England. Prioritisation of research has meant poorer quality teaching – and fewer teaching weeks – than 20 years ago. Drop-out rates of nearly 10 per cent are unacceptable. We need much greater engagement in thinking about reform of the wider education system and a willingness to be part of that reform. This needs to include issues of how higher, further and secondary education might in future work more closely together. For how long are we going to allow pupils who have the qualifications to go to university in fifth year to spend a sixth year in school and then four years in university?

Addressing this duplication could release resources to boost attainment in schools serving poorer communities and target those children and families who need more support. That would be far more worthwhile than Elastoplast schemes which let pupils with lower grades into universities and allow schools to continue under-performing.

• Des McNulty is a former Labour MSP and education spokesman.