… PSS are not free baby beds for poor families. They are a central component of a comprehensive service that needs to be embedded into a SUDI prevention strategy and regional infant health plan. A Pēpi-Pod® service needs a project action group, coordinator, PSSs and bedding packs, referral processes and criteria, agencies and distributors authorised to distribute, a thorough recipient briefing, follow-up of and feedback from users, and systems for recording, monitoring, communicating etc.
In the discussion of the launch of the baby box pilot in Scotland last week, some references were made to schemes also being launched in England. This post gathers up information about what’s happening there, and in some other places, to help put the Scottish scheme in context.
It reveals that the explosion of interest in baby boxes would make a great case study for someone, into how ideas gain attention, how different people and organisations play a role, and the use of evidential claims. And that a mixture of enthusiastic support and scepticism about some of the claims made isn’t unique to Scotland.
Warning: this is very long. It’ll be of interest mainly to people fascinated by the inner workings of the policy process and/or interested in infant health; it may be a heavy read for others. You can skip to the end for some reflections on what we learn that might be useful for the Scottish project.
Baby boxes have been used in Finland since the 1930’s, but it’s only in the last few years that there’s been a surge of international interest. Many articles and interviews trace this back to a BBC piece from June 2013, which received huge attention worldwide, becoming one of the most shared and read stories the BBC had ever published, as discussed in another BBC piece here. Reflecting still later again on their coverage of baby boxes, a BBC editor said:
“What the original baby box story showed beyond doubt was that a story about parenting and public health policy can, in certain circumstances, go viral. I had not seen that coming.”
A follow-up BBC report in July 2013 noted that the article had prompted lots of immediate interest and approaches to the Finnish Government, and this in turn appears to have led the Finnish Government to send a box to Prince George, prompting further coverage. The original BBC article seems to have been a simple product of journalistic curiosity and research. The BBC ran a piece following up its original report in April 2016.
I’ll mention first, as an outlier, very specific research being undertaken at Durham University on using (clear plastic) boxes as sleep spaces.
The most publicised baby box scheme in England is one being piloted at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital, London, part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. There, 800 boxes are being given out to new parents first come, first served. Parents’ use is being monitored for 8 months and they are required to sign up to “the Baby Box University”, an on-line information resource (more on this below). The boxes and on-line resources are being supplied for free to the Trust by the Baby Box Co., a US-based company (again, more about them below). The educational element provided via the Baby Box University is persistently highlighted by the company as an important component of what it offers.
The publicity for this scheme also mentions schemes taking place at a number of other sites in England, all also using the Baby Box Co/Baby Box University model. This article gives the best overview of how the English initiatives are linked and Imperial College’s co-ordinating role. Further detail on some of the other sites here: Colchester, Sandwell and West Birmingham, North Middlesex (not all the places listed as possible pilots seem to have started yet). The Baby Box Co. has said:
The Baby Boxes which are now being delivered en masse to UK parents free of charge through community partnerships account for a much greater percentage of our operations [note: by comparison with commercial sales in the UK]. The products included in these Baby Boxes are unique to each hospital. For example, the contents included in the North Middlesex University Hospital Baby Boxes are slightly different than the items included in the Hillingdon Hospital Baby Boxes or the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospital Baby Boxes. We believe that enabling hospitals to have input over content selection is significant, as is empowering them to create an exterior design which reflects their special community of patients.
In local English media coverage, a strong emphasis is placed on improving infant mortality – higher than average infant mortality in the areas taking part is a common theme.
It’s not clear whether the other sites are also getting their supplies for free at this stage, but it seems plausible that the company is investing in all these trials as a step towards increasing its presence in the UK. The annual report for Sandwell Child Death Overview Panel describes Sandwell as having been chosen by the company as one of its “starter sites in the UK” and other articles suggest an intention to expand the business here considerably (as does the very long list of English NHS accounts it follows on Twitter).
Jay Hemingway, manager for UK Baby Box company said: “The idea is that every child has the same start in life and we want the boxes to be in every NHS hospital by this time next year.”
With plans to extend the initiative throughout the UK, Ms Clary said the diversity of the country’s population would be taken into account. ‘It won’t be a standardised Baby Box that’s the same across the UK”.
There are around 770,000 births every year in the UK. The wholesale cost of boxes isn’t easily found, but the Scottish Government’s basis for budgeting for its boxes seems to be around £100 per box, so complete adoption implies a total new annual commitment of around £75m for the NHS across the different parts of the UK. However, there might be off-setting savings, as argued here by Scott Johnston, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust head of midwifery:
When asked whether the cost of the scheme may be prohibitive for some Trusts, Mr Johnston said this was not a concern; the programme may actually bring benefits by engaging more parents with services early, thus saving costs later on. He added: ‘I think it’s more about the logistics. Within our service we have about 750 births per month, so actually storing [the boxes] and distributing them can be a bit of a challenge. But I can say, as head of service, it’s definitely worth it. It’s something we’ll get over.’
Abstract millions don’t mean much: one way of looking at this is that £75m is the equivalent of 2,500 FTE midwives or health visitors (or put another way, every 300 boxes equals one FTE person). If this were an intervention justified on its impact on SIDS (cot death) and governed by the NICE guidelines on cost-effectiveness (for England) it looks as though it would normally be required to be likely to reduce such deaths by a little under 15%. It’ll presumably be calculations about the opportunity costs (ie what the money would be spent on instead), what the trials reveal about overall benefits to children and parents, and potential savings, which determine how far trials in England lead to a publicly-funded roll-out there. The decision seems likely to lie with individual local NHS Trusts.
Note: The Baby Box Co
It is impossible to look properly at the rapid growth of interest in baby boxes without recognising the part played by the Baby Box Co. There are other suppliers around the world, but this company has been by far the most active in promoting boxes to public bodies and charities as part of more complex interventions. Most of the rest appear to concentrate on mail order to individuals.
The Baby Box Co. was started in California in 2013-14, is headquartered in Los Angeles, and since last year is also a UK-registered private limited company (it also has offices in Canada, Singapore, Ukraine and Australia). In this interview, one of the founders explains how she was inspired by seeing the 2013 BBC story about Finland. There’s a summary of their activity here:
While we sell Baby Boxes direct to consumers as a baby shower gift or new parent present, we focus most on partnerships with hospitals and other institutions such as nonprofits, government agencies and insurance companies. Through a single program with a large institution, we can get our Baby Boxes to thousands of new parents, so it really is the most effective method of distribution for us. We are currently working with 20 states through government agencies, hospitals, insurance companies, tribes, corporations and nonprofits to distribute our boxes. Organizations implementing Baby Box Co. programs include Cook Children’s Hospital System in Texas, Alberta Ministry of Health and Human Services in Canada, Mountain Park Health Centers in Arizona and Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea Hospital in the UK among many others! We are also working globally with 12 nations on significant intervention programs and ship directly to consumers in 52 countries.
It has a clear strategy for growth:
… in the crowded space of parenting-related ventures, Jennifer has also been adept at growing The Baby Box Co., not only by selling the box to top hospitals and medical institutions, but also sealing partnerships with top players in the space, including organizations like Every Mother Counts, Children International, Room to Grow, Baby2Baby, and others…… For 2016, she estimates Baby Box Co.’s earnings to be 4.5 times higher than those of 2015 and she’s looking forward to growing the business more.
“We are on track to have a million Baby Box units in circulation by the end of 2016,” Clary said. She estimates that the company will have five million units in circulation by the end of 2017.
I can’t quickly find any information on the company’s most recent turnover or staff numbers, or where they manufacture, but they have evidently had a huge impact.
The Baby Box University is integral to the company’s model. Where there are specific projects, on-line educational material has been developed with each partner area. In the pilots underway using the Baby Box University model, some initial interaction with the online material is needed before the box can be taken up, but the larger aim appears to be to encourage continued engagement with the site, which the company describes as providing access to expert advice and research. The article here also states that the platform can be used to support interaction between health care workers and parents, and that free product offers and bonus draws are also included, which may indicate some sort of revenue stream for the company via sponsorship/advertising arrangements with product suppliers (the site can be accessed for free by anyone willing to register). Other articles mention the platform being a way for mothers in an area to communicate with one another.
The Baby Box Company is not directly involved in the Scottish pilots, but is following developments in Scotland. Between 12-14 January, its Twitter acount followed 5 MSPs and a Scottish local councillor, retweeted this STV story about a closure threat to a Scottish charity providing supplies for families in need, and also retweeted the tweet below saying that the boxes were “shown to reduce cot death” and describing some parties as having a politically-motivated bias against the SG scheme. (Note: a Labour MSP responded to say that Labour supports the baby box initiative, which is correct, but largely missed in coverage and debate; a commitment to a pilot also appeared in the 2016 Scottish Lib Dem manifesto.)
The Scottish Government is already committed to national implementation from summer 2017. The contract for that is not yet out to tender. It’ll be a decent-sized contract (for around 60,000 boxes a year: the budget allows for £7m annual cost to be covered by health funding). It’s not clear how many organisations will be capable of bidding – this company is clearly one.
A baby box scheme started in partnership with the Baby Box Co in Limerick in September 2016. As in the English pilots, local health professionals stress the educational element, noting that they have been given the chance by the company to produce their own educational materials, including videos. Further positive comment from local health professionals here. Around 5,000 boxes are expected to be handed out over a year.
There has been a lot of press coverage, much of it in identical terms and so probably reproducing the news release, all of which brings out the issue of infant mortality (on which it often reads quite similarly to the English coverge). I wasn’t able to find anything saying whether this was a short-term pilot or a permanent commitment, whether it was being evaluated, or how it was being funded.
Canada has several baby box programmes, including what seems to be the largest. All are recently started, so research and evaluation isn’t yet available.
Welcome to Parenthood is a scheme covering 1,500 families, closely tied in with a new programme of extra support and mentoring (see here and here) and funded by a $500,000 research grant from Alberta Human Services, agreed in 2014. The scheme went live this year, and is led by an assigned researcher (Karen Benzies, quoted below). The Baby Box Co appears to be the supplier for the boxes.
Mentors must record their interactions in a journal briefly describing time with the parent and baby, to help researchers in their evaluation of the pilot program.
Benzies said the goal of the project is to evaluate the impact of the various support mechanisms on the developmental outcomes of children and the health of mothers and families, in general.
Benzies isn’t jumping to any conclusions before the investigation is complete and the data is analyzed.
“As a researcher, I’m always skeptical,” she said. “We need evidence to say that this is the right thing to do to improve outcomes for children and families. The success for us and for society is around healthy parents and healthy children.”
The largest scheme anywhere seems to be in Ontario. It covers those having a baby between 1 August 2016 and 1 August 2017 (here), estimated to be 145,000 women. News reports here and here. At the end of this interview, the scheme is described as “being funded by the province”, but another piece suggests a more complicated fundingstructure:
[It] includes more than 60 agencies across the province, from midwife practices to family resource centres. Non-profits, charities and the organizations themselves will contribute resources, says Jennifer Weber, chief education officer at Baby Box Co., some through in-kind contributions such as transportation services, product storage and more.
The article below gives some further useful detail, including that some contents are provided by sponsoring companies:
In addition to The Baby Box Co.’s education department, which assists communities all over the world with Baby Box program development, the Ontario Baby Box program is organized by The Children’s Aid Foundation, The New Moms Project, and The Mary Berglund Community Health Centre Hub. A network of primary health care facilities spread throughout the province are supporting these groups with distribution to ensure the Baby Box program is accessible to all Ontario residents…..
Contents for the Ontario Baby Boxes are still being finalized, but CEO Jennifer Clary has confirmed that Pampers, which provided the diapers and wipes for Alberta’s Welcome to Parenthood Baby Box program, is supporting Ontario families as well. “We are thrilled Pampers is continuing their partnership with The Baby Box Co. and are so grateful for their contribution of diapers and wipes. ….
From the pieces I have found, it’s not clear what evaluation is planned in Ontario and what is expected to happen after the 12 months covered.
The situation in Ontario is complicated by the parallel presence of a separate local company, Baby Box Canada, offering free boxes of items (but the box cannot be slept in), the cost of which is covered by sponsors: see here.
A much smaller initiative (21 boxes) in a remote Ontario community preceded the current larger one: this was reportedly established by local health professionals who contacted the Baby Box Co for assistance, having earlier seen the 2013 BBC report. The goal was “to guide families toward local services and provide parents with basics that are difficult to attain in Ignace” (from TVO article above).
Separately Nunavut, which has a high rate of infant mortality, is also piloting boxes: here. 800 will be handed out, around one year’s worth of births in this very northerly territory. This is a government initiative, but being funded by donations from companies in Ontario.
There’s been some questioning in Canada about how far these schemes have departed from the Finnish original, and are too commodififed and not enough about support: see here.
The long article from which the extract below comes provides a particularly careful summary of the debates around baby boxes. The article quotes a number of those involved in Canadian projects cautioning about the relationship between lower infant mortality and boxes in a contemporary developed countries, while stressing that Canada still contains substantial numbers of disadvantagaged households.
…. The Ontario baby box initiative’s strength, then, is its commitment to community engagement and providing reliable information regarding infant health, particularly concerning safe sleep practices. …..
Benzies [in Alberta] questions the focus on infant mortality in Canada and the efficacy of some attempts at replicating the Finnish program: “We’ve done an amazing job in [providing] neonatal intensive care, reducing mortality,” she says. “Where we need to focus our efforts is morbidity.” That is, the likelihood of disease, illness and injury to infants. Like Clary, Benzies urges parents to carefully research baby box programs that have sprung up in Finland’s wake — albeit, many decades later — and if they choose to participate, go into such programs with the understanding that stashes of baby supplies can’t address the more systemic issues that affect infant health, such as health care access, poverty and infant care education. “They need to understand why people want you to sign up for something and what the expectations are for that.”
….In her practice [in Ignace], Graff says she sees social barriers to infant and maternal health more often than high-risk pregnancies requiring a neonatal intensive unit. Such barriers include housing concerns, low breastfeeding rates and a lack of resources that might be available in larger cities to deal with postpartum depression and other mental illnesses.
The Ontario baby box initiative aims to bridge the gap in some small way, taking the lead from communities – remote towns, new immigrants, young parents – to ensure the most success. “We’re not saying it will cure everything, but the families, they know who they can actually turn to sooner rather than later,” Baby Box Co.’s Jennifer Weber says.
In the US, pre-existing government-funded safe sleeping programmes with a strong outreach and education element who were already providing portable cots (versions of folding travel cots) have reacted variously to the advent of boxes.
This one in Chicago has added boxes to what it offers, but not wholly replaced their existing ones, saying boxes are “perfect for families that have limited space” and that “both types of beds will be distributed to families, based on the type of bed needed. Transient families likely will receive the lighter weight baby box.”
However a long-established non-profit organisation which operates across the US, Cribs for Kids National Infant Safe Sleep Initiative is strongly of the view that boxes are a less good option than the folding device it uses. Its unfavourable comparison of boxes to its established bit of kit is here (with some further comparison made here).
On the claims about the effect of boxes in Finland on infant mortality, it says:
It also questions claims that the boxes can be used as a bed for up to 8 months (this is included in coverage of the English schemes, for example, including on the Imperial College website), suggesting that 2 to 4 months will be more common, before babies can no longer use it safely. That looks like an important point to clarify for policymakers motivated by SIDS concerns, because it has implications for how much of the most risky period for cot death is covered, and for equality campaigners, because the shorter the period for which it is useful, the less practical help it offers parents.
The Baby Box Co. has produced its own comparative summary: here. It’s not a point-by-point rebuttal, so the issues above about research and potential length of use aren’t addressed. It focusses instead on whether the devices used by bodies such as Cribs for Kids are in fact suitable for overnight sleeping, their greater cumbersomeness and higher cost.
Many organizations are transitioning from Pack n’ Play distribution to Baby Boxes. Baby Boxes wholesale for less than 50% of the cost of Pack n’ Plays, thereby allowing non-profits, hospitals, governments, and other institutions to reach double the number of new parents without increasing their program budgets. An extended reach = more lives saved and that is a huge factor in the increasing rise of Baby Boxes’ popularity.
Another US non-profit organisation, Babies Need Boxes was founded in 2015 and sources its boxes from The Baby Box Co and uses the Baby Box University model. The Baby Box Co lists partnerships in a number of other locations in the US.
The views of Cribs for Kids deserve the same careful scrutiny as the case put forward by those promoting the use of boxes – existing schemes could after all be argued to face competition from new arrivals (equally, they may be reacting to perceived pressure to switch suppliers). Even though organisations such as Cribs for Kids are non-profit, it is possible that in some cases the viability of their model of outreach might be reduced if box schemes became very popular, or they might lose funding from public sources. Also, some of their practical concerns have to be put alongside the successful use of boxes in Finland for decades.
But the strength of Cribs for Kids’ scepticism about boxes, and the detailed way they make their case, bears including here, not least because it’s the only reference I’ve seen anywhere to anyone doing a literature review about the Finnish case: none of the references I’ve seen to studies/proof/evidence of the boxes’ effects have provided any links or references, and attempts of my own to locate research on the Finnish box scheme also drew a blank. When reports say that the Finnish box scheme” is credited with” reducing deaths, which is a very common phrasing, they never say who is doing the crediting.
A number of commercial Australian baby box companies turn up on a search, who are simply selling boxes and their contents on-line. But there are also pilots reported as starting in Victoria (again involving the Baby Box Co.) and Western Australia (involving an Australian charity). Both seem to be targeted on those deemed especially in need, whereas most of the pilot box schemes described above appear not to be targeted in that way. Some further Australian press coverage here.
There has been press interest there in the claims made about infant mortality. In Queensland, Professor Jeanine Young, a neonatal nurse and midwife who devised the Queensland Health Safe Infant Sleeping guidelines, reportedly “said the company [the Baby Box Co.] was making money by playing on parents’ fears over sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)” and Fair Trading officers were reported to be investigating claims. Prof Young is separately involved with a “Pepi Pod”programme in Queensland targeting particularly high-risk cases for SIDS, which includes use of a plastic box bed from New Zealand (more on the Pepi Pod programme in the New Zealand section below).
“I have a real problem with this,” Prof Young said. “It is not appropriate for this company to be telling people that the boxes help prevent SIDS because there is no evidence that this is the case.”
The same piece carries the company’s response:
But when contacted by The Courier-Mail, a spokesperson for the company said online education was more important, and blamed the media for reporting the link because it “makes for a simple and palatable feel-good story”.
The spokesperson said: “Baby Boxes distributed thoughtlessly are not a cure for infant mortality.” The company is calling for Australian hospitals to go into partnership with The Baby Box Company in order to issue the boxes to new mums.
Many of the company’s press quotes emphasise the importance of education, and that the box is not a solution in itself. Its website says carefully and only that the box has “helped” Finland reduce infant mortality:
The Baby Box program has helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates. The initiative, which enables every expecting woman in the country to claim a free Baby Box once she receives prenatal care and parenting information from a healthcare professional, is credited with helping to decrease Finland’s infant mortality rate from 65 deaths for each 1,000 children born in 1938 to 3 deaths per 1,000 births in 2013.
These comments by Jennifer Clary are also typical:
Q: HOW DO BABY BOXES HELP TO DECREASE INFANT MORTALITY?
A: I love the Baby Box concept but think the media has a tendency to romanticize and simplify the tradition. Kela, the Finnish social service, should be commended because they established an incredible foundation upon which to build their Baby Box program: every expecting mum in the country has to visit a healthcare facility for prenatal care and basic educational information in order to be eligible for a free Baby Box. This is a fact that frequently gets left out in media coverage, and it’s a shame as this is arguably central to Finland’s statistical success.
It’s not the Baby Box product that decreases infant mortality, it’s the Baby Box program.
What we know is that there are numerous research studies linking increased parenting education to a reduction in infant mortality outcomes, as well as to an increase in breastfeeding, positive nutrition choices, and improvements in maternal mental health. Therefore, my personal philosophy—and our corporate mantra—is to tie Baby Box distribution to parenting education and ongoing community supports to actually have an impact.
However, stronger claims about the link with reduced infant mortality have appeared in material from the company. These 2016 slides are credited as copyright to the company and have a reference “BBC Presentation” in the document name. They are titled “A 75 year-old life-saving tradition” and on page 6, after a more general reference to boxes “helping” bring down infant deaths, do also include the sentence, “In Finland, Baby Boxes decreased the infant mortality rate from 65 deaths for each 1,000 children born in 1938 to 3 deaths per 1,000 births in 2013.”
The process by which the nuance Jennifer Clary argues for so strongly gets lost in reporting would be an interesting study, because the experience of reading so many stories from different places in a short space of time brings out that it’s a widespread phenomenon.
New Zealand is a very different case. Health professionals had been providing safe sleeping spaces (in the form of woven baskets called Wahakura) for new babies in Maori communities since 2006, because of concerns about particularly high infant mortality rates in New Zealand, with deaths concentrated in Maori communities. More recently, the emphasis has been on the use of clear plastic boxes developed in New Zealand, called Pepi Pods.
This document gives a lot of background. Pepi Pods were first used as an emergency response to the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes and then targeted on those at increased risk of accidental suffocation. They are cheaper and easier to supply in large numbers than the Wahakura. Pepi Pod programmes appear to operate under the umbrella of an organisation called Change for Our Children, which describes itself as a “social innovation company”, which it explains here is a private profit-making company, but where the profits are used for community benefit. It says:
PSSs are not for all babies. They are a public health response to the higher risk of sudden infant death for babies who are more vulnerable due to exposure to smoking, especially in pregnancy, being born before 37 weeks or weighing less than 2500 grams, or in family environments where use of alcohol and drugs are prevalent. These babies have a predisposing vulnerability to hypoxic challenges.
There is some actual research available from New Zealand.
On use after earthquakes:
- Cowan S, Bennett S, Clarke J, Pease A. An evaluation of portable sleeping spaces for babies following the Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. J Paediatr Child Health. 2013 May;49(5):364-8. doi: 10.1111/jpc.12196.Epub 2013 Apr11.
On use in high risk communities:
- Young, Jeanine, Craigie, Leanne, Hine, Helen, Kosiak, Machelle. Trial of an innovative Safe Infant Sleep Enabler—The Pepi-Pod. Citation: Women & Birth, 02 October 2013, vol./is. 26/(0-0), 18715192
On the relationship with overall falls in infant mortality:
- Mitchell, Edwin A. ; Cowan, Stephanie ; Tipene‐Leach, David. The recent fall in postperinatal mortality in New Zealand and the Safe Sleep programme: Acta Paediatrica, November 2016, Vol.105(11), pp.1312-1320
This last concludes that
The recent fall in postperinatal mortality has not happened by chance. It is likely that the components of end-stage prevention strategy, a focus on preventing accidental suffocation, the education ‘blitz’, the targeted supply of ISSDs [infant safe sleep devices] and strengthened health policy, have all contributed to varying degrees.
Change for Our Children has elsewhere said cautiously, “no claims can be made of cause and effect but the statistics are encouraging.”
Up to now, funding of Pepi Pod schemes appears to have been cobbled together locally from a number of public and private sources. However, in August last year the decision was made to make national funding available for a safe sleeping programme including Pepi Pods. The reporting isn’t clear, but this petition suggests the national programme is intended to continue a targeted approach, and is not an all-population approach. The move to national funding has involved the Minister over-ruling advice from officials, who are reported to have cited concerns about insufficient evidence and possible safety concerns. Both these points have been strongly challenged by Prof Mitchell (author of one of the articles above), a meeting with whom is reported to have been important in persuading the Minister to make funding available. Some articles here, here, here and here.
In August, the likely annual cost was estimated at around NZ$1.5m (about £900,000): the emphasis in New Zealand is on the pod as a sleeping space, so the extra cost of other items may not be relevant.
South Africa and elsewhere
The 2016 BBC story above refers to other projects, including one in South Africa using clear plastic boxes. However, these are used as baths rather than beds.
Back to the source: Finland
For those interested, there’s an English language Finnish government website which has details about their box, the wider support schemes in which it sits, the obligations to engage with services which are required of parents in order to receive the box, and even quite a lot of detail about its tendering process: all here. It’s referred to as the”maternity package” in what comes over as a deliberate move to reduce emphasis on the object in its own right. There’s a (non-official) video about the Finnish baby box at the foot of this piece as well.
There was a bit of discussion last week on Twitter between Suzanne Zeedyk and Elizabeth Jarman, who are interested in child development and children’s environments, on the design of the box, both arguing that busy patterns inside the sleeping space should be avoided. Interestingly, one commercial supplier based in the UK points out that the Finnish box has no pictures on the inside (see under “Is it safe?”), although it presents that more as a safety point.
In line with guidance from the Finnish manufacturers of the baby box (the same supplier as to the Finnish Government’s Baby Box Maternity Kit) we have not printed the inside of our box. The manufacturers of the box are chosen through a rigourous safety process, and do not print on the inside of the box.
The Scottish boxes used in the current pilots follow instead the Baby Box Co. model of internal decoration.
Reflections and conclusions
This is an astonishing story. It is only three and a half years since the BBC’s original article. In that time, baby box schemes have begun around the world, some of them on a huge scale. Many more commercial companies have emerged than are mentioned here. Huge numbers of boxes have been sold, direct to individuals or to public or third sector organisations. Public health officials in many places have embraced box-based programmes. An enormous number of articles have been published. Someone should do some Google stats on the on-line incidence of references.
The impact of the BBC piece and the extraordinary energy , impact and growth of The Baby Box Co are both remarkable features of this story. The latter’s belief in what it does is evident, and its ability to pitch what it offers, to form positive relationships with public health officials and to understand what to offer them, is impressive. And absolutely fine. In turn, citizens just need public health officials making decisions about resources to keep their analytic heads, confronted with a whirlwind of enthusiasm, claims and proffered help. Journalists too, maybe. That’s all.
What do we learn that might be useful, as Scotland also goes down this route?
I think we’ve done the right thing funding our own pilot. Although it will carry a cost, it has the advantage of not tying anything learnt into a very specific model run by one provider. In England, the pilots are at no cost to the NHS, but if they are found to be beneficial, the integration of the Baby Box University into the scheme means that it may be difficult to find another supplier: I’m always wary of the public sector ending up in sole supplier situations. It’s not clear whether the NHS retains the intellectual property for the education materials produced by its staff (I hope so): if not, then it’s easy to see that professionals may be very unhappy to lose access to things they have made with huge local care and enthusiasm, and got used to using, after just a year.
Where we compare less well, firstly, is in having a pilot period that can’t be more than a very few months, given the full national programme is due to start this summer. Lots of the clothes will still have been too big even to try, when the SG is already drawing up the contract for the national box. The peak danger period for SIDS will not be past when the pilots finish. Many parents only emerge in a coherent state to reflect on anything some time after 3 months (if then). Everywhere else doing a pilot is running it for 8 months upwards, which seems to me a better length of time to understand how far the box’s contents are useful, how much and how long it’s been slept in, the SIDS incidence in the cohort (though with only 200, statistically – and happily – there were anyway very unlikely to be any cases) and how it may have helped parents, and aided engagement and education more generally.
We’ve also made a mistake (I think) commiting to a national scheme, regardless of what happens. I understand the arguments that there’s something of symbolic value (I really do) that transcends its measurable public health impact. But the reality is that the health budget (from which this is funded) is under huge pressure: and so are all the others it might be moved to. Right now, it’s right to demand some more substantial benefits from a long-term commitment to anything which will cost £7m every year. Or more? The £7m budget is for a project starting part-way through the financial year, after all. It would be preferable to let a one-year national contract and treat it as a much more extensive trial, and build in decent evaluation: if any opposition politicians, or oppositional types, or journalists, or indeed people who like and have defended this scheme, are reading this, if the SG go down that route, please welcome it. It would be a wiser approach to using scarce public funds. They could even contract for two years, so that people go on getting boxes while the evaluation is pulled together and considered. Just build in an easy exit route.
We are also less strong than others on the box as a means to engaging people with education and human support. The publicity has been very much about “the box”. Most recently there’s been some reference to there being wider support alongside, but what this means remains vague, compared to other places (Ontario is perhaps the next nearest for vagueness of those mentioned here: but it’s at least using The Baby Box University).
There’s nothing here like the detailed safe sleep programme developed to go with the Pepi Pods or the Alberta mentoring scheme developed to go with the box pilot there. The wider support part still comes across as an afterthought here: it’s not clear that the £7m budget assigned includes anything for developing new safe sleeping programmes or other new materials to support new parents. We’re also unusual in not tying receipt of the box (as far as I can tell) to parents engaging with services in any particular way.
The model which I think emerges best from this is Alberta, with a research based, self-funded pilot, with clear aims, which keeps complete control of the design and delivery of the education and support programme and doesn’t over-stress infant mortality goals, as opposed to broader ones of physical and mental health. And New Zealand has an interesting story to tell about targeted intervention in cases where the risk factors for SIDS are known to be especially high. I think it’s a shame we’ve committed entirely to cardboard boxes, and not piloted Pepi Pods as well. There’s still time to keep the inside unprinted like the Finns, though.
My final comment is about debating this at all. When people (like me) suggested when the pilot was launched on 1 January that there were some fair questions to ask, not least about the claims made about infant mortality, and the decision to commit so completely to this, without more evaluation, when budgets are so tight, one of the reactions was to see this as a depressing further symbol of the schismatic state of Scottish public debate. People seemed depressed at the inability of everyone simply to come together to celebrate something nice.
This exercise has revealed that anywhere in the world where there’s already been a sharp drop in infant mortality since the Second World War (that includes us) and where these schemes aren’t funded by the supplier, especially where a link to reduced infant mortality is made, there’s been a debate. That there’s no controversy in England may be due to the fact that it appears not to be costing the NHS anything, and the pilots are all relatively small scale (Ireland ditto?). People in Scotland are raising points made in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. If the NHS in England were, as the Baby Box Co hopes, to commit to a nationwide publicly funded programme while its NHS budget buckles, you know, I think there’d be questions there, too. It’s if we stopped hearing people asking questions about high profile (and not free) public policy choices that seem to come almost out of nowhere, that we’d have real cause to worry about the unusual state of debate here, I think.
This is a post about the information provided by the Scottish Government to the Parliament about its spending plans. It’s prompted by having looked in detail so far at just four lines of the draft Scottish Budget, and finding something wrong with the way the numbers are presented in each case. That seems a high hit rate, given this should be one of the exercises over which the Government takes the most trouble.
There are two relevant sources.
The draft budget document presented to Parliament by the government, which gives figures to “Level 3” (quite detailed, but not the most detailed) alongside a general text, where the government mentions the points to which it wishes to draw attention. The document is here.
More detailed “Level 4” figures are also provided – they are produced by the Parliament’s research unit, but using information provided by the government, and are available on the Parliament’s website, here. There’s no general text, but – very usefully – here there is a comment against every line, explaining any change.
Here are the cases I’ve looked at.
The text of the Budget document says that baby boxes are a priority within the Education portfolio, and within that come from the Children and Families budget. They are not itemised, but are mentioned in the text, under “What the budget does”.
But search the Level 4 data for Children and Families in the Education spreadsheet for more detail – and there’s nothing more on baby boxes.
To find that requires going instead to the Health section (line 137), where baby boxes are listed as having a new budget of £7m within Miscellaneous Other Board Services and Resource Income.
The total for Miscellaneous Other Board Services and Resource Income and for Children and Families in the Level 4 spread sheet matches that given in the draft budget document. That means the text in the draft budget document is out of synch with the numbers it contains.
This means that though the document says that this falls within the Education portfolio (and therefore the remit of the Education Committee), this is in fact a cost against the Health budget (and sowould normally fall to that Committee). Describing spending as falling within the wrong part of the budget should be a very difficult mistake to make, and then not to spot.
Student Support and Tuition Fee payments
I looked also at the cash funding for student grants and SAAS fee payments, which is given as a single combined figure, in the first line below of Table 6.07 (from the draft budget document). I wanted to know the official explanation for the £26.4m rise and then fall shown. The document text is silent on this.
The Level 4 document doesn’t break this line down further (and never has done, as far as I know) but would, helpfully, be expected at least to provide a specific comment against the relevant line. However, turning to the Level 4 spreadsheet, the relevant line (141) doesn’t have the same figures. It shows the same (lower) one for both 2016-17 and 2017-18 (only these two years are covered), and so no change needs to be explained. It’s possible that SPICe lifted the 2016-17 figures from what they held last year: but the commentary column at minimum ought to have come from the SG. For consistency with the draft budget document, it ought to pick up the change that shows between the two years.
Which version of the numbers gives a true picture of planned spend in this area over the two years? Parliament can’t tell, because the budget document and the Level 4 data are inconsistent.
(The answer is in fact likely to be a third set of numbers – see below – but being able to reconstruct that, more or less, from yet another source, if you happen to know about it, is a poor substitute for having the correct ones in the official budget documentation.)
Cost of student loans
I also wanted to know what the explanation was for the dip and then rise in the cost student loans shown in the Budget document: £175.6/125.6/175.6m – also Table 6.07 above. It’s not reflected in the pattern of the value of loans being issued (£491.3/491.3/560m – also Table 6.07). Again, no explanation is included in the accompanying text.
But again the Level 4 table (above) is no help, as it shows instead a steady £175.6m in each year. Again the budget document and the Level 4 data are inconsistent. So what’s going on with the lower 2016-17 loan cost figure presented in the budget document to Parliament? It’s impossible to say.
I also looked at the Level 4 explanation for more on the fall in university current (ie non-capital) funding (“Higher Education Resource”).
Here the figures are consistent between the two documents, and the drop is explained as being offset by the move of all postgraduate funding to loans rather than some grant (previously provided via the SFC), and surplus income from the fees charged to rUK students.
This however raises a different internal consistency issue. The extra £26m for student support in 2016-17 discussed above is in fact almost certainly partially accounted for by an in-year £20m transfer made by the SFC to SAAS (see para 36 here. from the February 2016 SFC funding circular). In 2016-17, for some reason the Scottish Government decided to under-budget for student support and fee costs: it knew as early as February 2016 (before the budget was passed by the Scottish Parliament) that SAAS would need a large cash injection during 2016-17 to cover its costs in relation to rising student numbers, and planned for this to be taken from the SFC allocation.
The SAAS figures for 2016-17 in the draft budget document appear to be shown after that transfer. However, the SFC university funding figure appears to be shown before it (£1027.2m is also the figure which was presented to Parliament in the official 2016-17 budget last year: Table 6.06 here). But if that’s the case, the same £20-odd million would be showing in two places for the current year. That would be a substantial error.
This really isn’t good – if money has transferred between one body to another, it needs to be treated consistently. Also, if this is what explains what’s happening in 2016-17, what’s the plan for 2017-18 regarding transfers from the SFC to SAAS – because if a larger one than this year is planned, it means the real terms fall in university funding is larger than shown here. Also, there was quite a big transfer from the SFC to SAAS in 2015-16 too (para 22 here) – where does that fit in? Parliament is entitled to greater clarity about all this.
Commentators (myself included) can be pretty critical of the opposition parties at Holyrood for not being more effective. But if the budget document – one of the single most important things the government puts before the Parliament – contains these sort of inconsistencies, they really are up against it. Even more so, if I haven’t just been especially unlucky, and there’s more of this to be found in other lines.
I hope the current review being undertaken by the Presiding Officer will look at this as a case study. It suggests at minimum that the government is under-resourcing the production of this material for the Parliament, because nothing here should have survived the sort of systematic, careful cross-checking these documents (and the Parliament) deserve.
It’s the simplest and most unanswered question.
In the summer of 2012, Ministers decided to reduce grant levels substantially for all low-income students – new and continuing – from the following autumn. And we still don’t know why.
It was inevitable this would have one of two effects on students from lower-income families: they would either have to borrow more than before to make up the gap, or make do with less. The extra debt/lost income was non-trivial: around £35m a year of cash support for people from low incomes would be lost, or around 40% of existing means-tested grant.
So this was an odd choice of a target for cuts, for a government which had repeatedly expressed concern that people from low-incomes are put off going to university by debt, and emphasised its creation in 2013-14 of a “minimum income guarantee” and a much higher universal minimum loan, to meet NUS concerns about immediate hardship.
The decision to visit cuts on grants has never been explained (it’s also unclear why the SAAS budget took a much larger hit than the SG budget as a whole that year: see here). Instead, the SG’s discussion of the 2013-14 changes has concentrated entirely on the way these provided more money up-front (using extra loan). But topping up the package with more loan doesn’t logically imply cutting grant at the same time (see Footnote 1 for a red herring that sometimes turns up here).
At the same time as cutting grant, the SG continued to spend many more times its grant budget on fee subsidies, channelled partly through SAAS and partly direct to universities by the SFC. Within the SAAS budget alone, fee subsidies account for between two and three times the grant budget. All this spending has been sheltered from cuts. It’s not a matter of opinion that spending on fee subsidies has risen, at the same time as spending on grants has been heavily reduced. It’s just a statement of fact: see Table A1 here.
What might explain these choices? It’s hard to see the policy commitment to free tuition as irrelevant. In a context where savings were being demanded from the SAAS cash budget, free tuition policy put a protective barrier round spending on fees. That left grants as the only available shock-absorber.
Recently, a comment in the annual SAAS statistical report was spotted by Patrick Harvie MSP, which made explicit the link between protecting fees and cutting grants (here: emphasis added below).
“The types and value of support students received changed substantially from 2012-13, within the aim of protecting free tuition. For example, the total amount of support provided in bursaries and grants reduced by over a third, offset by a substantial (61 per cent) increase in authorisations for student loans.”
That seemed like a straightforward admission.
However, when the SAAS wording was quoted in a PQ a couple of weeks later, the Scottish Government responded that it was, in fact, wrong and revealed that it had now asked SAAS to amend the report, to remove the words shown above in bold.
This got some press coverage (here), which then attracted the attention of the UK Statistics Authority (here). In response to this, the SG’s Chief Statistican has today released a statement (I don’t have a link, just a screenshot I was kindly sent).
This explains that the reference to a link between free tuition policy and the 2013-14 changes, including – as seen above – explicitly the cuts to grants, has been deemed inaccurate because it “was not consistent with previously published policy statements”. How well these policy statements themselves did or did not reflect the actual decision-making process is left to one side (interestingly, the original SAAS wording turns out to date from relatively soon after the change – it is not just a recent piece of revisionism: see footnote 2 below).
In any event, previous SG policy statements about the 2013 changes have carefully avoided acknowledging that the grant cuts even took place, let alone provided a rationale for them. On this particular point, therefore, there is no previous policy statement to be inconsistent with. We have just lost the nearest thing we have ever had to an official explanation of why spending on student bursaries for the least well-off was selected to take a £35m hit in 2013. It’s an odd thing for a government never to have to explain.
Footnote 1: a red herring
In the past, bits of the cash budget were sometimes sacrificed/traded with Whitehall for additional student loan, to stretch resources (33p of cash used to “buy”£1 student loan). But with Scotland entitled to consequentials from the massive amounts of student loan being released in England from 2012-13 onwards, it’s hard to see how the Scottish Government can have needed to “buy” even more. Even with the recent rise in the use of loans here, we still only use about half the amount of loan England does, pro rata. Also, even if the SG were trading cash for loan, it still doesn’t follow that the cash had to be swiped from the poorest students – not least given that quite a bit of the extra loan was for those further up the income scale.
Footnote 2: a curiosity
The Chief Statistician’s statement helpfully adds that the offending wording was also in the two previous SAAS reports, issued in autumn 2014 and 2015. I’m kicking myself I didn’t spot it in either of those, and it means that when I have said in the past that the fact of grant cuts hasn’t been admitted by the SG, I have been wrong. SAAS is an SG agency and it has been stating that the cuts happened for the past 2 years. The curiosity is that it took two years for anyone government to be moved to address what is now described as an error substantial enough to be worth post-publication correction, in the government’s principal annual publication on student funding.
Footnote 3: a theory
Just looking at what was happening in the total post-school budget in 2013-14, it stands out that as SAAS took a large hit (budgeted as around £24m, though actual spending on grants fell by more), funding for universities rose by around £40m: Table 5.06 here. In the period after the 2011 election, the Scottish Government appeared especially keen to foster good relations with the universities, to reduce the likelihood of criticism of its policies, and to reassure them that compared to universities south of the border they wouldn’t be disadvantaged by free tuition, as fees rose sharply in England in 2012. So if – let’s say – there was a political desire to use 2013-14 budget to show university funding getting a large boost, but an instruction from the centre that this had to be found within the portfolio, and given that the large amount devoted to fee subsidies was untouchable as a matter of policy, and – uniquely in the portfolio – cuts to grants could be back-filled by loan, of which the SG probably had more than it knew what to do with ….. you can begin to see how student grants might become vulnerable – as long as you weren’t particularly concerned about the resulting extra debt/lost income for those from low incomes. This may not be the explanation for what happened, but in the absence of any other being offered, it’s the most plausible I can construct.
This post uses data published yesterday to look at recent trends in student maintenance grants across the UK – claimant numbers, percentage of students getting one, total spending, and average amounts.
Grants will never attract the same attention as fees, but these numbers tell us about changes in cash support affecting students from the lowest income families, and also, with caveats, something about trends in the recruitment of this group. Comparing the situation across the UK brings out how different policies can have substantially different effects. How far Scotland is a guide to what lies ahead for England is a hanging question here.
A piece on here in October drew attention to the surprising fall, of almost 10%, in the number of low-income Scottish-domiciled students claiming a means-tested maintenance grant since 2012-13, concurrent with large cuts to student grants which took effect in 2013.
Figures published yesterday by the Student Loans Company for the other UK nations now allow the trends in Scotland to be looked at in a wider context. For consistency with the earlier post, 2012-13 to 2015-16 is kept as the period of interest.
In summary, things still don’t look any better for Scotland. There have been upwards trends in lower-income students in Wales and England since 2012-13 and Northern Ireland has seen only a small drop. However, the relatively positive picture in England is a swan song: grants have been abolished there for new entrants from this autumn, with consequences still to be seen.
Important note: these figures are sensitive to rule changes on qualifying thresholds. Wales and Northern Ireland saw no change to their thresholds over the period, or the run-up. In 2012-13, England reduced the upper income cut-off from around £50,000 to £42,620: that took a few years to work through the system, taking out a group of middling-high income households. Grant rates were cut by around one-third in Scotland in 2013-14 for all students (not just new entrants), but the upper income cut-off stayed round £34,000:the cut-offf or maximum grant fell from just over £19,000 to £17,000.
The tables underpinning these graphs are all here:grant-tables-dec-2016.
The population of 18 years olds is falling in every UK nation, but the number of students entering full-time HE has still risen everywhere. The graph shows the change in total claimant numbers relative to 2012-13: the absolute numbers are so much higher in England than in the devolved nations that the raw figures cannot sensibly all be put into the same graph.
The slight English fall in total grant claimants (-1.2%) reflects the tightening of the rules on qualifying levels of income. However, it conceals an increase of 5.5% in the number of those claiming the maximum grant (incomes up to £25,000). This was faster than for students as a whole (+3.6%), which looks like good news for access.
The similar overall fall in Northern Irish grant claimants (-0.75%) can’t so obviously be explained by changes in the grant rules. It has happened at the same time as a 4.0% increase overall in numbers: this looks like less good news for improving access.
The rise in Wales also can’t be easily attributed to changes in the grant rules. It reflects instead a general growth in student numbers, although in contrast to Engand the rise has been slower among grant claimants (+3.5%) than among students as a whole (+8.3%). The rise has been faster for those on the maximum grant (+4.4%, up to £18,300) than for those on incomes between that and £50,000 (+2.5%). There may be some purely technical reason for the particularly sharp increase in the numbers with incomes too high to claim a grant, but that’s not immediately evident from just looking at the grant system.
Only Scotland has seen a sharp drop (-9.5%) in grant claimants over the period, despite the cut-off point for receipt of any grant remaining the same, and all-income student numbers from Scotland rising at a similar rate as in England and Northern Ireland (+3.5%). This continues to look like a concerning (and now we can also say anomalous) pattern.
The Scottish data doesn’t allow a breakdown by grant level, except in the final two years: between 2014-15 and 2015-16, there was a fall in those on full grants (-4.6%, incomes up to £16,999) and on partial grants (-6.5%, up to £33,999).
Proportion of students getting a grant
The effect of different upper income cut offs on how many students benefit from a grant shows clearly in this graph. England’s and Northern Ireland’s cut-off points are very similar (around £42,000), Wales has the highest (£50,000) and Scotland the lowest (£34,000).
As long as the upper income threshold stays the same over time, changes in the percentage of students who get a grant within a nation should be a rough measure of changes in the compositon of the student body by income.
The graph shows that the proportion receiving a grant is not only lowest in Scotland but also that the percentage of the student body receiving a grant has fallen most here.
The percentage of students getting a grant has also dropped slightly in other places. But only in Northern Ireland is this due to an absolute fall in the number getting a grant. In England, as seen already, this is because the rules have been tightened at higher incomes, while in Wales, again as already seen, there’s been growth but not as quickly as at higher incomes.
Spending on grant
This is shown by comparison with 2012-13, as again the absolute number is so much higher for England that a single graph doesn’t work.
The largest rise has been in England, despite the reduction in the threshold, reflecting the growth in numbers at lower incomes. Spending in Wales has risen, but not by so much, reflecting the less rapid growth in low-income numbers. Northern Ireland has held roughly steady.
Scotland unsurprisingly stands out: the effect of the very different policy choice made here to withdraw substantially from targeted support for low-income students becomes very clear.
Average grant paid
Again, the figures here show how Scotland has the lowest grants, and the effect of the cut in 2013-14. In Northern Ireland average payments have held pretty steady. Wales has seen a slight rise. England’s steady and more substantial rise reflects how the composition of the grant-taking group has shifted towards those entitled to a full grant.
Of course, just as England was developing a positive story to tell on grant, and very probably the particularly strong recruitment of students from the lowest incomes, it pulled the plug. Policy-makers in England who want to tell a good story on widening access must be hoping that Scotland’s rapidly-falling numbers on low-income grants since 2012-13 are not a sign of what lies ahead for them.
Yesterday the Student Loans Company published its annual student funding statistics for England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Scottish figures were published in October. Links to all the data are at the foot of this post.
The average annual loan taken out in each nation in 2015-16 is shown below. The figures cover borrowing for maintenance and, excluding Scotland, for fees. The relatively narrow gap between Scotland and the other devolved nations reflects the relatively low levels of maintenance grants here, and therefore higher dependency on loans to fund living costs.
The average will understate borrowing at low-incomes in Scotland, where low-income students borrow more in the absence of access to as much grant, but will overstate borrowing levels at low incomes in the other nations, especially high-grant Wales.
The SLC figures do not show borrowing by income, but the Scottish ones do, so they are also included here.
There are more non-borrowers in Scotland, mainly from higher incomes: around 30% of Scottish students did not borrow in 2015-16, compared to fewer than 5% in the other nations. So the average across all students, including those who borrow nothing, would show larger differences between Scotland and the rest – but would also be an even more unreliable guide to the relative position of those at lower incomes.
Scottish degree students tend to study for a year longer. These annual figures bring out that over the course of a degree many students, particularly those from low incomes, are likely in practice to emerge with similar or more debt in Scotland, compared to Northern Ireland or Wales.
Note: maintenance grants have been abolished in England for new entrants from this autumn. These figures pre-date that change.
This is a post about government news releases, an occcasional topic on this site.
Earlier today the Scottish Government put out a news release about some pilot childcare projects: here. It’s sensible, worthwhile government business.
The ministerial quote included the sentence “As highlighted in research from Heriot-Watt University published yesterday…” . The main text added further down:
Research produced by Heriot-Watt University for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (14 November) identified that “reinforcing and extending the improved provision for good quality, flexible, subsidised childcare across the working year” is one of the “most significant measures” at tackling poverty in the UK…
This was a reference to some research the BBC had covered the day before: here.
It caught my eye because yesterday someone I follow on Twitter had been trying – quite hard – to find this research, which wasn’t linked to the BBC report. By some collective effort, this report from 18 August this year was tracked down, which includes the quote above.
The Scottish Government had clearly seen the full research, as the quote above is not included in the BBC report. They may even have stimulated the press interest in it, ahead of today’s news release, explaining why the BBC suddenly covered it yesterday. Nothing wrong with that: it is respectable relevant research, which appears to support what they are trying to do.
But what was with using the official voice of government to make out that it had only come out the day before, not three months ago, and doing so not once, but twice?
It’s hardly the largest crime ever committed against truth. But in a small way, it signals a casual attitude towards factual accuracy in Scottish government news releases, just when defending the line between what’s true and what is not seems as important as it has ever been.
And that’s why I’ve recorded it here. Just to notice. Because noticing the small things is always the first line of defence for the bigger ones.
The Scottish Government published its annual student support statistics yesterday, covering 2015-16. Link here: http://www.saas.gov.uk/_forms/statistics_1516.pdf.
Some things were predictable: the highest loans are still being taken out by those from the lowest incomes (Table A6), reflecting the limited amount of non-repayable grant (bursary) now available to these students.
More unexpected was the further fall in the number of students receiving a means-tested grant, either Young Students Bursary or Independent Students Bursary.
The table below shows how numbers on income-related maintenance grants have changed since 2012-13. In 2013, grant levels were reduced and means-tested grants were substantially restructured, from four schemes to two. However, the old schemes were rolled into the new ones, so it makes sense to include that year as a starting point for comparing effects.
|Change over period||-9.51%|
Correction: this post originally had an error in the bottom line of the table, repeated in the text, which gave -10.51% as the total change. That is now corrected. Other figures for year-on-year change are right.
A 9.5% drop in grant recipients over three years is pretty remarkable and certainly wasn’t predicted by the government when it launched the 2013 reforms. Since 2012-13 the number of Scottish domiciled students supported by SAAS has increased by 3.5% (Table A2).
The drop in numbers receiving income-related maintenance grant has been especially large this year.
The SG may be aware of an essentially technical explanation for this downwards trend, but if so it is not sharing it. Asked about these figures yesterday, the Minister for Further and Higher Education reportedly only “replied that 126,000 full time students were receiving support from the government”, leaving the specific fall in those from lower incomes unacknowledged.
Assuming this is a real effect, in the absence of any explanation otherwise, logically one or more of the following must apply:
- low-income students are becoming less likely to be recruited relative to others; and/or
- they are becoming less likely to declare their low-income status; and/or
- they are becoming less likely to claim grant.
Other data has shown increases in the numbers entering HE from more disadvantaged postcodes (SIMD 1 and SIMD2, the most deprived 40% of areas and target of access policy). So if it were the first point above, that would suggest that it’s possible to increase entry from SIMD 1 and 2, while still reducing those in the system from low incomes. That seems possible, as the link between low-income and SIMD is far from cast-iron. So it is possible that as widening access policy concentrates on SIMD 1 and 2, some of those benefitting are not from households with low enough incomes to receive a grant, while students from low income families in SIMDs 3 to 5 are now not doing so well relative to others. That’s no more than a theory – but one suggesting these figures are worth some attention from the Commissioner for Widening Access, whose appointment is due any time now.
If the second two points are relevant, then it’s possible that the amounts of cash support available at low incomes have now fallen so low that some low-income students don’t think it’s worth asking their families to go through the means-test to get them. Bear in mind that the grant at incomes between £24,000 and £33,999 is £500 (for the year). Those students averse to taking out any debt (around 20-25% of those at low incomes) won’t benefit from the higher loan they could get by submitting income details: maybe some don’t see the grant alone as worth all the complication. The fall in bursary recipients has – interestingly – been steepest in the £24,000 to £33,999 band; it’s been next-sharpest in the nil income group (mainly mature students entitled to £875 pa).
So the SG may have inadvertently set up a live experiment into how low non-repayable means-tested student support has to go, before claimants are put off applying. If that’s part of the explanation for these numbers, then that figure seems to be somewhere around £1,000.
The possibility that the SG has managed to cut grants so hard that some people are put off claiming them should certainly be on the agenda of the review of student funding announced today. More generally, what’s driving the fall in YSB and ISB numbers since the system was reformed should be of central interest – however uncomfortable that may be for the Scottish Government or for NUS Scotland, which strongly supported the changes.
As further context, no other part of the UK has seen this steady fall in grant recipients since 2012-13 (Wales has seen a steady rise, NI and England have been more up and down – but not so down overall: see here) [Update: more on UK comparisons, following the publication of updated data here.]
It was already known that a pretty substantial minority of low-income Scottish students rejected the SG/NUS assumption that they would happily borrow to make up grant cuts (see here). Today’s figures raise the further possibility that if means-tested grants are reduced to a low enough level, even those may be rejected. It may turn out that a low-grant/high loan package simply does not work at all, in any of its elements, for some of those who need it most. At the very least, the hyping in 2012 of a new of “minimum income” which would benefit all low-income students looks increasingly to have been based on a shoogly set of assumptions about how quite a few of its target audience would respond. Let’s hope the new review can do better.
Note: updated on 9 Sept for reference to Access Commission recommendation about use of area deprivation measures.
In March this year, the Scottish Government’s Widening Access Commission recommended that (emphasis added):
By 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education. Equality of access should be seen in both the college sector and the university sector.
This has undergone a subtle but significant transformation in the hands of the Scottish Government. Yesterday it confirmed in its Plan for Scotland that (emphasis added again):
We have set the Government and our universities, along with the wider education system, the challenge of ensuring that by 2030, 20% of university entrants are drawn from the 20% most deprived communities.
I originally thought this move from “background” to “communities” could be traced back to the SNP Manifesto, but in fact the recommendation to use a measure of area deprivation was in the Commission’s report (at page 67), although with a caveat about it being less appropriate for universities in north-east Scotland.
The Commission’s target left open that deprivation might be defined in relatively personal terms – for example family income or employment status, or (getting to the heart of how disadvantage functions down the generations) having no family history of higher education, especially at university level. I’ve spent much of the summer reading research about access to higher education: family background recurs as one of the single most significant factors influencing young people’s decisions.
The Scottish Government’s alternative approach of “deprived communities” keeps things instead within the established practice of using the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) classifications as the basis for measuring progress on access. SIMD is already mildly controversial in the HE sector, with the argument running that area measures are too detached from individual circumstances, and in particular are not so good at picking up deprivation in rural areas (although the Scottish Government has tried to answer this).
The release of detailed SIMD data last week allows some further testing of the relationship between SIMD classification and levels of participation in higher education, by comparing areas’ general SIMD ranking with their detailed data on entry to university. This is still looking at areas rather than individuals, but it is still useful as a way of identifying how well the portmanteau of measures which make up SIMD specifically predict low levels of entry into university within an area.
The answer is that there’s a clear link, but very many exceptions.
Each dot on the graph below represents one of the almost 7,000 small “datazones” into which Scotland is divided for the purpose of SIMD. How far a dot is along the bottom line shows where that datazone is ranked in SIMD terms. Those to the far left are the most deprived, those to the far right are the least deprived. How high up a dot is shows what proportion of young people in the area went straight university (there’s more detail on the HE measure used in the post below). The pale horizontal line is the mid-way cut-off: dots below it are areas in the bottom 50% for HE entry, those above are in the top 50%.
It’s immediately clear that while there are relatively few areas with above-average university entry in more deprived areas (though there are some, including some well above), there are many areas with relatively low entry rates towards the right-hand side of the graph. In some very high SIMD ranked areas, HE entry rates are at or close to zero. This looks like evidence that there’s a substantial presence of households less confident or well-placed to get involved in university education right across the SIMD spectrum.
The table below puts some numbers on the relationship between SIMD ranking and university entry. SIMD is divided into quintiles, as used by the SG in the contest of access. SIMD 1 and SIMD 2 make up the bottom 40% of areas: these are a particular focus for widening access. University entry rate is divided into quarters: 1 is the bottom quarter of areas by entry rate, 2 the next up, 3 the next, and 4 the top quarter.
The table shows that in SIMD 1, over 90% of areas have below average entry (62.8% plus 29.8%). In SIMD 2, however, one-quarter of areas (20.3% plus 5.3%) are above average.
Even more strikingly, 1,157 areas in SIMD 3 to 5 have below average levels of university entry. That means one-third of all the areas with below average entry rates are in these higher quintiles.
This analysis reinforces the arguments against linking access targets too closely to SIMD. Universities Scotland came out this week committing to lower entry requirements for some students, stressing the need for “case by case” judgements. If the SG target is for deprived areas however, the pressure will be greater to use that as the basis for reduced offers. The analysis above suggests that that would lead to some extreme rough justice.
The Scottish Parliament Education Committee met for the first time today and spent some time looking at widening access. The Official Report is not yet available, so I don’t know if this shift in language and its potential implications were picked up. But these figures suggest that the practical effect of a high-profile access target which is area-based could yet come back to bite MSPs hard in their constituencies. The time to ask some searching questions about what this change in wording will mean would be now.
The Access Commission’s target refers to “higher education” rather than university. However, its remit was specifically to widen access to university, and all the staging-post targets it suggested are specifically for university entry (also, more than 20% of college entrants already come from SIMD1). So the SNP Manifesto and SG target’s reversion to “university” makes sense.
There’s general agreement that appointing John Swinney as Cabinet Secretary for Education is a sign of how seriously Nicola Sturgeon is taking education. The Scotsman described him as being appointed to “fix” the education system, invoking images of Swinney with his head under the bonnet wielding a wrench. Or perhaps shaking a wrench threateningly in the direction of local authorities, which was more James McEnaney’s interpretation on CommonSpace. Certainly, COSLA doesn’t appear at first sight to have joined others in formally welcoming his appointment.
Education produces a forest of statistics, often open to multiple interpretation, sometimes legitimately, sometimes less so. It’s likely one early impact of Swinney’s appointment will be a much stronger focus on using numbers to make the most presentable case – though with the added challenge that it can’t be too good, given improvement needs to be demonstrable in a few years’ time. Swinney has a track record of vigorously defending contested figures against all comers. The opposition is likely to be kept busy policing the way numbers are used to defend policy on education.
So the new appointee will certainly make a difference to the presentation, with a more confident style than his predecessor and greater willingness to face down critics both likely. But the thought that one person can “fix” the education system suffers from a major flaw. It’s not people – however heavyweight and long-serving – alone that bring about major change. It’s people armed with ideas.
The distinguishing feature of serially-reforming England has been ideas – lots of them. It could be argued that English education has suffered from a surfeit of ideas over recent decades, often running contrary to the instincts of many in the teaching profession and remaining hugely controversial. But interventions with an ideological drive have, without doubt, resulted in change. In England, there was an open desire to reduce the role of local planning and make the system more led by parental choice, based on a preference for markets over state planning as a mechanism for creating efficient systems, and a more nakedly political desire to reduce council powers. It was matched with distrust of teachers, leading to more dictation about what was actually taught and (because market models were only trusted up to a point) interventionist powers for “failing schools”.
Scottish education reform has, by contrast, tended to be more about brokered change – not free of ideology, but the ideology more professional than political, and generally more open to variable interpretation locally. It’s been a more cautious, managerialist, less confrontational approach. Many have welcomed the contrast with England. It has not required politicians to come into office with big ideas about how the system needs to change – if anything, they have been praised for not doing so.
The framing of education now as a problem, the talk of radical change to close the gap in attainment between pupils from different backgrounds, and the parachuting in of the Deputy First Minister, does not fit that model so well. It implies something other than cautious managerialism is the intention for the next five years. But it’s less clear what ideas the government brings that will underpin its reforms.
In the SNP manifesto, there were references to greater local discretion on the one hand and more regionalisation on the other, and of course standardised testing. However, exactly what new, transformational mechanisms such moves are expected to unleash remains unclear. Does the party believe more choice for parents is a stimulus for change, or more variety in the available models, or more direct local accountability to parents, or more planning over a wider area, or less variation between what’s available across Scotland, or more local professional discretion, or more intervention, at least in certain schools, or a different distribution of funding, or more economies of scale in support services, or less involvement by councillors, or something else, and for any of these, why is that, and which matter most? What does it make of the absolutely separate organisation of the education of the wealthiest suburbs of Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire, carefully arranged by the Conservative government of 1992? Bearsden Academy (1 or more highers in 2014 = 86%) and Drumchapel High School (1 or more highers in 2015 = 15%) are less than 2.5 miles apart. Their staff work for different employers. There is nowhere you can go to compare easily how much public funding they get per pupil, and it is no-one’s job to think about that, or about how the two interact (or, whisper it, their catchment boundaries). Is that regarded as a problem, or not?
The manifesto was both vague about precise intentions, and even vaguer about exactly how the party believes the levers and cogs of change could be better engaged than they have been to date, by doing any of the things it suggests. Its presentation has not got far beyond the “something must be done, this is something” stage.
But if you don’t have an idea about why particular changes will achieve the effect you are after, the risk is of upheaval without improvement. There’s no guide to the massive number of important practical choices that lie behind any general plan. You don’t know which battles are important and which can be more readily conceded, what to prioritise over what. Critically, as implementation moves from the Cabinet table, to month after month of civil service submissions, to the legal draftsmen, to the Parliament, to budget discussions, to working groups, to agencies, and then to the people in charge of implementation locally, neither does anyone else.
Whatever your political position, the right thing is to want the Scottish Government to succeed over the next five years in improving the educational experience of all young people, but particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
We have the big man. What are his big ideas?
[Note updated with new info 25 May and 4 August]
I’ve recently been doing some work with colleagues at Edinburgh University unpicking various statistics on access to HE in Scotland (we’ll be discussing the results at this event http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/higher-education-and-social-class-scotland-in-comparative-perspective-registration-24989261554). A theme which emerges – it’s not a new one – is how far it matters what sort of higher education a person gets – college or university, newer university or older?
With that all in my head, I wondered about the Holyrood class of 2016. There’s no threshold qualification for being an MSP. The skills required are varied. We need some policy wonks, but we also need people with very high levels of empathy, and a wide mix of experience and general political skills, of the admirable and less admirable types, should count too. So the range of educational backgrounds our MSPs have is a small, but I’ll argue meaningful, window on how far we can treat all higher education as the same.
For speed, I limited the analysis to new members, using this Scotsman piece as a guide to who they are. There’s no attempt here to compare with the ones who have gone, or the returners. According to this piece, there are 45 new MSPs. 23 are Conservative, 15 SNP, 4 Labour, 2 Green and 1 Liberal Democrat. To find information about them I googled various combinations of their name, party and the word “biography”, but I never went past page 2 of the results. So there may well still be information out there for the three [originally five, grateful to readers for helping find two of them] for whom I couldn’t find any clues about their post school education. That left 42 who provided enough post-school information to be useful.
19 attended an ancient university in Scotland or Russell Group university in England (4 Glasgow, 5 Aberdeen, 3 Edinburgh (though one part-time), 1 St Andrews, 1 part St Andrews/part Edinburgh, 1 Oxford, 1 Cambridge, 1 UEA, 1 Newcastle, 1 York and then Edinburgh). 1 more attended Edinburgh, after attending a pre-1992.
4 attended a pre-1992 university in Scotland (3 Strathclyde, 1 Dundee), though Ross Greer MSP (Green) appears to have left his course early, to work as a campaigner. 1 more went on to Strathclyde after attending an ancient.
2 attended a post-1992 Scottish university (1 RGU, 1 Glasgow College of Technology – the old name for GCU).
2 attended a non-Russell Group university elsewhere in the UK (Harper Adams, Keele).
3 have been in professions which strongly imply university attendance (clinical pharmacist, teacher, economist).
2 have been to an FE college (one in the Greenock/Inverclyde, one Sabhal Mor Ostaig), where they may have undertaken either FE or HE-level (e.g. HN) study. I’m assuming attendance at Sabhal Mor Ostaig before it became part of UHI.
4 more have been in professions which imply some post-school education but not necessarily at university (2 nurses of long-standing: nursing has only become all degree level relatively recently), a surveyor and a chartered accountant.
6 declared no post-school education and have past working lives which wouldn’t have required it.
I make that 30 university graduates at least out of 42 cases with some known background (19 of them at least from a Russell Group or ancient university, although the one part-time Edinburgh student is by a non-traditional route) and only 2/42 from an FE college. FE college participation is well above 2/29ths of post-school activity.
It’s this sort of thing that makes me unwilling to be too relaxed about how much the Scottish system relies on HE participation in FE colleges to provide access to higher education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. It will get you so far. But not (often) as far as the Scottish Parliament.
The 6 new MSPs who seem likely to have no mention of post-school education because they did not attend college or university are all from the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour and SNP appear to have closed their ranks more (in practice, I don’t suggest it’s a policy) against admitting non-graduates to the higher levels of elected office. I’m a graduate, and I can come up with all sorts of reasons why graduates might make good elected representatives. Graduates can of course also come from all sorts of homes. But even for viewers in Scotland, in practice they tend to be from less challenging backgrounds, with those from Russell Group universities, again even here in Scotland, tending to come from a narrower range than graduates in general.
At this point, those MSPs who can will no doubt point to having started from working class homes, but I’m not sure that’s quite answer enough. As Lynsey Hanley has lately argued, the act of going to university doesn’t leave people unchanged. Plus “working class” itself covers a very broad range of backgrounds, particularly in a country where I can’t recall ever hearing anyone describe their family as lower middle-class. Working class in Scotland is often used to describe families with incomes well over the national average. It stands for many as state of mind, attitude or identity, rather than a description of their recent personal economic experience. For others however economic disadvantage remains exactly that.
A parliament drawn so heavily from those who have been to university at its worst risks thinking and behaving like the sort of complacent new and not-so-new middle class meritocracy against which Michael Young warned. In this, Holyrood is no doubt like legislatures round the world. I’d say they all need to start thinking seriously about how the voices of those who have not been through the university mill are heard nationally direct in the democratic process. Electing more of them would be the obvious one, but it’ll be a rarely talented or fortunate person who manages that now on anything less than a university degree, preferably from one of our more selective establishments.
The numbers above come from the information summarised in the tables below. Apologies to anyone the spelling of whose name has got mangled in the translation from my hand-written notes.
|Conservative||University or degree specified (11)|
|Adam Tompkins||University of East Anglia/LSE|
|Jeremy Balfour||Edinburgh (part-time/London Bible College|
|Miles Briggs||Robert Gordon University|
|Rachel Hamilton||Harpers Adams University|
|Other post-school specified (1)|
|Jamie Greene||College in Greenock/Inverclyde|
|Profession specified which might imply post-school HE (2)|
|Alison Harris||Chartered accountant|
|Edward Monkton||Ex-armed forces, surveyor, farmer|
|Other profession specified (6)|
|Maurice Corry||Ex-armed forces|
|Graham Simpson||“Journalist since leaving school”|
|Alexander Stewart||Worked in retail/own business|
|Annie Wells||Retail manager|
|Brian Whittle||Professional athlete|
|No info (3)|
|SNP||University or degree specified (9)|
|Jeanne Freeman||Glasgow College of Technology (became Glasgow Caledonian University)|
|Ruth Maguire||Sabhal Mor Ostaig|
|Profession specified which implies university (1)|
|Maree Todd||Clinical Pharmacist|
|Profession specified which may imply university (2)|
|Claire Haughey||Mental health nurse|
|No info (2)|
|Daniel Johnson||St Andrews/Strathclyde|
|Profession specified which implies university (2)|
Andy Wightman (Aberdeen) and Ross Greer, who attended Strathclyde, but left early to become a campaigner.
Alex Cole-Hamilton (Aberdeen).
Any time now, we may know the new Cabinet. Although in law, ministerial appointments in Scotland have to be approved by the Scottish Parliament, this is a difference from Westminster which, like the absence of an official opposition, is likely to be brushed aside by commentators as a technicality. They will have a point. Ministerial announcements are political moments. Revelation of the new team will be Sturgeon’s first major act as leader of a minority administration and its presentation will be a significant piece of political theatre.
Centre stage will be the appointment of the new Cabinet Secretary for Education (and other stuff – the chance may be taken to reorganise what’s bundled with what). I shall brutally assume it will be someone new, given the general pasting received by Angela Constance in the press. My observations on her period in office are not all negative: under her tenure, the hyperbole and misdirection which characterised government press notices on higher education and student funding prior to her arrival melted away, and grants began to creep back up, however slowly. There were signs that, far more than her predecessor, she appreciated that there was much more to do here than smooth the path for the more photogenic end of the school leaving population. It is hard to know what personal impact she had on policy, however, because the First Minister so routinely held smash and grab raids on any major portfolio announcements.
Whoever does the job next will need to be more trusted to take the lead. Education may be the policy Sturgeon has emphasised as most central to her new administration, but she will be up to her knees in managing a minority administration, and the agenda laid out for schools and the rest is simply too big, complex and risky to be amenable to bouts of occasional remote management. It’s also often vague, as witnessed by reaction to the manifesto commitment on some sort of regionalisation of schools reported here, meaning that it will need a creative mind to work out how, especially in the new political context, the words should be interpreted.
The incoming briefing will need to cover, among other things:
- school funding, management and governance, not least what it is that the government is trying to achieve.
- the introduction of standardised testing (controversial for some, but supported by Labour and Conservatives, so no political excuses can be made for not proceeding).
- a commitment to a review of student funding to make it “fairer”, particularly between FE and HE – but with no new money behind it (other parties have also highlighted concerns about student funding – but they all proposed ways to raise cash to address this).
- appointing a new Commissioner for Widening Access and more generally taking forward the Access Commission report (again, cross- party support exists). It’s worth making the point – because no-one really has – that the access targets set by the Commission are what gets called brave, not to say heroic.
- the inquiry into historic child abuse, about which victims’ groups have become increasingly critical.
- implementing the Named Person legislation probably also falls to this portfolio still – there’s a court judgement coming there which has potential to make things either much easier or much harder.
Bubbling away also are workload and stress issues in secondary schools, a regular drip of test and exam results from existing systems (first up, numeracy statistics due on 31 May), the chance of some sort of problem with the operation of the exam system (a known unknown, on past form), the Edinburgh schools issue (not technically the SG’s headache, but impossible to completely ignore) and much more. The government has so far avoided political pain from the growing failure rate of Scottish applicants for a free university place here, as the system fails to grow in line with rising demand: but that issue is now in opposition sights, and it is not clear what answer the new administration can offer with funding for universities declining, beyond living with this or extra places achieved by diluting funding per student. Only a little breathing space is offered by a temporary dip in the age 18 population.
Whoever gets the Cabinet Secretary post has to be trusted to get on all with all this while knowing when and when not to bother a busy First Minister. They will ideally be capable of dealing with opposition parties intelligently, tactfully and tactically. The legacy of the brutalist politics of the last 5 years of majority government will need to be overcome: habits of co-operative working and mutual respect have not been much cultivated on the government benches since 2011. The new Minister will need to have some sort of relationship with local government, which, facing large cuts imposed (again) brutally earlier this year, starts from a position of distrust and very possibly also suspicion about intentions to strip out their schools function. They will be doing all this against a budget which is declining.
The new incumbent will also face – I assume – more effective parliamentary scrutiny. The Education Committee of the past few years has been a pretty supine affair, often failing to hold Minister to account and aided by having among its members the Minister’s parliamentary aide. One did not get the impression that lines of questioning to government always came as a great surprise and one member could always be relied on to ask a version of “why are you so wonderful?”. If the Committee is offered the minister’s aide as a colleague again, I’d suggest it insists at minimum on placing that relationship explicitly on the record, whenever government policy or performance is the topic of discussion. The Westminster Ministerial code (but not the Scottish one) quoted here says:
Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not make statements in the House or put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected. They are not precluded from serving on Select Committees, but they should withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointing Minister’s department, and they should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House.
The last Committee’s Convenor was a party member (no longer in Parliament – he was a list member who was not returned) and it was rare for sessions to be typified by the relentless pursuit of issues which might be uncomfortable for the government, although towards the end there were a few exceptions to this. If the Opposition parties do not hold out for the Convenorship of the Education Committee, they will have fallen at an early hurdle.
Who then might be the next Cabinet Secretary? It will need to be someone with considerable political and policy skills, good judgement, experienced in parliament and in government. The pool won’t be large, simply because the Scottish Parliament and the ministerial team is much smaller than at Westminster. Both junior ministers are back and have avoided much bad press: whether they are regarded as heavyweight enough would be a question. A sideways move from another brief is clearly possible: one commentator at least has speculated about John Swinney (his relationship with local government was rock bottom by the end of the last parliament, which might or might not be relevant).
It seems unlikely to be one of the new faces. Otherwise, we might be looking at Jeanne Freeman (who must at least be in with a good chance of a junior post somewhere in government). Her CV has given her – uniquely, I’d guess – almost every angle on government: senior third sector and quango roles, a period as Jack McConnell’s senior special adviser (during which time – relevant here – she was at the forefront of an ultimately unsuccessful battle to remove criminal justice social work from local authorities and tie it in with the prison service, which ended in the compromise of a new regional co-ordinating tier, shortly to be abolished after ten years in operation) and, missing from the Wikipedia entry here, a period immediately after devolution in 1999 as a senior civil servant, during which she was based in the Education Department, where she led on putting the McCrone deal into place. The last of these adds education to experience in justice and health. In a government not always all that obviously interested in the nuts and bolts end of government, she arrives clutching a bag of spanners. If she ends up in the education team, it shouldn’t be a great surprise – but if as Cabinet Secretary, it will be more of one.
One further appointment to watch will be the special adviser. Kate Higgins, the previous incumbent, came from a third sector children’s charity background (see here). Given the new centrality of schools policy, it might be expected that some sort of advisory ballast is needed from there, either instead of or as well.
The First Minister will presumably stay close to the education brief. But education policy will also need the full-time attention of someone with a considerable set of political and intellectual skills – not simply to implement the manifesto, but even more crucially, to work out what that manifesto actually means, in the new political context. Who gets that job will be one of the most important decisions of the next few days.