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Review grant cuts: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recommendation to the Scottish Government

October 20, 2014

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, a UK-wide advisory non-departmental public body, has just published its second “State of the Nation Report“.

The Commission, chaired by Alan Milburn,  is sharply critical of the UK Government, but also expresses concern about various aspects of the work of the Scottish and Welsh governments (its report does not cover Northern Ireland).

Student support

Most significantly for student funding, it recommends that the Scottish Government should

review the total financial support package for the most disadvantaged undergraduate and postgraduate students, particularly in relation to recent reductions in maintenance grants. (see page 222).

This is the first formal/official recommendation to the Scottish Government regarding its reduced use of grants since 2013.  The report refers (page 221, para 90) to the comparative analysis of debt levels in this author’s report from earlier this year (see here).

The Scottish Government will presumably have to acknowledge or respond to this at some point.

Access to higher education

On the more general question of widening access, the report recommends that

The Scottish Government should focus on closing the access gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged with rigorous evaluation of its widening access strategy to ensure annual reporting of progress. By 2020 at least 10 per cent of the most deprived school pupils should progress to ancient universities. In particular, the Scottish Government needs to ensure timely data which reports on the entry rate into higher education and which clearly distinguishes entry by college and university and socioeconomic characteristics. (p222) [emphasis added]

With so much emphasis in Scotland on access based on “ability to learn, not ability to pay”, it is unexpected to find that the Commission finds data collection in Scotland relating to access to be relatively poor.

The report suggests that [emphasis added again]

the Scottish Government should commit to developing a clear widening participation indicator framework to measure progress and for this to be comparable with the rest of the UK. It has been difficult to access clear and timely data which reports on young people’s entry to university, particularly for those from disadvantaged groups. For example, the Young People’s Participation rate is not reported by socioeconomic class and the latest available data at publication was from 2011. (p221)

Sections of the report dealing with other policy areas also mention lack of clear data in Scotland (see quotes below).

More generally, it observes that [emphasis added]

In the context of a system where Scottish students are not charged any fees, it is striking that entry to university in Scotland appears as socially polarised as it is in England. In 2012/13 9.7 per cent of the most disadvantaged entered higher education compared to 32.5 per cent of the most advantaged.100 Over half of deprived young people (51.1 per cent) undertake higher education in college not university. Only 16 per cent of the most deprived students study in ancient or newer universities. (p221)

The report also expresses concern at the attainment gap in schools between those from the most and least advantaged backgrounds in Scotland and in particular at the lack of targeted initiatives to raise attainment among pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (again, see quotes below).

The Commission also highlights that both the Scottish and Welsh governments tend to focus particularly on the impact on poverty of non-devolved policy on welfare:  “In general the Scottish Government is extremely concerned with the impact of welfare reform and it is crucial that this does not detract from action on the other drivers of poverty”, while the same focus in Wales is described as “a fatalistic tendency” (full quotes below). There are echoes here of the Scottish Government’s repeated reference to fee levels in England, but very relaxed attitude to the long-term regressive impact of its own decision to rely almost entirely on student debt to provide living cost support to those from the poorest backgrounds.

This is a large report and there are some commendations for Scotland as well as criticisms. It gives no grounds for complacency, however, whether on the actual impact of policies made in Holyrood or, strikingly, the effectiveness of the systems for gathering of relevant information in Scotland.  The Commission is seriously worried about this, saying for example in relation to the school system:

In Scotland, there are still considerable concerns that the Commission raised last year that remain unanswered. The most significant issue remains the lack of transparent data around disadvantaged pupils, which frustrates efforts to close the attainment gap and improve social mobility.


Extracts relevant to post [any emphasis added]

in Scotland the poorest children perform less well than their low-income counterparts in England; but high-income children in Scotland out-perform high-income children in England throughout the first seven years (p54)

Looking at Scotland specifically, there are clear positives like the Early Years Collaborative – a coalition of Community Planning Partners that includes social services, health, education, police and third sector professionals who are committed to improving quality. This performs well in bringing staff together and building a shared understanding, and appears effective in increasing collaboration with health staff. Scotland also has a dedicated parenting strategy – a critical gap elsewhere. But it is very difficult to tell what all this is achieving in terms of really transforming children’s prospects, and there remains too little emphasis on education in early years provision. It is striking that the new Child Poverty Strategy outcomes framework has an indicator on the cost of 25 hours of childcare but nothing about school readiness. These are major deficiencies. (p54)

[Last year the Commission] found that there was a lack of emphasis on closing attainment gaps between rich and poor students in Scotland compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. We called for greater focus on this by targeting funding, programmes and better, more transparent data. (p66)

Scotland has recently introduced a new ‘what works’ web-based resource101 which details how teachers can engage with families to raise attainment and close the disadvantage gap. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a robust, data-driven evaluation in place to understand if it has been successful and replicated more widely. (p89)

Since [last year’s report], the Scottish Government have introduced a new online data tool, Insight, which aims to be used by secondary schools and local authorities to identify areas of success and where improvements can be made. To encourage the better use of evidence between schools and local authorities a School Improvement Partnership Programme has been introduced. The interim report on the evaluation of the programme was published in May 2014. This will sit alongside a programme intended to support attainment in all pupils and better collaboration between schools called Raising Attainment for All, which was introduced in June 2014. The Commission understands this intervention is not targeted – local authorities self-select into the programme.  However, these programmes do not focus specifically on pupils from disadvantaged households in their project conception, design and evaluation. It is particularly worrying that these programmes do not use any data to target (or consider evaluation) effectively. The Commission believes that Scotland must focus these programmes (and any new ones) on raising educational outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. (p99)

In Scotland, there are still considerable concerns that the Commission raised last year that remain unanswered. The most significant issue remains the lack of transparent data around disadvantaged pupils, which frustrates efforts to close the attainment gap and improve social mobility. While this is not the only way to drive accountability, there are benefits in collecting and publishing this data, not least in enabling much more robust analysis of the interventions currently in place. Currently Scotland’s improvement schemes in education are not targeted to the most disadvantaged. For example, selection in the School Improvement Partnership Programme is voluntary – there is no basis for driving performance in the lowest performing areas for less advantaged students. There also appears to be a lack of evidence on the success this programme is likely to have. The lack of data limits the ability of heads, teachers and policy-makers to design, monitor and evaluate any interventions. Most interventions do not have robust evaluations in place to fully understand their impact on attainment – we have no way of knowing which are worth continuing or scaling up. The Commission would like the Scottish Government to look at the success of the Education Endowment Foundation and suggests that there may be value in looking at how evaluation data and evidence can be combined across the UK. The Commission believes the limitations of Scotland’s collection and use of data and analysis on children from disadvantaged backgrounds urgently need to be addressed if Scotland is serious about closing the attainment gap. (p100)

In summary, both Scotland and Wales have put in place schemes to address the challenges of moves to work. The pathways to work element of the Scottish Youth Employment Initiative and the core offer of the Welsh Progression Framework recognise the need for better solutions to problems that exist beyond the recession-driven unemployment challenge. Both nations also offer a youth jobs guarantee through subsidised wages, and similar schemes have been found to have positive outcomes, though the long-term impact is less clear. The Commission will return in future reports to assess the extent to which these schemes have improved moves from school for young people. However, Scotland in particular lacks clear plans for evaluation of policies and evidence of how learning is being fed back into the development of future strategy. (p134)

The early rise in child poverty in Scotland in contrast to the rest of the UK is concerning. The Scottish Government highlights welfare reform as the likely driver, but the same welfare policies have not caused a corresponding rise in poverty across the rest of the UK. More investigation is needed to establish whether additional factors mean Scotland’s relative success in reducing child poverty is more vulnerable than progress elsewhere. 161. In general the Scottish Government is extremely concerned with the impact of welfare reform and it is crucial that this does not detract from action on the other drivers of poverty. (p184)

In common with Scotland, the Welsh Government has voiced considerable concern at the impact of Welfare Reform. The focus of criticisms has been on reductions in entitlements to cash benefits (as well as other potential negative impacts).While there has been some recognition of the simplification enabled by Universal Credit, there is also concern at the scale and pace of change, design of the new system and lack of additional support for those who need it. Welsh Ministers have also raised concerns over the length of time being taken to consider individuals claims for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and the adverse impact delays are having on individuals financial position. This reflects a fatalistic tendency, with a lack of adaptation to forthcoming challenges, although the Commission accepts that Wales has fewer levers to respond to reform. (P189)

In Scotland, 36.3 per cent of school leavers entered higher education in 2012/13.38 The Young Person Participation rate in higher education39 (aged 16 to 19 years) in 2011 was 43.8 per cent, up from 42.3 per cent the previous year. Young people from the most advantaged areas are three times more likely to enter higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas. The proportion entering higher education from the most advantaged areas was 32.5 per cent and 9.7 per cent in the most disadvantaged areas. Entrants to higher education from deprived areas are less than half as likely to enter one of the highly selective “ancient universities” as those from non-deprived areas (7.6 per cent versus 16.9 per cent) and are 60 per cent more likely to do a sub-degree course at a further education college (over half of entrants from deprived areas versus less than a third of entrants from non-deprived areas). (P205)


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