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The Scottish Widening Access Commission: a remit not to challenge too hard?

June 24, 2015

When the Scottish Widening Access Commission was announced last year by the FM,  its creation could hardly have been more prominent.  Announcements about it were made by the FM in November and February, with further ones by the Cabinet Secretary in March (to announce the appointment of the chair) and April (to announce its members).

Since then, there have been some significant developments in relation to the Commission, but oddly none of them appear to have been announced  to the Parliament or the press.  To find out about these, readers need to track down the Commission’s website.

First, the Commission has put out a call for evidence by 20 July.

It has also announced an additional member, Conor Ryan, now Director of Communications and Research at The Sutton Trust, but also a former senior Special Adviser to David Blunkett and Tony Blair (he once listed the first as his best friend in politics and the second as his political hero). Seen in his time very much as an adviser specialising in communications and presentation, his article for the Evening Standard “How the Bury the Truth” on tricks of the spin doctor trade includes as advice – rather beautifully in this context –  “Learn to use the internet. Not for education and home shopping, but to make facts public with nobody knowing you have done so”.

The Sutton Trust is a serious presence in the access debate in England and Ryan should bring to the debate not only access to its extensive research, but also a usefully different perspective: he is the only member other than the chair not working in Scotland.  For example, on student funding, he argued before the last UK election that “Reducing the levels of debt for less advantaged students should be a priority of any review  [in England]” – the relatively higher debt for poorer students in Scotland continues to be ignored or played down by many in Scotland – and that where resources are tight, means-testing fees should be a higher priority than reducing them for everyone: see 20 November 2014 post here.

Last, the remit has been finalised: see here.

Much longer than that outlined in previous PQs, the new remit still makes it clear that this is a body whose starting point is, as the Chair puts it elsewhere, that

This is a nation that knows how to do [widening access] and it is this good work that has laid the strong foundations which will enable us to not only widen participation but also to deepen it. 

It’s always good to go through the verbs in the remit of any body, because these are, quite literally, its” doing words”.  In this case, the result of that is [emphasis added]:

Building upon the Government’s commitment to free tuition fees for higher education, the introductions of Curriculum for Excellence, School Attainment Policy, reforms to the Post-16 education system and  Developing the Young Workforce programme, it is proposed that the Commission on Widening Access will:

  • synthesise existing evidence around barriers to widening access and retention, and their effective removal, for those from deprived backgrounds and, within this, identify any specific barriers for those with different equality characteristics or those from a care background;

  • propose both a short and long-term target for participation in higher education and clear milestones, to drive further and faster progress to widen access

  • identify best practice on widening access across early years, schools, colleges, universities and employers, and make recommendations as to how best practice on access and retention can be scaled up and embedded,within the work of individual institutions, across the wider education and employment system

  • identify the data and information required to monitor and support improvements on widening access across all education providers, and recommend the processes necessary to support this

The Commission – strikingly – has not been given the task of making recommendations to government about its own policies.  It is only being asked to make recommendations about process for data collection and scaling up local best practice, and to propose targets.  Everywhere else it is tasked simply with reportage, which is clearly to be done within the framework set by various existing government policies.

What if one barrier turned out to be  how fundamental aspects of school and curriculum organisation limit the subjects certain children can do and thus their potential access to higher education, particularly at certain institutions or for certain courses?  Or the relatively low and unpredictable bursaries in further education are having a negative impact? Or the lack of any national structure for facilitating articulation from college to university beyond tightly defined local partnerships tends to limit certain young people to certain institutions? Or the need to apply to university on the basis of predicted grades rather than actual ones privileges young people from schools which tend to predict high? Or the shift of FE colleges towards providing full-time qualifications for 16-19 year olds has reduced the opportunities for those who try to get back into the system with relatively poor qualifications later?  And so on.

None of these could necessarily be tackled simply within the scope of  “scaling up and embedding best practice”. None of the things above may be issues, but it would be astonishing if Scotland was getting it so right that the important barriers are all due to the failure of schools, universities and employers to copy widely enough good things already being done well on a small scale. What about tackling things we might actively be getting wrong, perhaps on a large scale? The underlying assumption of the remit’s authors seems to be that there’s no place for such a challenging thought, particularly if it relates to recent government policy.

How far the Commission reads its remit narrowly or broadly will be fascinating to watch and  will play a large part in  how radical its suggestions are and,very probably, how far its work brings about a significant shift in access to higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.



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