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How far is Scotland from meeting its 2021 widening access targets?

This post looks at what today’s data from the Scottish Funding Council suggests about the scale of change needed to meet the Scottish Government’s targets for widening access to university.

The 2021 targets

Government’s targets come from last year’s report by the Commission on Widening Access, which 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. To drive progress toward this goal:

• By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 16% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish HEIs as a whole.

• By 2021, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 10% of full-time first degree entrants to every individual Scottish university.

• By 2026, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent at least 18% of full-time first degree entrants to Scottish universities as a whole.

• In 2022, the target of 10% for individual Scottish universities should be reviewed and a higher level target should be considered for the subsequent years.

[Note added after original post: after writing this I came across a target of 15.5% of HEI entrants by 2019-20, used by the Scottish Funding Council – see para 56 here. The SFC attributes that to the Commission, but no such target appears in the Commission report.]

The distinction between higher education and universities (or HEIs, a category comprising universities plus 3 other specialist HE providers) is important,  because “higher education” includes the substantial amount  of HN-level HE provided in colleges in Scotland, which already have intakes which are relatively well-balanced by social background.  It is in the universities where unequal access by background persists.

The remit of the Commission was specifically to think about access to university. However, the Commission’s report looked more widely, and the newly-appointed Commissioner was keen to stress last week that he saw his brief as extending across all higher education:

The major thing that I can do is not to focus too strongly on just the universities’ contribution and to give greater recognition to what colleges can and do deliver.

Sir Peter Scott, 25 January 2017

The 2021 targets above however are clearly about universities, so it’s worth looking at the data released today by the Scottish Funding Council.  That’s because it is the nearest thing we have to a statistic measuring the access targets’ focus: the percentage of undergraduate entrants to universities/HEIs from the most disadvantaged areas.

The SFC statistics are not a perfect reflection of that target. They are only for full-time entrants under 21. Adding older entrants  would almost certainly boost the share of students from disadvantaged areas, but the overall effect is likely to be modest. There are far fewer full-time entrants of 21 and over, and any greater skew amongst them  towards the most deprived areas isn’t likely to be large enough to affect the overall average much.

On the other side, the SFC figures exclude entrants from outside Scotland, who tend to be more advantaged than the Scottish student body as a whole. Although it is not explicitly limited in this way, I assume here that the target is concerned with the percentage of disadvantaged Scots as a proportion of all Scottish students. If not, then the challenge is much greater, and the gap much wider, than shown below. I am encouraged in focussing on Scots by the Access Commissioner’s interpretation of his remit:

I see the primary responsibility of my role—and I think that this was the prime focus of the commission—as being to focus on fair access for Scotland-domiciled students. I do not think that I have any remit to make access fairer for students who come from England or Wales to attend Scottish institutions, although I accept that the social composition of those students changes the flavour and affects the culture of at least some Scottish universities.

(Source as above)

The SFC data

The SFC statistics are reached via the link at the foot of this page.

Here’s the total proportion from the most disadvantaged 20% of areas (SIMD20) since 2006-07, with the 2021 (all age) target added for comparison.


[Note added after posting: for the separate SFC target mentioned above, imagine a line almost as high, 15.5%, but 2 years sooner, in 2019-20.]

In 2013-14, some additional HEI places ring-fenced for widening access were released (more on the effect of that here). That explains the increase from that year. But intervention on a completely different scale appears likely to be needed over the next 5 years, to reach an average of 16% across all HEIs.

The target also includes a minimum of 10% for individual institutions by 2021. Figures for the last 4 years are shown below for each HEI.  2012-13 is marked in yellow, as the last year before additional places were released.   Those institutions marked * received some of these places.


Only 4 HEIs have been above 10% for  each of the last 3 years (Dundee, Glasgow Caledonian, Glasgow School of Art and the University of the West of Scotland).

7 HEIs have never crossed this line: of these Aberdeen, Edinburgh, RGU and St Andrews are all below 7%. The remainder have hit 10% at least once in the past 3 years, though some are more consistently close than others.

There is, noticeably, a lot of volatility at institutional level. Many HEIs show no clear trend, despite the emphasis placed on widening access in recent years. Of those receiving extra places, Dundee, Stirling and Glasgow School of Art stand out for increasing the share of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds and sustaining that, over the whole period these were  distributed.

In short, getting everyone over the 10% line by 2021 looks very hard. Keeping them there looks harder still. The institutions with furthest to go also tend to be those with younger intakes, where adding older entrants is least likely to help.

Getting to 2021

There hasn’t been much acknowledgement of what demanding targets the Commission set, and the Government has accepted. However, at last week’s Committee hearing the new Access Commissioner said:

I suspect that some of my responsibility might be to manage down expectations about what the commissioner can deliver.

That seems absolutely fair. At the same session, the Commissioner clarified that his is a 3 to 5 day a month appointment (although in practice he expected to be in Scotland 5 days a month, and to be working a similar amount – unpaid presumably – beyond that), with no assigned budget, at least as yet.   It’s a much more low-key arrangement than the Office of Fair Access in England, no doubt deliberately so. Sir Peter also stressed that he wanted to take time to understand the situation here better and was not yet ready to move into “pro-active mode”.  His first  annual report is due in a year’s time, that is, early 2018 – less than three years before applications will be submitted for entry in 2021 [added: and less than a year before applications begin for 2019].

So, time is tight, and these targets are tough. A system which increased the share of the most disadvantaged from 8.7% to 10.8% over a decade, with the help of dedicated additional places, is now expected to increase from 10.8% to 16% in just 6 years [or even more demandingly, to 15.5% in 4 years, according to the SFC], with no promise of further expansion. Over half of institutions will need to increase substantially (in some cases more than double) their performance over the same period. Even if including older entrants might provide a boost of, say, a couple of percentage points to the national average, the only sensible response to this ambition is – blimey. And to wish everyone involved good luck. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it needs to be acknowledged what a huge task it represents.


Displacing the privileged vs squeezing the middle: a bit more evidence

The discussion in Scotland about widening access to university remains dominated by the idea that any “displacement” will be a problem mainly (or even only) for the most advantaged.  As the journalist Kevin McKenna put it this weekend (“Scottish Higher Education Should be for all, not the gilded few”):

Conservatives have their own weasel word for this process; they call it “displacement”.  What they really mean is that the privileges affluent children have enjoyed for centuries may be put at risk by giving privileges to poorer children. We will hear more people talking about “displacement” in the next few weeks as we begin to digest figures released last week by Ucas, the university admissions body…..

As university places for Scottish students are capped as a result of the SNP and Labour’s successive policies of free tuition, it means that, inevitably, there will be a squeeze on places going to middle-class students if more poor children gain access. ….

There are vast, sprawling neighbourhoods in Scotland’s major cities where children, no matter how bright they may be, will rarely have the opportunity to make the most of their academic abilities by attending our top universities.

Within a few miles of these places there are more arboreal districts where children enjoy an eye-watering assortment of advantages in the race for university places. These range from hours of expensive private home tuition to flat financial inducements for every higher A pass gained…..

Thus, our universities are diminished by choosing from a very narrow gene pool. Their lecture theatres are not filled with the brightest and the best, just the brightest and the best of a narrow social stratum.

McKenna is right that the UCAS data is worth careful attention for what it shows about changing patterns of participation. That’s what this post looks at.

Not everyone is either very rich or very poor

The data reminds us that between McKenna’s “vast sprawling neighbourhoods” and “arboreal districts” are a lot of places which are neither acutely deprived nor especially privileged. It adds to the evidence that it is the people from these in-between places, rather than the more arboreal ones, whose access to higher education is now under most pressure.  It turns out, quite predictably and no doubt for all the reasons that McKenna’s article identifies, that those at the very top are proving to be resilient occupiers of university places.

What the UCAS data does

The latest UCAS data release includes an“experimental data explorer” which enables anyone to graph trends in a variety of factors relevant to equality in university access. Setting the parameters to Scottish institutions and SIMD provides data just on Scottish-domiciled students at Scottish universities. It tells a story of dramatic change, due to policy intervention.

Offer rates

The offer rate is the proportion of applications made from a particular group which resulted in an offer from a university.

Here it is for Scottish 18 year olds, applying to Scottish universities.screenshot-2017-01-30-at-00-42-13

This shows that in 2013, applications from SIMD 1 and 2 (the 40% most disadvantaged areas) went from having the lowest offer rates to doing as well as those from SIMD 5 (the least disadvantaged 20%).  In 2014, this continued, so much so that SIMD 2 applications had the highest offer rate of any group.  In 2015 and 2016, their offer rates fell back, as these did across the board, but remained as high as for those in SIMD 5 and SIMD 4.

SIMD 5 offer rates have held up pretty well over the same period: they are still as high as they were in 2012.  Much the same is true for SIMD 4, though  there are signs of a slightly sharper drop in the past year: they are now a little below their 2012 level.

It is applications from SIMD 3 areas – the 20% in the middle – which now sit at the bottom of the table, and have seen the clearest decline over the period.

Actual vs expected offers rates

Behind this, UCAS provides an even more revealing graph. This considers how the actual offer rate for a particular group compares with what would have been expected from the overall level of offers that year, based simply on candidates’ grades and choices of course. As I recall, this statistic was first produced in response to the concern that some ethnic minority groups were getting fewer offers than their grades and choices would have predicted.  It therefore functions as a rough measure of how far the system favours, or not, certain groups.

The first chart below shows what UCAS calculates the average offer rate would have been in theory in each SIMD quintile, just based on grades and courses applied for. It shows that the likelihood of getting an offer would be expected to decrease as disadvantage rose, reflecting decreasing exam scores.


The graph below shows how the actual offer rate (the figures in the very first graph shown above) depart from this.   A positive score shows that a group has done better than their grades and course choices would predict

For Scottish 18 year-olds by SIMD, it looks like this.


This is a powerful image of positive discrimination.  From 2013, it shows SIMD 1 and 2 applications becoming much more likely to receive an offer, despite lower results. By 2014, they see the largest positive benefit of any applicants.

This doesn’t mean there was displacement by SIMD 1 or 2 entrants during this period. The improvement for SIMD 1 and 2 was due to the release of additional places ring-fenced for widening access from 2013-14 onwards. As these charts show, this meant in practice a concentrated effort on applicants from SIMD 1 and 2. To fill these extra places, universities clearly dropped their entry requirements for these applicants, but not for others, and this produces the graph above.  The UCAS site makes it easy to look at the pattern for individual institutions, and this confirms that this effect is due to changes in the data for those universities which received the extra places (see here).  You’ll rarely see the impact of a specific policy intervention illustrated so unambiguously.

The falling lines for SIMD 3 and SIMD 4 show that ordinarily these groups would be expected to benefit from a fall in the average entry requirements, because they include a fair number of people with less strong results. But in this case, they didn’t, as these lower entry requirements were limited to more disadvantaged groups. But the larger issue for these groups has been the absence of any growth in places more generally, as general demand has risen. SIMD 3 in particular are the only group to have started and ended the period less likely to receive an offer than expected.

SIMD 5 meantime turn out to have had a historic advantage in terms of higher-than-expected offer rates, which has fallen since 2012 but persists (in contrast to SIMD 4). Life is not much disturbed in McKenna’s arboreal districts. They are a resilient group, due to a combination of stronger exam results and – this graph suggests – some additional advantage they enjoy in obtaining offers (which could be something as simple as getting better advice on the tactics of applications).

Looking ahead

Further extra places are not promised (there was some controversy a year ago over the future of the targeted places scheme).

From here on, it seems more likely that any growth in participation by those from disadvantaged areas will involve constraining admissions from another. From the graphs above, who looks most vulnerable?

The latest UCAS statistics suggest that far from there being a single homogenous “advantaged” group, serious advantage is more resilient than the moderate form.

To loosen the grip of the most privileged on the university system, to “displace” them, would almost certainly require policies as focussed on that group, as recent policies have been on SIMD 1 or 2: limits on the numbers who can be recruited, financial penalties on universities for over-recruitment, substantial financial incentives for such students to go elsewhere (to do the apprenticeships increasingly promoted as equaivalent to degrees, for example).  Without such policies, which it’s hard to see any politician enacting,  a government might be a champion of the poor, but it is unlikely to disturb the wealthiest much.

The assumption made by Kevin McKenna, and others, still too often seems to be that in a system that isn’t growing,  adding more people from very disadvantaged backgrounds  will some how force out those from the opposite end –  like a single strike on a Newton’s cradle. But that doesn’t take into account how effectively serious socio-economic advantage defends itself. The UCAS data here suggests we should imagine something more like a pouch of liquid in a vice. There will be one group protected by government intervention (rightly) and another by their families, squeezing a less well-protected group. This will typically contain first or second generation students from modestly-funded state schools with average catchments, perhaps limited family knowledge of HE, capable but not clutching straight As.  It would be ironic if people concerned about social justice were so transfixed by the idea of getting one over the rich, that they failed to notice it was these people who face the greatest squeeze.



Footnote 1: Offers are only part of the story

This data is dramatic, but is only one part of the story that gets someone into university. Offers can be rejected, exams not yet sat can disappoint (although in Scotland, more offers have traditionally been based on existing Highers results), people can change their mind just at the point they are due to start. The offer rate is however worth examining in isolation because it is the part of the system which most directly reflects decisions at university level.  The data explorer does also provide information on placed applicants per 10,000 population by SIMD, but this is affected by variations in the application rate in each group over time.

Footnote 2: All-age data

For those at all ages, UCAS only provides data on the offer rate (the first  graph above). That shows less dramatic change once older applicants are included, implying that for applicants through UCAS, the policy intervention was concentrated on school leavers. This data will include some of those who started at college on an HN-level course, and then moved to university. However, only some of these cases will go through UCAS. Including this group might well alter the picture again, as a number of the ring-fenced access places were for articulating students.


Footnote 3: Are there alternatives to funding more places? 

This piece for The Herald discusses in more detail what other safety valves there are in the system. One ought to be a temporary fall in the number of 18 year olds, although that is not having as much effect as might be expected. The most substantial change would be EU/EEA students ceasing to be entitled to SG-funded places, post-Brexit.

Baby boxes – what’s happening in the rest of the UK (and elsewhere)?

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.”

Flipboard 11 April 2016

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: ColchesterSandwell and West BirminghamNorth 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.

The Dad Network 5 Septmeber 2016

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.”

Edmonton Gazette and Advertiser 8 September 2016

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”.

Independent Nurse 1 July 2016

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.’

Independent Nurse 1 July 2016

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.

Working Mother 18 April 2016

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.

Axial Made in the Middle “2016 Growth 100” [undated]

“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.

Business Insider 1 July 2016

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.)Screenshot 2017-01-13 at 08.52.39.png

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.

CBC 4 January2016

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.”

CBC 9 January 2016

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.

TVO 2 August 2016

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. ….

The Baby Box Co.’s Chief Education Offer Jennifer Weber also expressed excitement over the company’s partnership with Vroom, a Bezos Family Foundation project.

PR Newswire 10 May2016

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.

TVO 2 August 2016

United States

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:Screenshot 2017-01-13 at 22.12.26.png

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.

TheBaby Box Co

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.” 23 September2016

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:


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.

The Dad Network 5 September 2016

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

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.

… 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.

Change for Children NewZealand FAQs

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  herehere,  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.

Little Un Baby 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.




Trying to read the draft Scottish budget for 2017-18 … with difficulty

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.

Baby boxes

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”.


Extract from draft budget 2017-18 (under Table6.04)

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.

screenshot-2017-01-02-at-22-58-06The 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.

University funding

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.

So why were student grants cut in Scotland in 2013-14?

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.



Trends in student grant across the UK, 2012-13 to 2015-16: England’s last hurrah, and Scotland still a cause for worry

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.

Numbers claiming

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.





Average student borrowing across the UK in 2015-16: not as different as you might expect

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.

Source: Table 4D for England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Table A6 for Scotland.

Note: maintenance grants have been abolished in England for new entrants from this autumn. These figures pre-date that change.



Small untruths matter too

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 mystery of Scotland’s disappearing low income students

The Scottish Government published its annual student support statistics yesterday, covering 2015-16. Link here:

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.

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
All 51,515
YSB 33,150 32,310 30,480
ISB 17,400 16,985 16,135
Total 51,515 50,550 49,295 46,615
Year-year change -1.87% -2.48% -5.44%
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.

How good is SIMD as a basis for setting HE access targets?

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.

A picture of education inequality


Here, thanks to the underlying data provided as part of last week’s new version of SIMD, is one picture of what education inequality looks like in modern Scotland.


The graph above takes the 6,976 small areas (“datazones”)  into which Scotland is divided to calculate SIMD scores, but looks only at the single indicator which measures the proportion of all those aged 17 to 21 in each datazone who started in full-time degree-level study. The figures are available for all but three datazones.

The data used are available here (under “indicator data”) and cover the period 2012/13 to 2014/15.  The full description of the indicator is at page 48 here.

Interestingly the SG explains that “study at degree level has been chosen as this level provides the highest gains in future earning potential and reduces double counting of students that progress from HND to degree”.  This means that in its own measure of disadvantage, the SG chooses to exclude college-level HE (which it often elides with university-level study) not just on technical grounds, but also on grounds of lack of equivalence. Worth noting in passing.

What does this graph tell us?  Most obviously, that the position is generally skewed towards lower levels of entry.

The thick black vertical line marks the median value – that is, the mid-point of the distribution, where one-half of areas are to the left, and the other half to the right. It has a value of 7% (0.07/1). The dotted line marks the point at which three-quarters of all areas are to the left, and just one-quarter are to the right: its value is 11.3%. At the green line, just one-in-ten areas are to the right: it has a value of 16%.

So this graph shows how unequally distributed early, direct entry to university in Scotland remains by area (it tells us nothing about individuals’ circumstances).  The 10% of areas with the highest values sit between 16% and 43% (excluding an outlier at 63%).  Meanwhile, half the country lies at 7% or below, and three-quarters is below 11.3%.  The bottom quarter (not marked) all lie at 4% or below.

You could argue, rightly, that chopping up Scotland along different lines, or using a smaller number of larger areas, would produce a slightly different result (using larger areas ought to reduce the number with very low or high results, for example). But the broad picture?  It wouldn’t change much.

Yesterday the Scottish Government confirmed in its Plan for Scotland  that:

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.

This graph is one illustration of quite how big a challenge that represents.

How far “deprived communities” as measured by SIMD as a whole map on to those with the lowest direct young entry rates to university can also be worked out from this data – a post on that may follow.

Technical note

The full technical definition of the indicator is at  page 48 here.
NB These percentages are unique to this measure, and not comparable with ones quoted elsewhere. For example, they are not an “age participation rate”. They record instead that in half the areas no more than 7% of all local 17 to 21 year olds started a full-time degree – but some of those 17 to 21 year olds may already have been at university. The value of these numbers lies in allowing us to compare the variation in entry rates across the country.

School leaver destinations: HE still popular in 2014, but less “sticky”

The SG’s annual statistics on school leaver destinations were published yesterday. The information is collected via surveys in September and March and, among other things, provides  a snap shot of how well initial entry into HE holds up for this group after a few months.

Two figures are provided: an initial percentage going into HE and a “follow up” percentage, which catches those who are still there the following March. Very few HE courses can be completed in that time, so the drop between the two figures is likely to reflect those who started a course but decided not to complete it, for whatever reason.

A single “HE” destination figure is used, which combines entry into college to do an HNC/D with entry into university. The figures don’t allow anything to be said about either of those categories separately.  College entry will account for around one-third of the figure.

The figures (see table at foot of post) show:

  • A very similar percentage of school leavers went into some form of HE in 2014 as in the previous year (38.8% vs 39% the previous year)
  • But the percentage still there a few months later was noticeably lower (36.8% vs 38.2% last year)
  • The attrition rate from HE was therefore 5.4% (-1,106, more than double the equivalent number in the previous year), much higher than in the past couple of years, but very similar to 2010/11.
  • The absolute number initially entering some form of HE was the highest for any year shown (and probably for any year), as the total number of school leavers rose.  The number still there a few months later is a little below the previous year.


As the table below shows, there was a large rise in those moving into employment between the initial and follow-up surveys – over 3,000 more were in employment  by the time of the follow up.

FE numbers also see a (much larger) fall, so it’s likely that the figures reflect more young people leaving education for employment, for whatever reason – there will be push and pull.

The drop in FE is large enough to mean that the proportion still in either FE or HE by March was last lower in 2010/11, and the 9.3% drop in combined FE/HE participation between initial and follow-up is much the largest in the period covered.

So these figures show that interest in going into HE (and FE) held up in 2014, but that both were considerably less “sticky” than in the previous couple of years, for some reason.

You’d want to be incredibly wary of pinning any causal relationship against that. But simply as a change, it’s interesting to observe. The evidence that in 2014-15 young people were more likely to fall out of post-school education early, compared to the recent past, is therefore no more than a straw in the wind at the moment, but one we probably shouldn’t let blow past entirely unnoticed.

The table below is  Table 2  of the SG statistical release, with some additional calculations added – those are marked in bold.

2010/11 2011/12
Initial Follow Up2 Change Initial Follow Up2 Change
Destination Category
Higher Education (%) 36.3 34.4 -5.2% 37.8 36.1 -4.5%
Higher Education (nos) 19382 18320 -1062 18804 17909 -894
Further Education 27.1 24.6  -9.2% 26.6 24.8  -6.8%
HE & FE 63.4 59.0 -6.9% 64.4 60.9 -5.4%
Training 5.4 3.3 4.5 3.6
Employment 19.2 23.8 24.0% 19.8 23.9 20.7%
Voluntary Work 0.5 0.5 0.4 0.5
Activity Agreement1 0.5 0.6 0.9 0.7
Unemployed seeking 9.5 10.2 8.1 8.1
Unemployed Not Seeking 1.2 1.6 1.3 1.8
Unknown 0.3 0.9 0.4 0.6
Positive Destinations 89.0 87.2 90.1 89.6
Number of Leavers 53,394 53,255 49,745 49,610


2012/13 2013/14
Initial Follow Up2 Change Initial Follow Up2 Change
Destination Category
Higher Education (%) 37.1 36.9 -0.5% 39.0 38.2 -2.1%
Higher Education (nos) 19161 19009 -152 20052 19594 -458
Further Education 27.7 24.5  -11.6% 26.3 24.3  -7.6%
HE & FE 64.8 61.4 -5.2% 65.3 62.5 -4.3%
Training 4.8 3.1 4.0 2.5
Employment 20.4 24.6 20.6% 21.7 25.5 17.5%
Voluntary Work 0.5 0.5 0.4 0.4
Activity Agreement1 1.3 0.9 1.0 0.7
Unemployed seeking 6.9 7.6 6.2 6.5
Unemployed Not Seeking 1.1 1.6 1.1 1.5
Unknown 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.3
Positive Destinations 91.7 90.4 92.5 91.7
Number of Leavers 51,647 51,515 51,416 51,293


Initial Follow Up2 Change
Destination Category
Higher Education (%) 38.8 36.8 -5.2%
Higher Education (nos) 20367 19260 -1106
Further Education 27.6 23.4 -15.2%
HE & FE 66.4 60.2 -9.3%
Training 3.8 2.7
Employment 21.4 27.8 29.9%
Voluntary Work 0.4 0.5
Activity Agreement1 0.9 0.7
Unemployed seeking 5.4 5.7
Unemployed Not Seeking 1.1 1.6
Unknown 0.5 0.6
Positive Destinations 93.0 92.0
Number of Leavers 52,491 52,337
1. In April 2011 the Scottish Government rolled out the use of Activity Agreements.
2. Leavers who moved outwith Scotland, were deceased or who had returned to school between the initial and follow up survey were excluded.

FM: “We must have a debate based on facts” (although they may need to be corrected later)

what I want is, Facts. … Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. .. Stick to Facts, sir! (Thomas Gradgrind, Hard Times: Charles Dickens)

…I simply pointed out what the figures actually say…. I am simply setting out factually for the chamber what the figures actually say. I think that that is the appropriate thing to do…. the numbers from our most deprived communities are up 10 per cent—up 10 per cent for applications and up 10 per cent for entries. That is simply a fact, and it is a fact that is in these figures….instead of arguing over the facts—and we cannot argue over these facts, because they are what they are ... (FM at FMQs Thursday, 9 June 2016)

The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The fact the FM was particularly keen to discuss on 9 June – she quoted the figure at three different points  – was that

when we look at the figures for people of all ages we see that the numbers from the most deprived areas who are both applying to university and being accepted are up in 2015 compared with 2014, in both cases by about 10 per cent.

This post (from the day of FMQs) explained why that 10% was not a real increase and the actual figure was likely to be much lower.

This number was taken from a new data release by UCAS. It was held up as more meaningful than the 7% fall between 2014 and 2015 in the number of 18 year olds entering university through UCAS from the most deprived areas, which had emerged  unexpectedly from the same set of figures. The FM described this figure as having “dropped slightly” and as “a slight decline”.

Jump forward to Tuesday 14 June and there is this (government inspired) written parliamentary answer:

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (Scottish National Party): To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the additional data published by the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) on 10 June 2016 clarifying that the scope of its undergraduate scheme for providers in Scotland increased in 2015 to include courses previously recruited through the postgraduate UCAS Teacher Training scheme and there has been variability in the recording of very late acceptances from cycle to cycle. (S5W-00737)

Shirley-Anne Somerville:

The Scottish Government welcomes the publication of this additional data by UCAS clarifying the scope of the previously published figures, including those referenced by the First Minister at First Minister’s Questions on 9 June 2016. We also welcome that the figures continue to show that, even accounting for the issues UCAS subsequently clarified, the number of people of all ages accepted through UCAS to Scottish universities from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland increased from 4,020 in 2014 to 4,075 in 2015, an increase of 1.4%. The increase since 2010 is 17.6%.

Note: the UCAS update increases the reported fall in 18 year olds placed applicants, to 7.5%.

It’s right that the Scottish Government moved quickly to correct the record, but it is odd to suggest that the additional information provided by UCAS on the Friday was new. The SG’s own press office was aware in January 2015 of the issue with the increase between 2014 and 2015, saying then:

Today’s UCAS publication suggests a 10 per cent rise in Scots-domiciled applications. However, much of the rise is due to the inclusion of teacher training courses at Scottish universities in the UCAS undergraduate scheme for the first time this year. The comparable year-on-year figure is a rise of one per cent as per the figures noted above.

UCAS had also highlighted the issues in its end of cycle report in December 2015:

In 2014, there were fewer late acceptances to Scotland recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers, meaning that comparing acceptances with 2014 may not give an accurate measure of change. Also, a large set of teacher training courses at providers in Scotland were recruited through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme for the first time in 2015, having previously been recruited through UCAS Teacher Training. These two factors are estimated to account for around 3,800 of the 4,400 increase in acceptances to providers in Scotland in 2015 compared with 2014.

The Scottish Government’s press notice of 22 December 2015 welcoming the report  noted:

Record number of Scots were accepted to university – 34,775, an increase of over 900 (3 per cent) after taking account of changes to the coverage of UCAS data

In her contribution to FMQs, the FM said:

I have studied the figures in some detail, as people would expect me to have done

For the most senior member of the government, with all the extraordinary and unenviable responsibility that entails, people would surely expect that studying numbers in detail would include taking advice from people within the government machine who know how to read the numbers in question and can flag up any potential mis-reading. The press and therefore presumably also the government received advance copies of the latest UCAS report under embargo.

It has to be assumed from this case either that the system for briefing the First Minister before the most closely watched and widely reported event of the parliamentary week does not operate with the checks and balances that would have alerted the First Minister to the problem with her key “fact” in this case; or else that the collective institutional memory of the SG in this area is less than 6 months old, or resides in so few people that there’s very little to prevent such a large error making it all the way to the FM’s script.  Any of these options have implications well beyond this one issue.


On 9 June, the First Minister said,

I am not saying that the figures are wrong. I am simply setting out factually for the chamber what the figures actually say.

when asked to comment on the (now clarified)  7.5% single year fall in the number going straight to university at age 18 from the most deprived 20% areas in Scotland. That remains a bona fide, UCAS confirmed, surprising fact and as such it deserves some further attention.


Ironic footnote

In the same FMQ session, the FM was critical of the Labour Education spokesman for releasing set of figures over the weekened which wrongly suggested that the number of women taking science and computing at highers level had fallen. Here’s how the FM approached this, placing further rhetorical emphasis on the concept of “facts” and introducing a further one – “distortion”:

I think that the question is whether Iain Gray did that deliberately, or whether the Labour education spokesman did not know that highers were being reformed. Frankly, I am not sure which would be worse….

She added:

I hope that Labour and the Scottish National Party can be allies on the education agenda, but we must have a debate based on facts, not on distortions.

Let me underline what Labour did at the weekend. It compared the numbers of girls going into STEM subjects in 2007 with the figures for 2015. It took 2007 as the baseline, when young people sat only highers. It then went to 2015 and counted only the old highers; it did not include the new highers or the revised highers that are replacing the old highers. Labour then went to the media on the basis of that information and said that there was a fall in the number of girls studying those science subjects. That was flatly wrong; it was a distortion of the reality. Frankly, it was a disgrace.

If we are going to move forward and build consensus and alliances on improving education for our young people—as I am determined to do—and if Labour wants to be part of that, let us stop the distortion and do that on the basis of facts.

HE students in colleges: the net impact of fee and grant policy since 2007

In response to some challenging statistics from UCAS on inequality in access to HE, the Scottish Government has  recently been keen to stress the important contribution of college-level HE to widening opportunities for access.

The recent Sutton Trust report (which prompted much of this reaction – I was a co-author) looks in some detail at college-level entry. The Scottish Government has taken to saying that the report is silent on this point, even though the whole of Section 4 analyses in detail the components of the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate, which takes in college as well as university HE. (See here.) The report identifies there and elsewhere  that relying too much on college entry to boost participation by the most disadvantaged raises its own equality questions.

The purpose of this post is not to go over those parts of the report.

I want instead to wonder why, if college-level HE is understood to be integral to widening participation, HN students have seen no gain at all from changes to fee policy, but have had to take the full hit on cuts to their grants? 

When the SG says that it brought in free tuition, it is referring to the abolition of the graduate endowment in 2007, which saved the students affected a bit under £3,000 at current prices.  However, almost half of undergraduate students in HE were already exempt from the graduate endowment – including all those on HN-level courses, as well as those who moved from an HN course to a university degree and took less than two years to complete that: see para 3 here.

So these students all saw no benefit from the endowment’s abolition. Those at lower incomes have however been affected by cuts to student bursary.

I have previously estimated  the real terms  value of changes to student funding between 2006-07 and 2014-15  by household income:  Figures 19 and 20 here (worth a general look, if you are interested more generally in re-distributive effect of policy in Scotland).

For those on one year HN courses, the total real terms loss in support was between just over £1,000 and £2,000 for those at the lowest incomes; and double that for those on a two-year HND.  

These students have seen the largest losses in cash support of any group per year of study: low-income young degree students were still net losers, but at least saw some benefit from the endowment’s abolition, while mature students saw a new grant introduced in 2010 (albeit that was later reduced).

The restoration (almost) of the threshold for maximum support from this autumn (to £18,999, from £16,999 – in 2012/13 it was £19,300) and the addition of £125 to YSB for those on incomes below £24,000 will  have softened this effect a little,  though the £125’s value would be off-set by inflation, if I did this again.

The only benefit offered to these students has been the opportunity to borrow more in total towards for their living costs (the “minimum income guarantee”): how far they have done so in practice is not clear.

My point is simply this – this has been a funny way for the government to show how much it values a group of students now regarded as central to the narrative on its record on widening access.



FMQs update: +10% = 1.4% (probably, not -1.7%)

Update 17:15 12 June:  Further digging in the newest UCAS numbers suggests that steps have already been taken in those to take into account the “UHI effect”, so that the further adjustment below isn’t needed to get a like-for-like effect. That’s because UCAS also excluded  category called “RPA” from the new data, which produces an adjustment which turns out to deal with the UHI dip almost exactly.

In that case, “all age” entrants for SIMD Q1 Scots in Scotland do after all see a rise, but of 1.4% (55/4020) not 10%. That still relies on all of any increase reported for SRUC being real, not administrative (see below). Non-18 years old go up by a more positive 5.4%, rather than 0.9%.

But the age 18 figures still drop by 7.5%. The analysis below did not make any further adjustment for those and used the new UCAS figures as presented.

The total like-for-like rise across all Scottish domiciles of all backgrounds in Scotland shown in the new UCAS figures is 2% (595/27,770).

However, if these figures do include all of the increase of 445 for SRUC,  which more than doubled its reported entrants from 335 to 780, then that would be doing most of the work here: in that case, the rest of the sector would have seen a like-for-like increase of around 0.5% in entrants.

Greater transparency and detail about issues affecting comparability over time when these numbers are published in the first place, and in any subsequent analyses, would really help here.

Meanwhile, I’ve corrected my initial mis-reading. Over to the SG to correct its rather larger one …

Original post below

The post linked here drew attention to a wrong reading of UCAS data by the First Minister at last week’s FMQs.  It explained why the increase in the numbers going to university in Scotland from the most deprived areas between 2014 and 2015 was likely to be well below the 10% quoted.  Some further data released by UCAS yesterday, plus a more detailed reading of the data already released, makes it possible to be more specific.  There was in fact a slight fall in the numbers.

The problem with the 10% is that, as both UCAS and the SG have both previously flagged up,  it includes the effect of things which have nothing to do with changes in actual student numbers. One is the switching of initial teacher training in Scotland into the main UCAS scheme (it was not counted in these numbers before); the other is the apparent one-off omission by unnamed institutions (it turns out to be due mainly to one) to record most of those admitted later in the process, in 2014 only.

UCAS have just put out some supplementary information which shows how the acceptance figures look if initial undergraduate teacher training (UTT) is removed from them, for each SIMD (deprivation)  quintile – giving the true underlying pattern, and incidentally also putting the figures on the same basis as those for the other UK nations, which continue to use a separate scheme for UTT.

Separately, a careful look at the detailed information provided for individual institutions reveals that the institution whose figures dipped spectacularly in 2014 was the University of the Highlands and Islands. Again, it is now possible to show how that affected each SIMD quintile (see table below).

Putting all this together confirms that these effects had little impact on 18 year olds in SIMD1 (the most deprived 20%). For them, a like-for-like comparison shows there was a 7.5% fall in the numbers entering via UCAS, a small change from the 6.9%  fall the original UCAS figures showed.

This is five times the general fall in the age group  (-1.6%) and really shouldn’t be quickly dismissed with references to other age groups, college entry etc –  on any reading, this is a significant fall in the number of 18 year olds from the most deprived  areas who were able to take advantage of the most direct route to university between 2014 and 2015. It needs noticing and understanding, not downplaying.

Moreover, as predicted, there is a very significant effect when the “all age” figures are looked at. The 10% increase becomes a 1.7% like-for-like drop.

UCAS has previously suggested that there was a small increase in total main scheme acceptances for Scots, even after allowing for the two effects above (which they estimated accounted for four-fifths of acceptances). This seems to be explained by the 150 more Scots who went to other parts of the UK, plus two Scottish institutions not included in the latest numbers. Both of these saw some increase in Scots admitted: Glasgow School of Art (195, up from 185) and particularly Scotland’s Rural College (780, up from 335 – although there was only an increase of 50 in the College’s SFC funded places between the two years, so it is possible most of this increase reflects another administrative change, rather than an actual growth in numbers – that needs more explanation).

As the table below shows, there is a little  bit of better news if only those not aged 18 are considered. There was a slight like-for-like rise in the number  of non-18 year old SIMD1 students entering through UCAS, of just under 1%.  But it wasn’t enough to off-set the larger fall in 18 year olds.

Technical note

The table below shows the calculations.

Scotland: SIMD 1 (most deprived 20%), excluding UTT

2014 2015 Change Of which UHI data correction Net like for like change % like for like change
18 1265 1170 -95 0 -95 -7.5%
Rest 2755 2905 150 125 25 0.9%
All ages 4020 4075 55 125 -70 -1.7%

2014 and 2015 figures for age 18 and “all ages” from here. Change  and “not 18” calculated from these.

UHI data correction estimated from university-level report here , Table P.25

UHI: Scottish domiciled, all placed applicants, all ages, all quintiles

2012 2013 2014 2015
All SIMD quintiles, all ages 2030 2290 615 2525
Change from previous year 260 -1675 1910

UHI: Scottish domiciled, all placed applicants, Quintile 1

2012 2013 2014 2015 Change 2014-15
165 240 60 205 145

The simplest assumption to make is that the 2014 figure was under-declared by 145 (180 could be used, based on a comparison with 2013, but that year is unusually high). However, this number will include some new UTT cases as well (probably around 20, based on looking at the total increase in UTT at UHI of 210 – see here – and working out that around 10% of the UTT intake is SIMD1, by comparing the figures with and without UTT).  To avoid double-counting these, 145 has been reduced to 125. (None of this appears to affect 18 year olds.)

This means the increase of 55 shown in the  new figures needs reducing further, by 125,before the figures are like-for-like, giving a reduction of 70.

By excluding the UTT numbers, any real growth in those numbers is excluded too, so there may have been some genuine increase in SIMD1 due to that, but I can’t see a reliable way to identify that from the available numbers and there’s no obvious evidence at first sight of any substantial growth in UTT.

Conversely, the University of the West of Scotland also saw a noticeable dip in 2014, but it was smaller (3680/3255/3905) and the pattern for Q1 is different (900/940/1065), so none of the UWS Q1 increase between 2014 and 2015 has been treated here as due to changes in recording practice – but it is possible some of it may be.









FMQs: 10% that’s not 10%

In a discussion of some new figures out today from UCAS (full of interesting things and worth their own separate piece), the First Minister reportedly said earlier (according to the BBC):

The more fundamental point is that not everyone who goes to university goes at 18, so when you look at the figures for people of all ages, the numbers from the most deprived areas both applying to and being accepted to university is up in 2015 compared to 2014, in both cases by about 10%.
This is a problematic representation of the figures. Back in January 2015, discussing the emerging application numbers for 2015, in its “Notes to Editors”  the Scottish Government’s commendably clear and accurate  press notice   explained that:
Today’s UCAS publication suggests a 10 per cent rise in Scots-domiciled applications. However, much of the rise is due to the inclusion of teacher training courses at Scottish universities in the UCAS undergraduate scheme for the first time this year. The comparable year-on-year figure is a rise of one per cent as per the figures noted above.
The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2015, published after the whole process was complete, added at page 26:
In 2014, there were fewer late acceptances to Scotland recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers, meaning that comparing acceptances with 2014 may not give an accurate measure of change. Also, a large set of teacher training courses at providers in Scotland were recruited through the UCAS Undergraduate scheme for the first time in 2015, having previously been recruited through UCAS Teacher Training. These two factors are estimated to account for around 3,800 of the 4,400 increase in acceptances to providers in Scotland in 2015 compared with 2014.

The UCAS figures above turn a reported 10.4% increase in acceptances into one of 1.4%.

Today’s  UCAS figures show  at age 18 a fall of 3% in the numbers applying in SIMD1 (most deprived 20%) and a rise in the other 4 quintiles. Acceptances have fallen by 7% for 18 year olds from the most deprived 20% [correction to earlier version, which said they were down for all quintiles – they are up for the other 4]. The number of 18 year olds in Scotland will have fallen by around 1.6% over the period, by way of important context.

But there are increases in applicants and acceptances across all of the SIMD groups when all ages are taken into account.  The teacher training and late acceptance issues identified by UCAS are disproportionately relevant to older groups. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the large increases seen in the all-age data, in all groups, will be driven heavily  by these data issues, and not by real change on the ground.

To suggest therefore that there was a 10% increase in 2015 in the numbers applying and accepted from the most deprived backgrounds, once all ages are taken into account,  gives a misleading impression.  The like-for-like story, even once all ages are taken into account, will be quite different.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell on a quick check , UCAS has not repeated its warning about 2014 to 2015 comparability for Scotland in its latest publication – yet it’s a very significant point, and at least as relevant as some other comparability issues UCAS flags up. It looks possible that whoever constructed the FM’s brief may have come a cropper over this.

It’s my guess  therefore that the arcane-sounding, but fundamentally important, issues affecting data comparability may not have been drawn to the FM’s attention. But someone really should now, and to the Parliament and media, before this reading of the data acquires any currency. Because the last thing we need is reasons to downplay challenging numbers, when they are more likely than not to be telling us something important.

Cometh the hour … cometh the ideas?

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?

The Holyrood class of 2016: some evidence that not all HE is equal

[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  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.

Of these:

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)
Oliver Mundell Edinburgh
Gordon Lindhurst Edinburgh
Finlay Carson Aberdeen
Ross Thomson Aberdeen
Dean Lockhart Glasgow
Adam Tompkins University of East Anglia/LSE
Donald Cameron Oxford
Jeremy Balfour Edinburgh (part-time/London Bible College
Miles Briggs Robert Gordon University
Rachel Hamilton Harpers Adams University
Maurice Golden Dundee

Alexander Burnett

Liam Kerr




St Andrews/Edinburgh


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
Peter Chapman Farmer/businessman
Graham Simpson “Journalist since leaving school”
Alexander Stewart Worked in retail/own business
Annie Wells Retail manager
Brian Whittle Professional athlete
 No info  (3)
Douglas Ross


SNP University  or degree specified (9)
Gillian Martin Glasgow
Jenny Gilruth Glasgow
Tom Arthur Glasgow
Mairi Evans Aberdeen
Fulton McGregor Strathclyde/Edinburgh
Kate Forbes Cambridge
Ash Denham Keele/OU
Jeanne Freeman Glasgow College of Technology (became Glasgow Caledonian University)
 Ben McPherson  York/Edinburgh
College (1)
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
Emma Harper Nurse
No info (2)
Ivan McKee
Rona MacKay
 Daniel Johnson   St Andrews/Strathclyde
Monica Lennon  Strathclyde
Profession specified which implies university  (2)
Colin Smyth   Teacher

Richard Leonard




Andy Wightman (Aberdeen) and Ross Greer, who attended Strathclyde, but left early to become a campaigner.

Lib Dem

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Aberdeen).




The new Education Minister for Scotland: a job description

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.


Statistics coming up over next two months

A quick round-up of statistics due to be published between now and the summer relevant to access, participation and funding in HE in Scotland.

Any time soon: Learning for All – Scottish Funding Council

Information on widening access across the University and College sectors in Scotland, thereby supporting SFC’s strategy for widening access.

Last published in March 2015, date currently to be confirmed, but must be likely before the summer.


16 June: Student Loans for Higher Education in Scotland: financial year 2015-16  – Student Loans Company

Figures for Scotland, with parallel publications for the other UK nations, showing how average and total lending has changed over the past year.


14 July: Applicant statistics as of 30 June deadline (all courses)  – UCAS 

Series of detailed analysis tables of applicants at the June deadline covering applicant age, sex, country and subject. An interim release also due on 26 May, but June figures likely to be more reliable.


Looking further ahead:

Annual statistics on student support in Scotland, due in October.


Also of interest for education more generally noted as SG forthcoming publications: see

31 May 2016  Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (Numeracy) 2015.  Information on national performance in numeracy in the broad general education. Also captures teachers views on the implementation of numeracy in CfE.

22 June 2016: Summary Statistics for Attainment, Leaver Destinations and Healthy Living, Summary Statistics for Attainment, Leaver Destinations and Healthy Living No.6: 2016 Edition. A compendium publication with summary information on initial and follow-up destinations of school leavers and their qualifications. Information on school meals and physical education provision is also included in this publication.