Skip to content

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.


What the 2016 manifestos say about student funding in Scotland

The table linked here – Policy table SP elections 2016 party summaries -pulls together all the material I can find in the 2016 manifestos relevant to this blog’s general interest in student funding in HE.   It’s a bit unwieldy and may still be incomplete – feel free to alert me to any major omissions or errors.

The table is organised in two parts. The first looks at how far the parties covered the issues which were identified in advance in this post – A framework for reading the manifestos on student funding –  as potentially interesting.  The second part covers other points raised by the parties and not anticipated in the earlier post.  The table shows that most of the issues identified as possible areas for proposals have been picked up by at least one party.

A few quick initial observations on particular points.


Student grant was so low down the political agenda in Scotland by the start of the last parliament that the SNP in government identified it as a soft target for cuts in 2012 and managed, for quite some time and with the help of the then NUS leadership, to keep that out of public debate. Things have changed. Labour, the Lib Dems and RISE all promise to reverse the SNP’s grant cuts. The Conservatives imply there will be higher grants for poorer students. The SNP will “work to improve” bursaries.

The SNP’s new interest in grant has probably been prompted by some combination of: opposition refusal to let the issue go, increased media interest over time, a change of approach by NUS and – least upliftingly, perhaps – by the decision to cut grants in England from this autumn, making this suddenly a “Scottish distinctiveness” issue.  Whatever has done it, it seems that further cuts to grants are at least unlikely.

However, a huge unknown lies in the SNP promise of a review of student funding to make it “fairer”, particularly between FE and HE students. While all the parties committing to better grants have identified a mechanism to fund them (tax increases for Labour, Lib Dems and RISE, a graduate contribution for the Conservatives), the SNP’s headache lies in having to pack all its commitments into a UK-derived budget facing real terms cuts, with no plans for substantial new revenue raising within Scotland to compensate.

Unequal debt sharing

Labour and RISE have both commented during the campaign on the unfairness of the skewing of student debt towards poorer students. A “fairer” system of student support might be expected to address this, but there remains as yet no recognition by the SNP that this is an equity issue.

The inequitable situation where mature first-time HE students get less grant and more debt than younger ones remains one the main parties are reluctant to acknowledge (it would be very costly to address). Mature first time HE students are far more likely to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds, so this is an especially anti-social justice situation. The SNP’s funding review, in one part of their manifesto but not in another, appears to be limited to age 16 to 24 support. The SNP’s strong association of education policy with youth deserves a post in its own right. Here, I will simply welcome that one party (RISE) has picked up the lower grant for mature students as a problem which deserves addressing.

Loan scheme

An increase in the loan repayment threshold is promised by all four main parties, addressing a serious deficiency of the current Scottish arrangements for debt repayment, which means low earners are hit particularly hard in Scotland. The SNP and Labour also undertake to reduce the period after which debt is written off from 35 to 30 years, bringing Scotland into line with the rest of the UK. This should all be affordable from within the student loan subsidy provided to the SG by the UK government, which at present appears not to be fully used.  The arguments for these changes were first made on this site in March 2014 – see here – and have been made since by the Liberal Democrats and the NUS. These would be straightforwardly positive moves.

An oddity here is the SNP’s description of this as saving low earners at least £180 a year. For low earners just over the current threshold of £17,495 the saving will be much less (e.g. at £18,000 earnings, £500 @ 9p in the pound = £45). But for those close to the proposed new figure of £22,000, the saving will be higher (at £21,500, £4,000 @ 9p in the pound = £360). For everyone earning over £22,000, there’s a short-term saving of c£400 a year. The long-term savings will be greatest for those who are lower life-time earners: others will simply pay off their whole debt as before, but more slowly.  How this has been presented in the manifesto is a small point, but may reveal some perceived need in the party to find something in its student funding policy which can be presented as targeted on poorer people. These  – emphatically – are proportionately the biggest gainers here in the short- and long-term, especially those who are life-time low earners. But they are not the only ones, and the decision not to identify the benefit to a larger group is worth noticing.


The NUS has been campaigning hard on better support for students in FE and this is reflected in many of the manifestos.  The one to watch here is whether the SNP’s interest in making HE and FE student support more similar implies introducing loans into the system for FE students.  It is difficult to see any other way of increasing FE students’ total support which could be affordable. But that would almost certainly mean that the Scottish student loan book became even more inequitably distributed by income.  One to watch.

Commission on Widening Access

The COWA proposals appear to have received a fair amount of cross-party endorsement, although they are not much discussed in detail. A Commissioner for Widening Access, ambitious targets (how achievable is a different issue) and a different entrance threshold for some students all seem likely to be on the way.

The Greens

The Greens are worth a specific mention because to this reader their manifesto was surprisingly thin on student funding (but you can judge for yourself: page 10 here), for a party making a strong general pitch to students. Like some other parties, it offers general support for the NUS Scotland election campaign  and the Commission on Widening Access proposals: but more than others it seems to rest its case on that. In particular, of the parties likeliest to be in a position to offer parliamentary opposition to an expected SNP government, the Scottish Greens  are alone in saying nothing about the need to restore or improve student grant specifically, maintaining a lack of interest in this particular issue which continues to position them very differently from their counterparts at Westminster (see here). They also have no position in their manifesto on the detail of the loan scheme (or even indeed free tuition, although their support for that can be assumed from statements elsewhere).

Missing issues

A couple of issues which have not been picked up are worth mentioning.The total number of places in HE and total university funding are on no-one’s agenda, other than the Conservatives, who would use some of the proceeds of their proposed graduate contribution to make more places available [Update:  I initially missed a promise by the Greens to “create more opportunities for everyone who wants to gain a place at college or university”, which seems to imply extra places.]. There’s every sign that just as squeezing grant was seen as the acceptable way to help balance the books in the last parliament, university funding (at  minimum, not increasing it in line with rising demand for places, and with pressure to improve access) is seen as the soft target for 2016 to 2021.  There’s some tricky stuff lurking in that particular woodshed in the years ahead, unless we accept that around one-third of applicants – the proportion rejected last year – were fundamentally misguided about their “ability to learn”.

Related to that, getting no-one’s sympathy at all are those who leave Scotland to study. No party shows any interest in following the Welsh model of a portable fee grant (even though the SNP suggests funding should be blind as to where students study – but that seems to be in the context of FE vs HE level courses). But this has potential to become a harder issue for the politicians to avoid as the competition for places here tightens.

Also related to that, the length of time students spend getting a degree does not get mentioned, whether the lack of alternatives to 4 year honours courses, or the number of students moving from HN to degree programmes who are expected to repeat one or more years, leading to 5 or 6 year programmes. The time taken to get through the system  matters increasingly when the number of opportunities to do so is falling behind demand, with limited non-repayable living cost support at low incomes.  Other groups not meriting mention are those part-timers excluded from free tuition by mean-testing and postgraduates (excepting a reference in the SNP manifesto which as drafted describes what already happens).

Final comments

On the basis of these documents, there’s much more to be written  about what the next five years could hold for student funding in Scotland (and university funding too). But that will have to wait. The immediate observation to be made is that, with considerable help from the Commission on Widening Access and the NUS, the parties have collectively put forward a wider-ranging set of ideas in this area than we have seen for a while. There’s also quite a bit of cross-party agreement – though sometimes at a general   rhetorical level that could quickly break down when confronted with choices about translation into practice. How, and how far, all this will translate into actual changes, and what trade-offs will be made in the process, will of course be the interesting thing to watch.



For the table, I have generally kept to the manifestos and not attempted to track all the various additional comments made in interviews, leaders’ debates or reported from hustings. The only exception to this is RISE, which issued a further detailed education document a few days after their manifesto, which I have included as it is the only place  mature students get a mention.

Baby Boxes: a post-script

I wrote this post yesterday about the SNP’s announcement that every child in Scotland would have a baby box. I wasn’t necessarily against it, but there was something about the way it was justified that left unanswered questions – especially the way it was being claimed as an efficient way to reduce cot deaths, when these are already very low (around 20 a year).

There was one issue I missed, however.

Late yesterday The Baby Box Co. suddenly re-tweeted something from a discussion between a few (I hope they’ll forgive me this) un-high-profile people in Scotland about the proposal. No hashtags were involved. The company was therefore evidently taking quite a close interest in Scottish twitter activity about this. So I had a look at them.

The Baby Box company (details here) is “headquartered in Los Angeles, California with offices in UK, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, and Singapore.” It “is the first company to offer traditional Baby Boxes to consumers outside of Finland and is proud to share this special, lifesaving tradition with parents worldwide.” Also, “As of January 2016, The Baby Box Co. is working with government agencies, hospitals, tribes and non-profits in 20 U.S. States to distribute Baby Boxes for free to as many American families as possible. The Baby Box Co. also works globally on significant  initiatives; we have programs launching in 12 countries so far.”  They appear to be largely responsible for all the activity reported by the BBC here: If you look carefully, you’ll see many of the sample pictures from projects round the world accompanying the article are supplied by the company.

Boxes typically cost at least $100, pre-shipping, though it also does substantial wholesale discounts.  The company seems to be associated with the sort of strong claim made for an association between boxes and reduced cot death.

There are other companies supplying these boxes, it appears, but according to the BBC article  (and a bit of googling) not many.  The Baby Box Company is the only one I can immediately see who offers wholesale – this Finnish company is much dearer and appears to be retail only. This British one is cheaper, but again seems to operate on a smaller scale. This leaves me wondering: what, if any, commercial marketing activity has been directed at the SNP or the SG?

Yesterday’s post was a slightly baffled attempt to make sense of what seemed an oddly-justified announcement. Today’s is a reminder that just because the product has pictures of giraffes on it, is to do with babies and the idea originates in Finland, doesn’t mean the normal rules of commercial interest can’t still apply, and we shouldn’t ask the usual questions about who stands to profit, as part of understanding the origins and merits of a proposal.

It’s particularly striking that the proposal as reported is straight to a national scheme, not a smaller-scale pilot, as (according to the BBC) is being tried in London. That will immediately limit who can bid to those who can supply tens of thousands of units a year. That would be worth a lot to any organisation. Once it’s a high-profile manifesto commitment for the party which everyone knows is going to win the election, probably with an absolute majority, the course may be pretty much set.

No-one, I want to stress, is being accused here of doing anything wrong. Firms lobby for their products – it’s what they do and it’s normal. Politicians or their advisers  can be genuinely persuaded about a product. But if several million pounds of public money is going to go in this direction rather than any other, and there’s very few organisations, maybe only one, who could fulfill the commitment, I suggest it’ll be particularly important that there’s a bit of boring old cost-benefit analysis before any final decision to proceed is taken and any contract is let, however high-profile the manifesto commitment, particularly when the underlying rationale is, as in this case,  a bit confusing.

Baby boxes – a proposal which brings out best and worst of Scottish politics

There is not an obvious link between the main subject of this site – student support – and baby boxes. But in fact they do connect, via the issues of universalism, opportunity costs, larger needs and untested claims.

Baby boxes have been in the news today, with the SNP’s announcement that all parents of new babies will get a box containing  some new baby essentials, which doubles as a small bed – it will come with a mattress. This is modelled on a Finnish scheme which apparently has run since 1930s, where – the SNP highlight – infant mortality has fallen substantially since its introduction. Cot death is mentioned particularly.  This is being held up as the reason for doing this.

New parenthood can be baffling.  It was also for me the most socially levelling experience since school (and that got increasingly segregated even in a comprehensive, as we progressed up the years).  As a new parent, if you make any use at all of NHS help, ante or post-natal, you are thrown together across age and social boundaries. Keen for any advice you can get on what lies ahead?  Trouble with your baby’s feeding, or sleeping? Hanging around for weighing? Heart-broken by their response to being jagged? Just for a few months, what we had in common was far more important than what made us all different.  The very most vulnerable I probably rarely saw, but otherwise the mothers I mixed with at classes, ward and clinic were a real cross-section. But that relatively unselfconscious mingling doesn’t last forever. Quite fast, you’re less around the system and gradually the old grooves of life reassert.

So I like the idea of reinforcing that commonality for the brief time it exists, and maybe it would be nice to take advantage of the extent to which the political culture here is a bit more comfortable with the idea of celebrating that. New parents already get a box or bag of  bits and pieces for free from a commercial organisation: but some will feel a present from their fellow citizens is a more powerful welcome for their baby.

But I wouldn’t over-claim what it will achieve. Will it reduce cot death? There were (I’m told, but haven’t checked, though it’s consistent with the percentage quoted) 19 cot deaths in Scotland in the most recent year for which we have figures.  Cot deaths have substantially reduced over past decades, in the absence of a national box scheme. The highest risk of cot death is apparently between 2 and 4 months, by which time most babies are likely to have outgrown their box. So if anyone wants to justify this on the basis of reducing infant mortality, it’s fair to ask them to walk us through precisely how they see that working. The article linked further down contains a sceptical assessment from an academic about the link between baby boxes and reducing infant mortality. The initial reporting seemed to take claims about infant mortality effects at face value.

Leave that aside. There may be families who are chaotically unprepared, where this would be a non-stigmatising way of ensuring their baby had somewhere to sleep safely from the start. Good. But if you are a parent who hasn’t managed to organise a basket or cot because you can’t afford it, and can’t borrow one,  or are too fragile or vulnerable, then a short-term sleeping solution and a couple of babygrows is a pretty tiny part of what you and your baby need. If helping this group is the main aim, then what’s the rest of the strategy and how many of them do we think there are?, are important questions. Will we be getting them an actual cot at any point?

This article suggests there may be another aim: to discourage co-sleeping, which many professionals associate with cot death.  This is a very touchy area. If this is an aim the SNP should say so. Is this official policy? How will it be reflected in any assessment made of children’s wellbeing in future? This isn’t a trivial question. Some people may just be planning to co-sleep because they haven’t made alternative arrangements. But some people are very strong advocates of it, and others who have no ideological view, end up doing it, pragmatically. There are people who would contest the scarier statistics, as unduly influenced by casual (for example, drunken) rather than carefully planned co-sleeping arrangements. All I’m arguing for here is overt, not covert, aims, for not patronising people, and treating them with respect. Let’s avoid one of Scotland’s weaknesses, which is for government to function as a partner of professional lobbies (a.k.a. consensus politics with civic Scotland), rather than a broker between these and the sometimes conflicting interests of citizens. The long-standing culture of government here to govern at people, rather than with them, needs to watched for.

What about cost? There are a bit under 60,000 births in Scotland each year:  a figure of around £100 has been suggested per box (though whether this includes the cost of administration and distribution is not clear). So this might come to around £6m, or less if many people turn it down. I suspect some will. Some who have a perfectly good basket etc.  will be charmed by the lovely colourful box, use it as a downstairs baby-stashing spot or leave it at the grandparents.  Others however may well feel that their family’s journey to the point where they can afford, with however much difficulty,  everything new has been hard-fought in this and other generations, and will not be impressed by a suggestion from the government that their baby should sleep in a box. This is not decades-of-collectiveness Finland,  but a country with plenty of confident individual consumers. I was a certain kind of middle-class happy user of hand-me-downs, Oxfam and NCT sales: I met others for whom having the newest and latest really mattered – and it wasn’t always by any means people who were better off than me. The worst case, for the environment at the very least,  is that many people take the box, keep a few bits, but throw much of it away. But still, it’s not a big figure in the grand scheme of the Government accounts and perhaps some commercial sponsorship will creep in to the deal (Bounty may be keen not to lose their whole business model, after all).

And yet … you won’t have to look too hard to find the government excitedly issuing press notices about spending well below this level.  How far would £6m, or event £3m, go in, say, improving mother and baby support for women caught up in the criminal justice system.  Or increasing the availability of post-natal depression support? I just ask.

Also, somewhere in here is something I can’t quite pin down about the displacement of the personal and local. We were lent a moses basket by friends. And then a hammock – which was a bit wild, but worked for a while. It was part of the network of borrowing and lending which at its best makes early parenthood a shared experience beyond your immediate, intense, sleep-deprived world. Will the bottom fall out of that informal market in early baby sleeping kit? It’s not the strongest argument, but there is something important if elusive here. What did I most want the state to do when I had a baby? On reflection, it was to be good at helping quickly when there was an unusual need or things got particularly hard – not to displace the basic, predictable stuff I often enjoyed choosing for myself or being lent by friends.

At its worst, this could therefore be  a tokenistic feel-good universalism giving a warm glow to those not living at the edge, while brushing aside how far we still are from giving vulnerable new mothers and their babies (from all backgrounds) the support they need and diverting resources, however small, from more urgent uses. Or it could be the pursuit of unstated professional agendas about child-care packaged in a pretty box. Or a displacement of more personal, informal sharing.  At best, it’s a relatively cheap and attractive gesture to new parents to reinforce their common experience and a way of helping some very vulnerable people without marking them out. But even then let’s not over-claim what it is likely to achieve in practical terms, or deny there’s a cost or much more substantial things to do. And in all that, it turns out there’s quite a few parallels with student funding.



Note added

Grateful to the ex-pat Finn who cautions me against making generalisations about Finland and adds that in Finland new stuff is much more expensive, so that lending and second-hand is even more significant there than here. In that context,  you can see why giving everyone something new of their own for the stage where children are most likely to grow out of things fast might have particularly widespread appeal.




A framework for reading the manifestos on student funding

The parties’ proposals on student funding are starting to emerge, some in manifestos, some as trails. Manifestos are available for the Greens, Lib Dems, Conservatives, Women’s Equality Party and UKIP. Still to come of the parties represented in the last session at Holyrood are the SNP and Labour, though both have trailed elements of their proposals, Labour in most detail.  The other party getting some coverage whose manifesto is not out yet (I think) is RISE.

I’m about to start looking at what each party is saying about student funding and access to HE.  As I’m not sure how quickly I’ll get round to that, for readers interested in all this here’s a table setting out the issues I’ll be looking for, as a sign of what sort of priorities and understanding each party brings to the debate.  It’s a bit clunky on-line, so it’s attached as a document here:    Policy table SP elections 2016.

The table explains why each item is included, but also includes my best effort at the argument against. Mostly I agree with the arguments in favour (I think that’s allowed, on my own blog).  The counter-arguments have been drawn from things said by Ministers, other discussions I’ve seen or taken part in and occasionally I have added a point which I’ve not heard made but seems an obvious one. In a few cases, I can’t identify a good counter-argument (other than cost, and not even that always).

The table constitutes, I suppose, a sort of manifesto of my own for student support: it mainly summarises issues picked up somewhere on this site. Some of these points are too detailed to make it into any manifesto but are still included in the list just in case. Also, there are various things here that would be good to do in principle, but in reality choices always need to be made.  Clearly no party could therefore realistically be expected to pick up more than a few of these things – but their choices should be revealing, when set against this list.

A shameful political achievement: Scotland’s poorest now more concerned about free tuition than funding for the schools they use

IPSOS MORI Scotland has published some opinion polling about people’s priorities for the forthcoming elections (it was undertaken for the BBC).  The tables are here.

Among the questions asked were two propositions about education, selected presumably by the BBC:

Give schools with high numbers of children from poorer backgrounds more money to spend than other schools (Table 12)


Allow all students from Scotland to attend Scottish universities for free (Table 13)

The total figure of support for the question on “free university” – it averaged 8.1%, lower only than one related to the NHS – has been widely interpreted as support for free tuition specifically, although technically the question is broader. In theory, this could be showing support  just as much for having 100% grant support for living costs, which Scotland certainly does not have. It would have been clearer, therefore, if whoever set this question had asked specifically about fees, assuming that was what the BBC wanted to know about.  But this is all we have to go on. I’ll go with the widespread interpretation that these results tap mainly into the fee debate.

Here are the results by deprivation quintile (ie most deprived 20%, next most deprived 20% etc).  The percentage shown is the percentage of those responding in each quintile who rated each suggestion as at least “7” on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest importance: this follows the method used by IPSOS MORI to summarise the results. But the general pattern looks much the same if you look just at, say, those who rated the propositions “10”.

To these numbers I have added the university entry rates through UCAS at age 18 for each quintile for 2015, using SIMD data. The figures would be higher in absolute terms  if we included those doing sub-degree HE in an FE college: but (a) the BBC asked specifically about university and (b) the figures would still show the same general pattern of skew.

Most deprived Least deprived
Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q5
Extra £s for schools with poorer intake 58% 67% 56% 64% 54%
Free university attendance 86% 80% 76% 80% 74%
UCAS entry rate at age 18 in 2015 9.7% 17.4% 24.0% 30.3% 41.1%

There’s something striking here. The highest support for free university attendance is amongst the most deprived 20%; and their support for that is substantially higher than their support for additional investment in schools with larger numbers of poorer children.

The most deprived are also far less likely to go to university: they are nine times more likely to see universal free tuition as an important issue as to enter university at the age of 18. By contrast, they are slightly more than half as likely to  seek extra investment in schools, as to go to school. Even by age 30, the initial entry rate to HEIs for this group is still only around 16%: even acknowledging there will also be some moving from a college to a university, participation in university-level HE remains remains relatively low.

What’s your reaction to these results? Maybe it’s pride, that Scotland has such cross-class solidarity for the cause of “free university”.

Mine is somewhat more between anger and shame. Shame that the poorest in Scottish society have been marched up the rhetorical hill of free tuition so successfully that they have been persuaded to rate  the government paying every last penny of the fees of the children of more advantaged households substantially more highly than extra investment in their own children’s schools.

Never mind that very few of these poorer households will get to see a member benefit from free tuition. Or that if they do, they will get paltry cash assistance with their living costs and end up either trying to get through their course on very small amounts of cash help from the state or racking up larger debts than their peers from better off homes.

These figures are a tribute to all those in Scottish politics who have worked to close down the debate on student funding, first, to remove any serious reference to living cost debt, and its unequal distribution and, second, to obscure that there might be alternatives which are neither current Scottish nor current English policy – such things as a partial fee contributions, or means-tested fee grants, just to name two, which would allow us to invest more equally in everyone’s education. The narrative has become so firmly university has to be either free or £27,000, upfront, now – the only choices ever contemplated. Indeed, the BBC’s own question continues that narrow offer by asking only about free university for all (the BBC has a habit of boiling all opinion questions about higher education down to free tuition/university – see here).

The reaction to the Scottish Conservatives floating their £6,000 post-graduation charge has functioned as a reminder of how impoverished the debate here has become. The Daily Record ran a piece which repeated some completely misleading maths (analysed here) which must have been briefed from somewhere. In a later article The Record (to its credit) seemed to pick up that they’d been partly misled – but then grabbed for a quote from the NUS which confusingly suggested that the Conservative proposals would mean government funding to universities being reduced, a claim for which there was no evident basis at all, and which was indeed completely at odds with the alternative criticism that no extra money would be released for FE for many years.

In other words, if anyone raises any alternative at all to the current system in Scotland, counter-arguments will swiftly emerge based on various misunderstandings rather than an honest and clear explanation of why keeping young people from better-off homes out of any debt whatsoever for their time at university is so especially important, compared to all the other education-related things on which we could spend a bit more of our money.

Those already most disadvantaged in Scotland have been let down badly here. Huge amounts of energy have gone into encouraging them to have a view on a potential up-front cost which (a) would be attached to an activity they are relatively unlikely to take part in, (b) is routinely described as “£27,000” when no party in Scotland has proposed imposing that on anyone for a function which has been wholly devolved since 1999 and (c) isn’t even really what happens in England (where  almost all students use fee loans to defer costs until they are earning).

The figures above show that nothing like the same energy has gone into encouraging these communities to see themselves as entitled to more investment in their own children’s schools – maybe for additional educational interventions, more general personal support, greater access to school facilities as an alternative to home before and after normal school hours, or just for doing things which would lessen the cost of participation in school for poorer families (as highlighted in Learning Lessons, discussed here). Investment here is not just about effects on attainment, it’s about the potential for schools to make life a bit less hard right now for disadvantaged individual children, their families and communities.

As a reflection of our political culture, shameful seems to me the right description of this situation.