Matthew Greenwood is an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews.
John Swinney just cancelled Scottish Higher and Advanced Higher exams in a bid to avoid a disastrous widening of the attainment gap between the richest and poorest in Scotland. While regrettable, this is the right thing to do. Scottish students, just like students everywhere, have lost time in the classroom when they’ve had to self-isolate and it is the poorest children who have been affected most.
But be in no doubt, there is also a political motive behind this – namely to cover up the SNP’s failure to support pupils through the pandemic and the resulting expectation that the attainment gap would widen this year.
The SNP has been a disaster for the Scottish education system. Its development of the curriculum for excellence has been anything but excellent, and this failure is reflected in the shoddy PISA figures it produces. A misplaced focus on constructivism has proved disastrous, and parents have been left to pick up the pieces, creating a wide divergence between the richest and poorest that is known as the Scottish attainment gap.
In the 2015/16 academic year, the same year that Sturgeon set out her ‘defining mission’ to fix the attainment gap, it stood at 15.6 per cent for Primary 1 (P1) literacy rates. Now, in 2018/19, the latest figures we have, it is 19.2 per cent. When we merge P1, P3, and P7, the gap for literacy has grown from 18.3 per cent in 2015/16 to 20.7 per cent in 2018/19.
Numeracy rates equally stand at a shocking 16.8 per cent gap between the richest and the poorest. Perhaps most worrying is that those who live in the most deprived 20 per cent of communities are as likely to leave school with just one Higher as the least deprived pupils are to leave with five at 43.5 per cent and 48.4 per cent respectively.
What is often overlooked, though, is that this gap leaks into university attendance. The tuition fees debacle has meant university attendance is rarely covered, and the Scottish government’s decision to release statistics that pile almost all outcomes into one overarching category called ‘positive destinations’ does little to provide a clear picture. It was only once we requested more detailed statistics from the Scottish government that the true extent of the gap in university attendance became clear.
In 2018/19, only 26 per cent of people from the 0-20 per cent (most deprived) bracket went on to higher education compared to 59 per cent of those in the 80-100 per cent (least deprived) bracket.
Worse still, this 26 per cent represented only 13.74 per cent of all those who went on to higher education in 2018/19 compared to the 80-100 per cent (least deprived) bracket that totalled 29.15 per cent of all those who went on to higher education. The gap between these two groups, then, is staggering. Young people from deprived backgrounds are considerably less likely to enter higher education than their better-off counterparts.
These are just the average statistics that give us a picture of Scotland generally. A more detailed analysis revealed a harrowing regional disparity across Scotland where the number of people in the most disadvantaged group going to university in 2018/19 was as low as 11 per cent in Midlothian. The resulting picture is one where thousands of young people are being left behind. So, who is the party that has presided over this? The SNP. You’d think after over a decade in power its MPs might have gotten their act together, but they’re too obsessed with trying break up the UK to even try.
It also seems to be the case that the ‘positive destinations’ category hides the fact that a pupil’s respective destination is largely determined by their socioeconomic background. The aforementioned gap between the least and most deprived in higher education also exists in further education but reversed. In 2018/19, 37 per cent of those in the most deprived bracket went on to further education while only 17 per cent of the least deprived did so. Equally, the most deprived group made up almost a third of all pupils who went into further education in 2018/19 while the least deprived formed only 12.38 per cent. There is, then, a wide divide that exists in further education as well as higher education.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with going on to study at a further education college, the gap between the most and least deprived in both higher and further education suggests something more might be at play. Young people deserve the opportunity to apply themselves and to improve their circumstances no matter their background, but the current system isn’t working for them.
How do we go about fixing this? First, the Scottish Conservatives should pledge to increase provisions for the Scottish Funding Council to expand the number of university places on offer at Scottish Universities. While the number of places remains constricted under the SNP, this unacceptable divide between the most and least deprived will continue no matter what rhetoric the SNP sell it with.
Second, more must be done to help young people from deprived backgrounds put their best foot forward when they compete for places at Scotland’s universities. Either Skills Development Scotland (SDS) must do more to support deprived students access the support they need, or it must be replaced with a school-centred approach.
It’s not enough for SDS to have an office in most major towns if their work isn’t producing results. Rather the Scottish Government should embark on a programme of pairing local schools into groups to support their own specialised careers advisers that can support students not only with careers advice but with skills and confidence-building activities close to home.