A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access

A Blueprint for Fairness presents a system wide plan to achieve equal access to higher education.

Chair's Foreword

'A Blueprint for Fairness', is the final report of the Commission on Widening Access. The task set to us by government was to advise on the steps necessary to achieve the First Minister's ambition that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of entering university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities.

This is a challenging objective. The latest figures from UCAS show that 18 year-olds from Scotland's 20% least deprived communities are more than four times as likely to enter university as those from the 20% most deprived communities. For those who wish to enter the most selective institutions, the position is considerably worse.

Fundamentally, access is an issue of fairness and it is our firm belief that Scotland has a moral, social and economic duty to tackle this inequality. Scotland has a truly world-class higher education system, perhaps the most powerful weapon there is to combat socioeconomic inequality. Yet this predominantly publicly funded asset disproportionately benefits those in our most affluent communities, meaning that, through accident of birth, those in our most disadvantaged communities have nothing like an equal chance to realise their potential.

Fair access is also much more than an altruistic endeavour: avoiding this lost potential is firmly in Scotland's social and economic interests. Graduates are healthier, live longer and enjoy better employment outcomes. We know too that the social, cultural and financial benefits of higher education can be transmitted between generations, breaking cycles of deprivation and contributing to a fairer, more prosperous and inclusive Scotland.

There is an economic imperative here. We are living through a global shift towards increasingly knowledge based economies, placing a premium on innovation and high end skills. In this context, the key economic asset of any nation is the talent and skills of its people. Yet, by failing to fairly distribute the opportunities necessary for all of our people to flourish, Scotland is missing out on the economic potential of some of our finest talents.

There is no doubt that achieving fair access is both the right and most strategic thing to do. Yet the public debate on fair access is often unhelpfully simplistic: some argue that it is a straightforward matter of closing the school attainment gap, others that it is simply down to what they perceive as the elitism of universities.

In reality, it could hardly be a more sophisticated, subtle problem. It is rooted in family homes and local communities, in the complex mix of factors that shape aspiration and in the cultural differences between socioeconomic groups. It is exacerbated by the systemic unfairness evident in the admissions and selection processes of institutions, in the school attainment gap and in the efficiency of transitions between education sectors.

Access is a whole system problem and it will require system wide change to solve it.

In this report we identify clear and tangible actions that can be taken by all parts of the system to drive progress. The present generation of work on access is reaching a natural end and the time is ripe for a more coordinated, collaborative and comprehensive approach. There is a genuine commitment and determination in Scotland to embrace this challenge. Throughout our extensive engagement activities the Commission has consistently been presented with proposals for bold and creative action. Through this process of engagement the Commission has become confident that there is an appetite for radical but realistic change.

There are more reasons for optimism. We have been struck by how conducive the current policy landscape is to achieving the necessary step change. A Blueprint for Fairness stands shoulder to shoulder with a whole series of educational and social justice reforms: the recent recommendations of the Independent Poverty Adviser; the plans to enhance the volume and quality of early years provision; and the work to close the school attainment gap.

To be clear, our position is not that every child should go to university or that this option should be held above all others, but we do believe that they should have the chance to do so. Fair access is entirely complementary to the work of the Developing the Young Workforce ( DYW) programme. Together they will ensure that all young people will be able to select from a range of fairly distributed, high quality post-school opportunities that best match their aptitude and ambition.

I close by thanking the large number of colleagues and friends who have supported the Commission's work and who shared with us, with such generosity, their expertise and hopes for change. I have learned so much and have enjoyed immensely participating in the literally hundreds of discussions and debates that have informed this work. I trust that you will recognise your voice in the thinking reflected on these pages.

Thanks go also to my fellow Commissioners, who throughout our work have displayed great ambition, determination and judgement, feeding in insights from across education and business.

Finally, on behalf of the whole Commission, let me express deep gratitude to our secretariat: to Lynn Graham and Stephen O'Neill for their constant determination and diligence, particularly in the drafting of our Interim and Final Reports. They were excellently assisted by: Ryan Scott, Carina MacRitchie, Fiona Burns and John Kemp with their tireless service. Finally, thanks to Rebekah Widdowfield for ably supporting us all from design to delivery.

We pass this report to the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in the strong belief that implementing these recommendations will make a significant dent in entrenched disadvantage; improving life chances and social mobility in Scotland.

By now, the children referred to by the First Minister in November 2014 are already sixteen months old. They will soon embark on their life defining journey through the system described on these pages. For them and for all our futures, their path to success must be a fair one. It is therefore our singular hope that A Blueprint for Fairness will be received positively by all: it has been designed to be deliverable.

Dame Ruth Silver
March 2016


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