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.

Chapter 3: Supporting Our Learners

Scotland's most disadvantaged learners are a rich source of untapped talent. It is rightly a matter of national concern that, for a variety of reasons, far too few disadvantaged learners either aspire to enter higher education or achieve their full academic potential in school. The consequence is a significantly restricted pool of applicants to HE from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The proposals for systemic change laid out in Chapter 2 will make a significant contribution to advancing fair access. However, the impact of this fairer, more flexible system can only be maximised if these proposals are complemented with measures to ensure the system can draw from a much stronger, more reliable pipeline of talent.

In addition to enabling disadvantaged learners to access higher education it is equally important to support them both to sustain their studies and to overcome barriers they may face when embarking on their chosen career.

In short, to achieve fair access, Scotland needs to do a much better job of identifying and supporting the brightest talent in disadvantaged communities to fulfil their potential. In this Chapter we focus on the important ways in which this can be achieved.

Early Years

In our interim report we observed that, when it comes to fair access, there is no such thing as an intervention that is too early. The impact of socioeconomic disadvantage is evident before some children enter school and this often sets a course for a lifetime of disadvantage. By age five, the gap in vocabulary between children from low-income and high-income households is already 13 months and we know that children who experience multiple disadvantage in the early years are more likely to have lower attainment at age 14.

The pre-school years have never had more prominence within Scottish public policy than at present. This has led the current Government to commit to almost doubling the number of funded early learning and childcare hours available for three and four year-olds and for two year-olds in low-income households. We welcome these developments and endorse the powerful role they can play in supporting our most vulnerable children to realise their potential. We also recognise that the expansion of early learning and childcare can impact on fair access in other ways, for example, through increased opportunities for adults to return to education or to join the workforce.

It will take considerable time before we can assess the impact this investment will have on fair access to higher education. In the coming years the Early Years Collaborative Stretch Aims and the National Improvement Framework will provide an indication of progress and the potential impact going forward. We would also expect the Commissioner for Fair Access ( Recommendation 1) to consider the impact of extended early years provision on fair access to HE as part of their assessment of progress.

The post-16 sector also has an important role in supporting this agenda. We have seen innovative programmes, such as the Children's University and the Caledonian Club, where universities work closely with early years providers and schools to introduce young children, and crucially their parents, to the world of higher education, supporting improved attainment through new approaches to learning in family homes. Increasing engagement with parents during their child's early learning, and throughout their education, will play a significant part in advancing equal access. We know that the more a parent is involved in their child's education, the more likely they will be to support their child through that learning at home.

Collaborations between the post-16 sector and early years providers are still few in number, with most outreach activity focusing on the senior phase of school. We therefore believe that the post-16 sector could potentially deliver real benefit by engaging more with younger children and their families, bringing to bear their substantial capacity for innovation to support other sectors in a shared endeavour to raise expectations, aspiration and attainment.

We are also aware that parents who re-engage in education can have a significant impact on their children's prospects. It creates opportunities to improve the economic circumstances of the family. It also provides children with a role model and the support of someone who understands the nature of higher education and the benefits it can bring. It is therefore essential that programmes aimed at supporting adults who wish to return to higher education, such as the SFC funded Scottish Wider Access Programme, also consider what can be done to support any children from disadvantaged backgrounds within their family to follow suit.

Recommendation 15: Universities and colleges should increase engagement with our youngest children and their families as part of the provision of a coordinated package of support for those in our most deprived communities in line with Recommendation 4.

School Attainment

There is consensus that closing the school attainment gap is crucial to achieving a fairer Scotland. It is a key priority of Scottish Government, which is reflected in a range of work to support improved attainment for those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds.

For example, the Education Bill, passed in February 2016, establishes a statutory National Improvement Framework for Scottish education. Ministers also launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge in 2015, which includes provision for attainment advisors in all local authorities and additional funding to support local authorities and schools with high concentrations of primary-aged children living in deprived areas.

The Commission welcomes the priority being placed on closing the school attainment gap and recognises the potential contribution these policy interventions could make to advancing equal access by increasing the number of disadvantaged learners with the attainment necessary to enter higher education. This is an area that we would expect the Commissioner for Fair Access to consider as part of their assessment of progress in their annual report to Ministers ( Recommendation 1).

Universities and colleges also have a key role to play in this agenda. For example, we believe there is scope for them to make a greater contribution to the development of their applicant pools. There is evidence from both the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that there is a significant group of bright, disadvantaged learners who, despite being among the top performers in their cohort early in their school career, lose momentum between ages 11 and 16.

This points to the need for these talented learners to be identified at an early stage and supported to remain high achievers. This could be achieved through collaboration between Universities, colleges, schools and SFC's access programmes to deliver targeted academic support for highly able learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are strong examples of good practice in this regard such as the Sutton Scholars programme. The National Improvement Framework will also introduce more systematic and regular assessment of school pupils in Scotland, which will help schools to identify such learners going forward.

In our interim report we presented detailed evidence that disadvantaged learners have very specific IAG needs.

Recommendation 16: Universities working with schools, should take greater responsibility for the development of the pool of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds by delivering academically based programmes to support highly able learners, who are at risk of not fulfilling their academic potential.

Information, Advice and Guidance ( IAG)

The extent to which these specific IAG needs are met can impact profoundly on whether they enter higher education. Our position is not that IAG should be used to persuade all disadvantaged learners to enter HE as though that is always the best option, but neither should it should act as a barrier for those who have the ability and the aptitude.

Disadvantaged learners are less likely than their more affluent peers to aspire to enter higher education. This is borne out by the Sutton Trust, who found that each year, across the UK, there are around 3,000 disadvantaged learners with the grades necessary to enter university who either do not apply at all, or who enter institutions with entry tariffs substantially lower than their level of attainment. This suggests a clear role for IAG in raising aspirations, including encouraging applications to the most selective institutions and courses where that is appropriate.

We know too, from research by the Rowntree Foundation, that even where the aspirations of disadvantaged learners are both high and realistic, they are often not supported with a clear understanding of the specific actions necessary to convert these aspirations into reality. This problem is reinforced by the fact that those from disadvantaged backgrounds are often less able to draw on the expertise of parents or peers with experience of HE and who have an understanding of its benefits and the actions necessary to access it.

Having examined these issues, we do not think there is any fundamental problem with the priority attached to IAG. SDS, universities, schools, colleges and the SFC funded access programmes are all active in this space. Moreover, the new Career Education Standard will introduce new entitlements for young people such as one-to-one guidance on subject choices, as well as placing clear expectations on their primary influencers.

However we remain convinced that the present IAG offer must take much greater account of the evidence that disadvantaged learners have far more acute and specific IAG needs than other groups. These learners would therefore benefit from more personalised, sustained support including earlier interventions, guaranteed one to one personal interviews, encouragement to pitch aspirations as high as possible and a better understanding of the nature of student finance.

There may also be other, more creative ways of deploying IAG to supporting disadvantaged learners to realise their potential. For example, IAG strategies which target young peoples' primary influencers could have an especially powerful impact. There is also an emerging evidence base to suggest that mentoring schemes can provide a valuable, sustained supplement to formal IAG and parental guidance.

Finally, it is worth noting that the current IAG model is focussed on ensuring that learners progress to a positive destination. While this is legitimate, it is also important to make clear to disadvantaged learners that higher education remains one of the most powerful and reliable pathways into the most well-paid jobs and professions. This is particularly important for those learners who are likely to progress to a positive destination but who, with the appropriate support and guidance, may prefer and have the ability to enter higher education.

Recommendation 17: SDS and schools should work together to provide a more coordinated, tailored offer of information, advice and guidance to disadvantaged learners at key transition phases throughout their education. Specifically:

  • SDS should ensure that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are provided with one-to-one personal interviews, not just when making subject choices, but also at all key transition stages including P7 / S1.

Schools should:

  • Identify a lead person to coordinate links with fair access programmes and to provide direction to key sources of information on student support and the higher education admissions process. Keep parents informed of key decisions and transition phases throughout the learner journey, to ensure that they are equipped with the information necessary to support learners to make informed decisions
  • Consider the role that universities, SFC funded access programmes and mentoring schemes can play in providing IAG.

Access to Key Subjects

We have discussed what more can be done to close the attainment gap but for some higher education courses it is not sufficient to reach a specific level of attainment, that level must be achieved in particular subjects. While we expect that the recommendations on admissions will mean that, in due course, only those subjects entirely necessary for the successful completion of a degree will be being asked for by universities, we must ensure that students have access to these key subjects at school.

In the second half of our work we have become increasingly aware of the variance across Scotland's schools in terms of access to specific subjects at Higher and Advanced Higher level. We are also conscious that this may cause an access issue for pupils in schools with a high concentration of children living in deprived areas, as well as those living in rural areas. In these schools, there can be very small numbers of pupils wishing to study particular subjects at Higher or Advanced Higher level. This can create a challenge for schools, who may not be able to assign teacher time to a course with a very small number of pupils.

We know that local authorities are alert to this issue and we would encourage them to continue to explore how schools can come together to provide better access to Highers and Advanced Highers for pupils in their area. We have also seen innovative solutions from universities and colleges to support pupils to undertake these qualifications. Delivery of Highers and Advanced Highers via post-16 institutions not only provides the learner with access to the qualification, it can also support their transition into higher education. Young learners have an opportunity to come together in a post-16 institution, with likeminded pupils from other schools and lecturers, who can support their aspirations and learning. We know, however, that this approach is not without its challenges. School timetabling needs to be aligned and measures put in place to mitigate against any disadvantages placed on the student from having to travel from their school to study elsewhere.

Recommendation 18: Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.

Student Finance

The Commission's remit is to advise Ministers on the steps necessary to increase the number of disadvantaged learners entering higher education. The evidence is mixed on whether raising the present levels of student support, or adjusting the balance between loan and bursary, would have a significant impact on advancing this goal.

While there is some evidence to suggest that levels of student finance do influence the participation of disadvantaged learners; the evidence suggests that, overall, other factors are likely to matter more. This evidence has perhaps informed the decisions of the Office for Fair Access ( OFFA) and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission ( SMCP) to advise universities in England to rebalance investment in fair access from generous bursaries to the most effective forms of outreach activity.

At the same time, we have spoken to many young people who have shared with us their concerns over accruing debt and how their decisions over which institutions and courses to apply for are being strongly influenced by these concerns.

The Commission has discussed these issues at length. On balance, we do not think it would be reasonable for us to recommend fundamental changes to the current student support package without strong evidence that it would have a positive impact on the participation of disadvantaged learners. This belief is strengthened by the fact that there are other interventions, highlighted throughout this report, where increased investment is almost certain to have a positive impact.

As with several other issues pertinent to widening access, it seems clear that the impact of student finance is a topic on which policymakers, and institutions, would benefit from a significantly more robust evidence base to inform future decision making.

There is, however, one issue relating to student finance on which there is considerably stronger evidence. In our interim report we highlighted evidence that disadvantaged learners in Scotland are considerably more averse to student debt than their peers in England. This aversion is in some part based on misconceptions about the nature of student debt such as over-estimating interest rates, incorrect assumptions over impact on credit ratings and not understanding that loans are repaid only after reaching a certain income threshold. Often these misconceptions reflect the views of parents and key influencers, again highlighting the importance to fair access of effective parental engagement.

While this aversion to debt does not appear to be a significant barrier to entry overall, it does seem to impact on the kind of choices made by students. For example, there is evidence it is a key factor in the propensity of disadvantaged learners to remain at home while studying. Scottish learners are also more likely than their English peers to select an institution and course they perceive as being affordable, with educational factors a secondary consideration.

We recognise that organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group do provide training on student support and benefits; however we remain concerned that disadvantaged learners may often be basing crucial decisions about their future on incomplete and incorrect information. It is therefore crucial that work to improve the IAG offer to disadvantaged learners includes a much stronger focus on clarifying the nature and availability of student finance than is presently the case.

Recommendation 19: The Commissioner for Fair Access should commission research, within three months of appointment, to assess how student finance impacts on the participation of disadvantaged learners in higher education. This research should consider in particular:

  • Whether, and to what extent, levels of student finance impact upon access, retention and choice of institution.
  • Whether, and to what extent, the balance between loan and bursary impacts upon access, retention and choice of institution.
  • International practice on student finance and the impact this has on access and retention.

Recommendation 20: Disadvantaged learners and their parents, should be provided with clear, accurate information on both the availability of student finance and the conditions for repayment. This should be taken forward by the bodies identified in Recommendation 17 and the Student Awards Agency Scotland.


Fair access is not just about ensuring more people from deprived backgrounds enter higher education, it is just as important to ensure that they can maintain their studies and successfully graduate. In 2012/13 the retention rate for SIMD20 students at Scottish universities was 87% compared with a rate of 91.3% for all students. Institutions are already alert to the need to support retention for this group of students and many are providing tailored support. Specific funding is also provided from the SFC to support retention. The Framework for Fair Access, which should cover all learning from early years to graduation should help to identify and provide guidance on the activities that have the most impact on supporting retention.

Supporting those with Care Experience

Advising on how best to support those with a care experience to succeed in higher education was explicit in our remit and we have embraced this task unreservedly. We have no doubt that many, if not all, of the recommendations within the other parts of this report will help to support those with care experience; however we are also conscious that the challenges they face, both by their nature and magnitude, set this group of learners apart from those we have focussed on thus far.

The picture of educational attainment and outcomes for those with care experience is stark:

  • 40% of looked after children leave school with one or more qualification at SCQF Level 5 or more; compared with 84% of all school leavers
  • 74% of looked after children who left school in 2013/14 were aged 16 or under; compared with only 27% of all school leavers
  • the exclusion rate for looked after children is over seven times that for all children
  • 73% of looked after children were in a positive destination nine months after leaving school, compared with 92% of all children
  • 6% of looked after children were in higher education nine months after leaving school, compared with 39% of all children
  • We also know that looked after children find it harder to maintain positive destinations

Many young people with care experience are required to miss school classes to attend care related appointments and may have to move schools due to different care placements. They can often be labelled as having behaviour issues and can be stigmatised by their peers. It is vital that support is given to these young people by all those around them, both to develop aspirations and expectations but also to sustain their academic attainment. It is also important that universities and colleges ensure that they provide an inclusive environment and a personalised package of support for those with care experience and that up-to-date information on the support available is communicated clearly to potential and existing students.

Even within a supportive environment, those with care experience may, due to financial or personal reasons, have to take a break from study. It is often difficult for them to return to education due to the personal challenge of coming back. Some learners we spoke to also felt that the system was too inflexible and that it was difficult to transfer credit or to secure funding to repeat a level of learning. This group of students often need more than a second chance; they may need a third or fourth chance to succeed. There is some flexibility in the system and support for those leaving to return, and this must be communicated effectively to students; however we also need to consider what additional flexibility could be introduced.

We are also conscious that methods of identifying and targeting support to those facing difficult socioeconomic circumstances will not always reach those living in care. The majority in care placements will not be resident within the most deprived postcodes and may not be identified by other markers of deprivation. Some of the challenges they face are not captured by socioeconomic disadvantage and may be impacted by placement breakdowns, trauma, instability or poor mental health. It is therefore essential that, within our data and information systems, we separately identify those with a care experience so that they can receive the most suitable support to access and succeed within higher education.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 has introduced a new framework of Corporate Parenting duties and responsibilities for public bodies including local authorities, further and higher education bodies, Skills Development Scotland and the Student Awards Agency Scotland. These duties require corporate parents to collaborate with each other to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of our looked after children and care leavers enabling them to achieve the best outcomes. This includes support to overcome barriers and live a life they feel in control over. By working collaboratively to fulfil these duties, we envisage that the education sector will address some of the issues outlined above; however we have identified a number of specific recommendations that we believe are necessary to improve access to higher education for those with a care experience.

As noted above, our support for this group of learners must reflect the specific challenges they face. Our message to those with care experience should emulate that of a positive parent: we believe in you, we'll do all we can to support you and if things don't go to plan, we'll help you to get back on track. To make clear Scotland's ambition for, and commitment to, those with care experience we believe that an entitlement system should be introduced for this group of learners until such time as they are fairly represented within higher education. Not only will this make clear our commitment to these young people we believe that this will help to turn their aspirations into expectations. If an individual learner can demonstrate the potential to get a degree, we will guarantee that learner the offer of a place at a university.

Recommendation 21: By 2017, those with a care experience, who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place at a Scottish university. Entitlement should also apply to those with a care experience who have had to take a break from higher education and wish to return. Learners should be assessed at the minimum entry levels in 2017 and 2018 and the access thresholds thereafter.

A guaranteed offer of a place in itself is insufficient and we must also support those with care experience to access and sustain this opportunity through improved financial support and more flexibility within the system.

Recommendation 22: The Scottish Government should replace student living costs loans with a non-repayable bursary and provide a more flexible package of student support for learners with a care experience from academic year 2017/18. This should include:

  • amending the previous study rules to allow those with a care experience more than one extra year of full funding where circumstances require this; and
  • options for those with a care experience to extend a year of their course to complete it part-time over two years with full funding, similar to the arrangements already in place for those with disabilities and elite athletes.

Recommendation 23: The Scottish Government should develop an approach to allow those with a care experience to be identified from early years to post-school and on to employment to enable additional support, for example, a marker or flag. Young people with care experience must be included in the development of how this would be used and shared.

Supporting the Professionals

It is important that we recognise the role that professionals will play in delivering fair access. We have heard of many instances where an individual teacher or lecturer has been pivotal to a young person's decision and ability to access higher education. The importance of individualised support, understanding and guidance cannot be underestimated for those from a deprived background or with a care experience.

The expansion of the early years workforce will, of course, require a significant increase in the number of early years practitioners. We understand that work is underway, following the Review of the Scottish Early Learning and Childcare Workforce and Out of School Care Workforce, to ensure that the quality of this workforce is maintained through this period of growth. Given this planned expansion and the current priority placed on closing the attainment gap, it is key that teachers and early years practitioners are equipped with the necessary knowledge and understanding of the issues faced by those from disadvantaged backgrounds and how this impacts on their learning. Many will have experience of how best to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with care experience but some may not and may value specific training on:

  • how to work most effectively with Scotland's youngest children and their families from our most disadvantaged communities to support attainment
  • how to work most effectively with those from disadvantaged backgrounds to support their school attainment
  • understanding the care system and the challenges that those with a care experience face when going through the education system and how best to support them to succeed.

We support the above areas being included in the development of future Career Long Professional Learning for teachers and early years practitioners in Scotland.


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