Building a New Scotland: Education and lifelong learning in an independent Scotland

This paper sets out the Scottish Government's vision for Education and Lifelong Learning in an independent Scotland.

Education and Lifelong Learning

This section of the paper sets out what people in Scotland can expect as they move through their education and lifelong learning journey and how that experience could be enhanced through independence.

Early learning and child care and school age childcare

International research shows that high-quality early learning and childcare (ELC) programmes for pre-school children are associated with improvements in later education, employment, and health.[36] Many studies find evidence that high quality ELC positively affects children's emotional, behavioural, and cognitive development.[37] There is also evidence that children from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit most from ELC programmes.[38] Research also shows that ELC can help mitigate the impacts of developmental risks, acting as a form of early intervention for children who are at high risk of developing Additional Support Needs.[39] There is less evidence at population level about the impacts of ELC provision on children aged two and under, and what evidence there is tends to be more mixed.[40] However, consistent with findings for older children, there is agreement across the literature that the quality of the care and learning provided is vital in making a difference for younger children.[41]

For parents and carers, international research suggests that high-quality, affordable and flexible ELC can improve standards of living and reduce child poverty through reducing pressures on family income and enabling parents and carers to participate in work, education or training.[42]

Since 2021, Scotland has been the only part of the UK to offer 1,140 hours a year (equivalent to 30 hours per week in term time) of funded ELC to all three and four year olds and eligible two year olds regardless of their parents' working status, putting children first.

We also know that the cost of childcare for primary school age children, both round about the school day and in the holidays, presents major barriers to many parents and carers taking up or sustaining work, training or study. There are particular families who struggle more with this, typically families on the lowest incomes but including specific groups, for example lone parents.[43]

The evaluation of our Access to Childcare projects and the preliminary feedback from our early adopter communities shows that subsidising or funding childcare within local communities can enable parents to take up or, importantly, stop them falling out of sustainable employment. It can also reduce the stress associated with otherwise chaotic childcare situations, improving wellbeing. Children can also benefit from access to a range of activities round about the school day.[44]

Best Start is the Scottish Government's strategic early learning and school age childcare plan for Scotland 2022-26.[45] It explains the approach to realising the benefits of our ELC expansion programme and expanding our childcare offer, including building a system of school age childcare. We know that investing in designing a more affordable and accessible childcare system for families in Scotland will help support parents and carers to enter and sustain employment, and that this is particularly important for those on low incomes. This work is important in progressing our mission to tackle poverty.

We are currently working to expand our childcare offer. That includes starting work with COSLA and other partners to develop an expanded national offer for two year olds and progressing work with our six early adopter communities to develop the local infrastructure and services needed to provide all-age childcare, focusing on those who will benefit most in six council areas. We have also started work to design and develop a digital service which would help parents and carers to find, access and better manage their childcare arrangements in Scotland in the future.

The Scottish Government's record on expanding early learning and childcare is set out in Box 1 below.

Box 1 – Expanding early learning and childcare

Successive Scottish governments have decided to:

  • provide 412.5 hours of funded pre-school education for three and four year olds in 2002, increasing to 475 hours in 2007
  • increase the entitlement to funded ELC again to 600 hours in 2014, and extend it to two year olds who need it most
  • deliver a landmark expansion to provide all eligible children with an entitlement to 1,140 hours of high quality funded ELC from August 2021
  • progress new legislation – in effect from August 2023 – which means that all families with eligible children who choose to defer their start date for primary one will automatically be entitled to access funded ELC for a further year.

Quality has been at the centre of Scotland's ELC expansion programme as the evidence tells us that this is crucial to positive outcomes – with particular benefits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.[46] Quality of provision is influenced by a wide range of factors, including staffing levels and aspects of working conditions; staff qualifications and development; the relationships and interactions between staff and children; the physical environment; and the curriculum. The quality of ELC provision remains high – with 90.1% of services providing funded places holding Care Inspectorate evaluations of good or better for all four quality themes at the end of 2022.[47]

We recognise the critical importance of play-based, child-centred, and outdoor approaches to learning in the early years.[48] There has never been a stronger focus on ensuring that the early learning and childcare experience is of high quality and meets the developmental needs of our youngest learners. The early level of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) purposely spans ELC and primary schooling. It is designed to support the implementation of a responsive, continuous, play-based curriculum for children from age three until the end of P1 (for most children).

The 1,140 hours per year of high quality funded ELC also make an important direct contribution to reducing household costs. If eligible families were themselves to purchase the equivalent number of hours of funded ELC that are provided by the Scottish Government, it would cost them around £5,800 per eligible child per year.[49]

The Scottish Government's Building a New Scotland paper on the economy emphasises that measures to support work-life balance can have economic benefits in relation to higher productivity. Similarly, the Scottish Government's National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET)[50] emphasises that childcare is a vital element of Scotland's economic infrastructure. The strategy focuses on the importance of childcare in enabling parents and carers to return to work or increase their working hours. The international evidence indicates that ELC provision can help to address gender inequality in pay, as well as supporting parents and carers to combine caring for their children with seeking or returning to work or taking part in education or training.[51] Economic analysis also suggests that some systems of early learning and childcare can have positive long-term returns through increased fiscal revenues.[52] As noted above, evidence tells us that investing in high-quality ELC also has important short- and longer-term benefits for children's development, education and health.

With independence, future governments could seek to simplify and improve access to schemes designed to contribute to parents' and carers' childcare costs. For example, a future government could make different decisions about the design of currently reserved schemes – Universal Credit Childcare and Tax-Free Childcare – which support parents and carers to pay for childcare.

School years

We are building a school education system that delivers excellence and equity for children and young people. The OECD and the International Council of Education Advisers have highlighted the excellent international reputation of Scotland's school system. The International Council of Education Advisers' report states that 'Scottish education exhibits many strengths. It values equity as well as excellence which has been recognised internationally, investing effort and resources to narrow attainment gaps, working with and strengthening the teaching profession'.[53]

Curriculum for Excellence helps our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills, and attributes needed for life in the 21st century. The OECD independent report[54] on Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence found that it offered "an inspiring and widely supported philosophy of education" with its design offering "the flexibility needed to improve student learning further."

Since 2007, the number of schools in Scotland in good or satisfactory condition has increased from 61% to over 90%, partly thanks to direct investment from the Scottish Government in the school estate.[55] The £1.8 billion Schools for the Future programme, which started in 2009 and was completed in 2021, delivered 117 new or refurbished school buildings across Scotland.[56] Our current Learning Estate Investment Programme is being delivered in partnership with local authorities and invests £2 billion in improving the school estate, benefitting tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland. This shows the benefits of taking decisions in Scotland, for Scotland. We continue to face capital budget challenges that stem from the UK Government, and independence would enable us to unlock further investment for Scotland's school buildings.

We know from the Scottish Government and Education Scotland's Equity Audit that the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted children and young people experiencing poverty.[57] For example, data from the Equity Literacy Institute (ELI) suggested that children from areas with high socio-economic deprivation were more likely to have home responsibilities during the day, affecting their learning. It is, however, reassuring to see promising signs that the attainment gap is, once again, beginning to narrow. This is evident in the data published in December 2023,[58] which shows the poverty-related attainment gap in primary literacy is the narrowest on record. Whilst for numeracy it has narrowed since 2021-22 although remains slightly wider than it was prior to the pandemic.

Scottish schools have historically benefitted from partnerships across Europe and further afield. In 2018, Scottish students participated in the PISA[59] study into global competence, ranking amongst the best nations assessed on this measure, which reflects the ambitions of Curriculum for Excellence to, amongst other things, create "responsible citizens who are able to develop knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland's place in it".[60] Before Brexit, Scottish schools benefitted from the Erasmus+ programme.[61] Erasmus+ is the European Union's programme for education, training, youth and sport which, before Brexit, enabled over 2,200 Higher Education students in Scotland every year to study or work abroad.[62] By re-joining Erasmus+ as an EU member state, Scottish students would once again have access to the opportunities and benefits of the programme. Re-joining Erasmus+ would also allow staff to learn from partners across Europe, and especially to participate in programmes to improve language programmes and so support language learning in the terms of Scotland's 1+2 policy. The UK Government's replacement for Erasmus+, the Turing Scheme, does not match the breadth or scope of Erasmus+ with no provision for teaching staff exchanges. Re-joining Erasmus+ would once again allow teachers in Scotland to benefit from the multilateral network across Europe for staff mobility and development, and virtual exchange.

Brexit risks impacting on Scotland's long-term ability to attract language teachers, as many of the recruitment paths are closed or partially closed to EU nationals, and EU students now require to pay international fees to study in Scotland. There has been a fall in the number of candidates training to become language teachers in Scotland,[63] and while the reasons for this are complicated, the lack of freedom of movement is an important factor. With the restoration of free movement for EU nationals in an independent Scotland, we would be able to attract and recruit workers to meet the needs of our public services, including the education workforce.

Financial support

Scotland's colleges and universities are amongst the best in the world. Making decisions in Scotland has enabled university tuition to be free and has seen the number of first-time full-time Scottish degree entrants grow by 31% since 2006-07,[64] with record numbers of students from our most deprived communities.[65]

The universities and colleges that now make up our further and higher education sector provide a range of opportunities for our young people to explore. Indeed, the percentage of Scots holding post-secondary school qualifications continues to be one of the highest in Europe.[66]

The Scottish Government's steadfast commitment to free tuition means that, unlike elsewhere in the UK, Scottish students studying in Scotland do not incur additional debt of up to £27,750. Average student loan debt for Scottish students is the lowest in the UK.[67] Our student support offering and policy on free tuition supports around 120,000 students studying in Scotland every year.[68]

Future governments could develop a student loans system that is bespoke to Scotland and built on the already established Glasgow branch of the Student Loans Company, ensuring the continued operation of this facility and ensuring the needs of Scottish students are prioritised. Dependent on the fiscal conditions, independence could also enable a shift in the student support offering, ensuring Scotland maintains the lowest levels of student loan debt by aspiring to provide enhanced bursary support to those students who need it most. This would include estranged students, disabled students and those with caring responsibilities, giving careful consideration to the interaction between student support and benefit entitlements.

This government is committed to the right to free education. As we set out in Building a New Scotland: Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland, this Scottish Government would enshrine economic, social and cultural rights – including the right to education – in the interim constitution, effective from day one of independence.

The Scottish Government would propose that our policy on free university tuition continues in the permanent constitution of an independent Scotland, subject to the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention.

International education and research

International students, staff, and researchers have an overwhelmingly positive impact in Scotland bringing social and cultural diversity to our communities; enriching the overall learning experience; supporting local economies, businesses and jobs; and making a substantial contribution to the sustainability of our universities.[69] The Scottish Government's distinct approach to international education is set out in our International Education Strategy, which was developed in collaboration with our universities and colleges.[70]

A multinational learning environment is beneficial for all students, staff and researchers who participate in it, raising cultural awareness and a global perspective. Students who choose to stay in Scotland to work are appreciated and valued across all sectors of our economy; those who return home or move elsewhere in the world remain valuable friends and ambassadors for Scotland.

The net contribution in 2021-22 of international students in Scotland to the UK economy was estimated to be £4.21 billion.[71] Those who choose to stay can contribute valuable skills to our workforce, support the sustainable growth of our economy, and enrich society.

Scotland has proved popular as an international student destination with numbers increasing since 2013.[72] In 2021-22, more than 82,000 students from over 160 different countries[73] came to study at Scottish universities, and international students made up a quarter of the total student population.

Scotland must be able to attract and retain talented people without excessive barriers and migration policy should support mobility, collaboration and innovation. It is therefore of grave concern that current UK immigration policy is making it increasingly difficult for Scotland to keep welcoming international students.[74] We are working closely with colleges and universities in Scotland to gather evidence on the impact immigration policies have on the sector. We know that Brexit and UK Government policies have already resulted in a reduced number of students from Europe opting to study in Scotland, with UCAS Acceptance Statistics 2023 Cycle showing 880 EU students were accepted to Scottish providers. This is a drop of 81% between 2016 and 2023.[75]

The Scottish Government believes that people who are entitled to live in Scotland should be able to bring their family with them. Family visas support our economy and would help our communities prosper by encouraging families to settle in Scotland.

An independent Scotland, as part of the EU, would continue to welcome students from EU countries to our world class colleges and universities. EU students would, once again, enjoy the same access to further and higher education as Scottish students, which this Scottish Government has prioritised to include free tuition for those domiciled in Scotland. Conversely, students who live in Scotland would once again be able to enjoy the same access to further and higher education at institutions in EU countries as students living in those countries.

An independent Scotland would also maintain membership of the Common Travel Area (CTA).[76] The 2021 Memorandum of Understanding on Education between the UK and Irish Governments sets a clear precedent that eligibility conditions apply for student funding. In Scotland, this means that students from other parts of the CTA are eligible for support where they meet residency criteria. This approach will continue, and we will continue working with the other members of the CTA, including the UK and Irish governments, to ensure opportunities to study in other CTA countries can continue post-independence.

The Scottish Government recognises the importance of both inward and outward international educational exchanges. International exchanges can help students and staff make global connections and build networks,[77] take them out of their comfort zone, and support them in becoming more globally aware, adaptable and employable.

As set out in the Building a New Scotland paper on Migration, the Scottish Government would offer visas supporting population objectives and economic growth across five categories, including study. This managed, discretionary immigration system would support Scotland in attracting the best global talent, retaining students after graduation and helping them enter into the workforce.

As part of this new immigration system, a five-year Scottish Connections visa would provide a route for people with a connection to Scotland, including graduates of Scottish universities to stay in Scotland after their studies. This would offer graduates longer after their studies than the two-year post-study visa the UK Government currently offers.[78]

International graduates of Scottish universities would be able to apply at low cost, straight after their studies, to stay in Scotland for a further five years, after which they would become eligible for settlement, potentially leading to naturalisation as a citizen. This would also mean graduates who live overseas can return to Scotland on this route.

Scotland's research base has a global reputation for excellence. It contributes to impacts across the globe and has significant international reach – over 170 countries and territories in the world.[79]

There is evidence of world leading (4*) research in every Scottish Higher Education Institution, and Scotland delivers world-leading research in each of the 34 disciplines (Units of Assessment) assessed in REF2021.[80]

Scotland's research drives transformation and innovation to solve global problems, such as climate change, food poverty and gender equality, and aligns with the outcomes in the Scottish Government's National Performance Framework[81] and UN Sustainable Development goals.[82]

Initiatives like Interface, the Alliances for Research Challenges, Innovation Centres and Research Pools have allowed us to establish a critical mass of excellence and harness our research and knowledge exchange capabilities.

The strength of expertise, infrastructure and regional, national, and international networks make Scotland highly competitive at leveraging in additional funds – for example, winning more funding per head in Scotland in Horizon Europe's predecessor programme Horizon 2020 than the rest of the UK (around 11% of the UK's overall funding[83] with 8% of the population share[84]).

Investment in Higher Education Research and Development has consistently ranked highly internationally over the last 20 years – Scotland was first among the OECD countries for its Higher Education Research and Development (public and private) spend as a percentage of GDP in 2021 (0.98%), above 0.42% in the OECD, 0.64% in the UK, and 0.47% for EU27.[85]

Fraser of Allander Institute analysis[86] has estimated that in 2019, all research and development spending in Scotland supported nearly 60,000 FTE jobs and £3,225m in gross value added (GVA), and that output, GVA, and employment multipliers for university research funding are typically higher than the average sector in Scotland.

Through continued investment in core research and innovation funding, the Scottish Government remains committed to ensuring that levels of public investment in university research enable researchers and universities to remain internationally competitive in an independent Scotland.

The UK operates as a common research area, ensuring no barriers to collaborative research and access to facilities for researchers throughout the UK. We recognise the benefits – for the academic community, business and research charities – of maintaining long-term stability in research funding and systems that support initiatives of scale and of researchers working together across boundaries. Recognising that it is in the interests of both Scotland and the rest of the UK, the Scottish Government will maintain a collaborative approach including shared research councils, access to facilities, and peer review.

Similarly, the international partnerships and collaborations we build help to drive our strength and excellence in research and we will continue to look to maximise opportunities available, such as those through the Horizon Europe programme. The scope, scale and prestige of the €95.5 billion European Research & Innovation Framework programme, Horizon Europe, is globally unparalleled. Scotland has benefited greatly and performed extremely well in Horizon initiatives to date, with Higher Education Institutions securing around 75% of the total funding awarded to Scottish organisations under Horizon 2020 over the period 2014 to 2020.[87]

The Scottish Government recognises visas and mobility are a barrier to international collaboration. As set out in the Building a New Scotland paper on Migration, the UK immigration system currently offers limited temporary work visas in a number of specific categories, such as charity workers and religious ministers. In an independent Scotland, these routes would be consolidated and simplified, while ensuring that all currently available categories of worker are able to access equivalent routes in the Scottish immigration system.

Academic staff (including researchers) are highly skilled and globally mobile. Scottish universities recruit staff from across the world, whilst many Scottish researchers work in institutions in other countries. This Scottish Government would, with independence, develop an approach to immigration through schemes to live and work in Scotland that would help our institutions attract international talent, supporting their research goals and establishment and development of high-growth potential companies.



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