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Commissioner for Fair Access annual report 2019: building on progress towards fair access

Published: 13 Jun 2019

Second annual report from Commissioner for Fair Access, in which he assesses the progress on fair access in Scotland.

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50 page PDF

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Commissioner for Fair Access annual report 2019: building on progress towards fair access
Chapter 3: School Performance and Fair Access

50 page PDF

985.1 kB

Chapter 3: School Performance and Fair Access

My last Annual Report did not consider the impact of school reforms on fair access to higher education, as has already been indicated in the introduction. This was a major gap. The majority of undergraduates come straight from school - or after only a short gap. This is especially true of the ancient and other more selective universities. More older students are recruited by post-1992 universities, but they are still a small minority. So changes in schools have a direct impact on higher education (although it is also true that the expectations and formal entry requirements of universities have an important influence on what happens in schools, especially in the senior years).

The default, and optimistic, assumption typically is that school and higher education reforms are aligned, and therefore that recent school reforms will necessarily have supported efforts to achieve fairer access to higher education. However, although undergraduates are very largely school leavers, the reverse is not the case. (Direct) higher education entrants are still a minority among school leavers. In 2017/18 less than half of school leavers (41.1 per cent) continued on to higher education compared with 26.5 per cent who took further education courses (although some of these will progress to higher education later) and 22.7 per cent who went straight into employment. School reforms have to address the needs of this wider population - all pupils. This may seem an obvious point. But it can be too easy for people in universities lazily to assume that the main function of schools is as a supply chain. It also means that the alignment between school reforms and higher education policies, even those designed to produce fair access by widening higher education's social base, can never be complete.

This section of my report covers two major topics:

  • School reforms, in particular the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE);
  • Improving standards, the attainment gap and the pool of school leaver entrants.

It concludes with a discussion and recommendations.

School reforms

Curriculum for Excellence

The most significant schools reform in recent years has been the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence, which was introduced in 2012 although its origins go ten years further back to a national report. CfE has been called Scotland's 'national curriculum' (although it has little in common with the National Curriculum in England). In many respects it is its opposite. CfE is an enabling framework establishing the overall philosophy and guiding principles according to which the 3-18 curriculum should be organised. Compared with SATS in England, national testing is light-touch and takes the form of standardised assessments at P1, P4, P7 and S3 to support teachers' professional judgments on CfE 'levels'. Within broad curriculum guidelines - so-called 'curriculum documents' - individual schools have wide discretion. Unlike the English National Curriculum CfE is deliberately child-centred, and based on learner needs rather than the acquisition of qualifications.

CfE comes in two phases: broad general education from pre-school through to S3; and a senior phase covering S4-S6. A deliberate aim is to reduce specialisation in the first two years of secondary education. It emphasises interdisciplinary learning throughout, and in the senior phase encourages a more varied choice of subjects and experiences, vocational as well as academic. It also allows pupils to acquire qualifications more flexibly across the senior phase rather than necessarily on an annual basis. The aim is to reduce the number of National 4 and 5 courses to allow time for other activities such as work and community experience.

CfE has been criticised on two grounds:

  • The first criticism is the potential reduction in courses in the senior phase, a politically contentious issue that may have generated more heat than light. This has three potential issues for access to university. The first issue is that this could lead to a narrowing of choices in higher education; if courses at S4 are reduced, learners may be limited in the range of courses for which they are qualified (according to current entry criteria). A second issue is that some universities have restrictions on when qualifications are acquired, which is at odds with CfE's philosophy that schools and pupils should have greater flexibility about the timing of qualifications across the whole senior phase and that what matters is the overall achievement of pupils at the end of S6. However, there is a counter argument that by taking a more creative approach to the senior phase schools are better preparing young people for independent study in university by giving them a wider range of experiences. Finally, schools in more deprived areas may not be able to offer as many subjects as those in more prosperous areas for a range of factors, including teacher shortages. However, this should not be exaggerated. According to analysis by 'The Times' in 2017, on average, schools in the least deprived areas offer 23 Higher subjects, while schools in the most deprived areas offer 17 - still a considerable choice. Overall the problem with the number of subjects appears to be not so much with Highers, which matter most to universities, as at National 5, where teacher confidence with a new qualifications remains an issue, and Advanced Highers, which can be mitigated by establishing Advanced Higher hubs;
  • The second criticism is that CfE's emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, and on skills rather than knowledge acquisition, means that pupils are less well prepared for higher education, especially degree-level study in a traditional university. Some critics have a general objection to too much emphasis being placed on skills without the foundational and contextual knowledge required for their development, although it is important to note that a similar emphasis can be observed in universities (for example, the promotion of problem-based learning and introduction of course elements on employability and even entrepreneurship). Other critics see an explicit link to fair access. This typically forthright comment came from Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh:

'If schools stop teaching structured knowledge, then inequality of access will widen because the children of the well educated and wealthy will get it in other ways.'

Other reform initiatives

Inevitably CfE has been the focus of school reform. But three other initiatives taken by the Scottish Government have important implications for schools, and access to higher education.

Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC): This initiative dates back to 2006 but was given legislative form in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. Largely focused on younger children and covering a range of public services apart from education, in particular health, this initiative established a set of principles and values to guide the work of all professionals concerned with the development and welfare of children and emphasised the need for joined-up working. The public debate about GIRFEC has tended to be dominated by controversy about the 'named person' scheme. However, its child-centredness has strong affinities with the principles underlying CfE.

Developing the Young Workforce (DYW): This initiative emphasises the need to develop vocational pathways as part of a youth employment strategy for Scotland. The percentage of school leavers with a vocational qualification at SCQF Level 5 or above has increased from 7.3 per cent in 2013/14 to 14.8 per cent in 2017/18. DYW also encourages the growth of Foundation and Modern Apprenticeships. The focus of this initiative is not on higher education entrants but school leavers who enter employment. But DYW has implications for fair access. Foundation apprenticeships, which are SCQF Level 6 and offered in partnerships between colleges and employers, offer valuable work-based learning - which can, and should, lead to degree-level study. Also as more school leavers follow vocational pathways and acquire HNC/Ds, and then aim to transfer on to degree courses, smooth and seamless articulation becomes even more crucial. Yet this continues to be one of the areas in which least progress has been made. Although not all HNC/D students come from deprived areas, the stark difference between college/HN and university first degree student profiles in terms of SIMD suggests that any failure to offer smooth progression from HNs to degree-level study will impact more on less advantaged students.

The Learner Journey 15-24: This initiative covered a wide range of topics, including the embedding of DYW in the school curriculum by 2021, the need for an expanded offer in S4 and S5 (to address one of the main criticisms of CfE), and to increase the number of graduate apprenticeships. A key theme in the Learner Journey report was the need to improve the 'alignment' of the education system, and it looked in particular at potential duplication or provision at SCQF Level 7. The report highlighted the small number of S6 learners who were admitted to Year 2 of degree courses, and the poor record on articulation which meant that only half of transferring HNC/D holders were given full credit. Although the Learner Journey review did not focus directly on fair access, 'alignment' in particular has important implications for opening up university entry to disadvantaged students. Any reduction in the overall length, and so personal cost, of higher education would clearly benefit less affluent students. But any reduction might also give them less time, and therefore make it more difficult for them, to adjust to the demands of degree-level study. However, the overall vision set out in the Learner Journey report, of a better aligned and integrated system of higher and further education, and skills training, for all young people in Scotland, would make it easier to achieve fair access to universities.

Improving standards, the attainment gap and the pool of SIMD20 applicants

The attainment gap between school leavers from the most deprived and the least deprived areas remains one of the most contentious political issues in Scotland. It is at the heart of claims by opposition parties in the Parliament that the Scottish Government has failed to achieve one of its most important priorities. The Scottish Government counters by pointing to evidence of improvement. As a result it is difficult at times to disperse the fog of politics in order to get a true picture of what has been happening both to overall standards and to the attainment gap. Each new set of statistics is cherry-picked by Scottish Government and opposition alike to support their respective arguments.

To address the attainment gap the Scottish Government has created an Attainment Fund of £750 million over the course of this parliamentary term (2016/2021), which is used in two ways. The first is to identify, and support with additional funding, 'Challenge [local] Authorities', all of which are currently in the west of Scotland apart from Dundee. This has allowed high-performing local authorities like Glasgow to play a key coordinating role for initiatives that address both the attainment gap and fair access to higher education. The second is the creation of a Pupil Equity Fund worth £120 million a year, which provides extra funding to headteachers to spend on measures designed to close the attainment gap. Currently more than 9 out of 10 schools receive some Pupil Equity Funds which are calculated in terms of registration for FSMs. Attainment adviser posts have also been funded in every local authority. Opposition parties have countered by arguing this fund cannot compensate for general under-funding of schools, and in particular teacher shortages, which in their view are the root causes of the attainment gap.

It is not part of my remit as the Commissioner to become involved in these political arguments. However, four trends are clear from the latest statistics for 2017/18 school leavers:

  • There has been a steady improvement in standards as measured by the number of leavers with SCQF Level 6 qualifications, which are most relevant in the context of entry to higher education;
  • However, the proportion of school leavers with Level 4 and 5 or better qualifications has declined slightly since 2016/17, despite the proportion with a pass at Level 5 or better increasing steadily between 2009/10 and 2016/17;
  • There continues to be a large attainment gap between the standards achieved by school leavers from the most deprived and the least deprived areas, as measured in the same way. The gap at SCQF level 6 has closed slightly from 37.6 to 37.4 percentage points between 2016/17 and 2017/18. But at SCQF levels 4 and 5 it has increased slightly, from 5.9 to 6.1 and from 19.3 to 20.3 respectively;
  • Although 30 per cent of school leavers have five Higher passes (or equivalent) or more, a record proportion, the total number of school leavers has remained fairly stable - and actually declined from 51,300 in 2016/17 to 49,748 in 2017/18. This reflects Scotland's overall demography, and has obvious implications for the total pool of potential applicants to higher education, and in particular potential applicants from more deprived areas.

The impact on fair access to higher education is twofold:

1. The access gap in higher education is an inevitable reflection of the attainment gap in schools - to some degree. It is argued that universities cannot be expected to over-compensate for inequalities in pupil performance by having variable entry requirements (designed for that purpose as opposed to assessing future potential); and that they must continue to demand high academic standards. True - but only up to a point. The access gap to higher education between the most and the least deprived is currently wider than the attainment gap between the most and least deprived in schools. So the attainment gap cannot fully explain, or justify, the access gap. It is also important to note that demand for higher education is not wholly determined by 'push' factors - more pupils getting more (and better) qualifications and therefore an increase in the number of suitably qualified applicants, but also influenced by 'pull' factors such as the willingness of universities to embrace fair access and be more flexible in both the grades they require (which is being addressed by the development of contextual admissions and minimum entry standards, although perhaps too timidly) and the subjects at National and Higher grade they require for entry to particular courses. A more open stance on admissions on the part of universities sends a powerful message back into schools, and provides schools and pupils with a significant incentive to raise standards.

2. The comparatively modest progress made towards narrowing the attainment gap, combined with a fall in the total number of school leavers, means the pool of potential SIMD20 applicants has not increased significantly. This carries two risks:

  • The first risk is that, in order to meet their targets, universities will compete for these applicants. This could produce a zero-sum game by simply shuffling a limited number of suitably qualified SIMD20 candidates between universities, and also potentially hit college recruitment. The relative scarcity of suitably qualified SIMD20 applicants may also potentially set up a tension between collaborative efforts, usually on a regional basis, to promote fair access generally and the efforts of individual universities to secure their 'share';
  • The second risk is that the needs of disadvantaged groups living outside SIMD20 areas and also of applicants deprived in other ways, such as older entrants and those with disabilities, will be ignored. This is why, regardless of the metrics used to measure progress towards meeting national targets (and targets for individual institutions), it is important that universities use a wider range of measures tailored to their own circumstances. As I indicated in the previous section, nearly all universities follow this course.

The views of headteachers

Inevitably headteachers have a wide range of views about the transition from school to higher education in general, and about fair access in particular. Some schools, so-called 'high progression schools', send large numbers of their young people to university. For them this is routine business. In others, labelled 'low progression schools', going to university is still comparatively rare. Consequently, progression to university has to compete for resources with other pupil trajectories. Many schools emphasise a wide range of progression opportunities - university degrees, other higher education courses in colleges, further education, and direct employment (perhaps in apprenticeships or with other training experiences). One of the difficulties in assessing the 'fit' between schools and universities is that schools have to address the needs of all young learners while universities are predominantly interested in those who apply to them (although, hopefully, the number of applicants is growing and is drawn from more diverse backgrounds).

However, in discussions with headteachers some broad messages emerge:

  • The first, intriguingly, is that widening access should not be regarded as 'an easy way' into higher education. Many pupils in schools in deprived areas nevertheless achieve good grades. Some local authorities have been more successful than others in their efforts to narrow the attainment gap. The reasons for this differential performance need to be better understood;
  • Linked to this first message is a second, that applicants from deprived communities should not be treated as a special group, confusingly favoured and stigmatised at the same time in comparison with other applicants. Their achievements and needs are different in degree not in kind. Just as headteachers see all their pupils as a spectrum with diverse destinations, so university applicants should be regarded as a similar spectrum rather than as two 'tribes', of 'access' applicants and 'standard' applicants with separate and clearly defined needs;
  • The third message is the conviction that schools have a clear sense of direction, putting the young person at the centre of everything they do. The aim is not just to get them over the next hurdle in terms of subjects and grades, but to offer the most relevant qualifications according to their ability. Also they believe emphasis should be placed on what young people have achieved at the end of the senior phase rather than the qualifications they receive year by year. There is a concern that not all universities have the same clear sense of direction;
  • A fourth message is the need to avoid the transition from S6 to the first year of university study becoming a 'cliff edge'. There should be greater synergy between them. In particular it is crucial to reduce the 'social distance' between schools and universities, which is most strongly felt by school leavers from more deprived backgrounds. There should be more scope for collaboration in terms of curriculum (and also shared teaching with university staff contributing to the teaching of Advanced Highers). The duplication between S6 and the first year also needs to be reduced;
  • A fifth message is that schools are faced with a 'myriad' of access and bridging programmes, which are often too narrow and restricted in their scope. Some headteachers argue that a body rather than individual universities should be ultimately responsible for these courses. They believe this could lead to greater simplification and produce significant savings, although this might be difficult to reconcile with autonomy of universities and the value of close local school-university links.

Discussion and recommendations

The aim of CfE is to create better learners, more resilient and adaptable young people. It is sometimes suggested that the CfE has been an obstacle to fair access to higher education because it is centred on young learners rather than focused on qualifications and because it emphasises broad learning rather than subject specialisation. In contrast university entrance is centred on grades, even if other contextual factors are now given greater weight. Most degree courses in universities are also discipline specific (although what counts as academic or professional discipline is not set in stone but changes over time). So universities are interested not only in grades but also the subjects in which grades were achieved (and, more controversially, the school year they were achieved in). My view is that the idea that there is some kind of culture clash between the CfE and the requirements of universities has been overstated and, to the extent that there is a clash, universities should adjust to what is happening in schools at least as much as schools should shape their curriculum to meet the needs of entry to university.

Recommendations to support school and university alignment

The wider responsibilities of schools should be recognised by universities which should avoid attitudes and actions that may, however unintentionally, suggest that other pathways followed by school leavers are 'second best'. The aim should be to conceive of all these pathways as elements within a unified system of tertiary education and training.

The relationship between secondary education and higher education should cease to be defined largely in terms of the assumed 'deficits' of schools in preparing young people for university entrance. In the spirit of contextual admissions universities should be more flexible in the Higher subjects they require and the number of Highers as well as grades.

The differences between the senior phase of secondary education and university education in terms of the balance between skills acquisition and knowledge accumulation should not be exaggerated.

There should be greater synergy between the senior phase of secondary education, especially S6, and the first year of university, with more university staff involved in particular with helping to deliver Advanced Highers.

Although removing control of access and bridging programmes from universities would be undesirable, universities should move quickly to establish a more coherent and consistent network of these programmes.