Cradle to grave education: economic driver or enlightened fulfilment?

Written by Tom Freeman on 28 October 2016 in Inside Politics

Holyrood examines the Scottish Government's self-proclaimed highest priority and finds a whole-system approach to inequality in attainment is about more than schools

Cradle to grave education -  istock

Education, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is the “defining mission” of this government. What sweeping reform lies ahead for the sector, then? 

In fact, Sturgeon’s Programme for Government contained no planned legislation with a specific education focus.

And with the SNP no longer enjoying an overall majority, when the Scottish Government does get round to legislating on education again, consensus will be required with opposition parties.

But for now, preparation for an expansion in early years provision, defining standardised testing in primary schools, consulting on the structure of school governance, enacting university governance reform and implementing the recommendations of Dame Ruth Silver’s Commission on Widening Access (CoWA) will keep our politicians busy enough.


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“Scotland has a moral, social and economic duty to tackle this inequality,” said Silver. 

The idea of ‘cradle-to-grave’ learning was part of William Beveridge’s vision of a Britain which empowered citizens through compulsory education. 

The 1944 Education Act raised the school-leaving age to 16, and established the system of primary, secondary and further education. 

Beveridge also suggested government could help new students get into university. The concept is alive and well in Dame Silver’s report in 2016.

In her introduction to the final report, Silver warned that for every child to have access to university, the whole system of education in Scotland would have to change, as well as wider social policy.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

NUS Scotland president Vonnie Sandlan was one of the commissioners. She says the report was deliberately “bold and progressive”. 

“Despite many really positive achievements over the years, injustices in access remain – ones that can occur right from birth, and which can far too often follow you to the grave,” she tells Holyrood.

The recommendations of the commission are to be implemented “in full”, according to the Scottish Government. As well as the appointment of a commissioner, care-experienced young people will be entitled to full bursaries and a major review of student support is to be undertaken.

But what will this ‘whole-system approach’ look like? Like ‘cradle-to-grave’ education, as it happens. 

Sandlan points out the report highlights the attainment gap starts from birth. “Importantly, the work of CoWA recognised and respected that this is an issue that starts at birth [and] that we all have a role to play, identifying the actions that must be taken at every stage, by the appropriate bodies – a ‘through-life’, whole system approach,” she says.

EARLY YEARS

“Our work to close the attainment gap starts in the early years,” said Sturgeon as she outlined her Programme for Government, including piloting different ways to expand free childcare entitlement to 1,140 hours a year.

“By the end of this parliamentary session, we will have doubled the amount of free care available to all three and four-year-olds and the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is a truly transformational investment that will not only benefit children and families, but provide employment opportunities for an additional 20,000 early years’ workers.”

What is less clear, however, is how all this free care will drive up attainment or tackle inequality when it comes to learning, when children from the most deprived backgrounds are starting primary school an average of 12 months behind their better-off peers relative to their vocabulary, having far fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.

While there is a lot of evidence linking early years learning and later attainment, none of it relates to how many hours in a day children get, a point made to the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee in recent weeks.

“There is no evidence that if they were there for 1,140 hours, they would benefit twice as much as they would if they were there for half that time,” Maggie Simpson of the Scottish Childminding Association told MSPs.

Speaking to Holyrood in April, Upstart Scotland chair Sue Palmer said early years education and childcare had been conflated.

“The expansion of preschool ‘childcare’ over the last few decades has led to a hotchpotch of very variable provision and the driving force has not been high-quality early years education but the need to get parents back to work,” she said.

“Since preschool only covers a year or so, what happens to the children doesn’t get much attention in educational terms. So CfE’s Early Level is split down the middle: one or two years of highly variable childcare; one or two years of prematurely formal schooling.”

Upstart Scotland advocates starting children’s formal schooling later, at age seven. It is an idea which has had increasing attention.

Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, insists quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive, accepting the reason the private sector can provide childcare cheaper is because staff are paid lower rates. 

“We estimate that about 80 per cent of practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors in partner settings are paid less than the living wage. I note that the National Day Nurseries Association commented yesterday that it wants to see the Government’s living wage ambition realised across the sector as part of the expansion. I am keen to work with it and with others to make that happen,” he told MSPs in a recent parliamentary debate on the subject.

McDonald named quality as one of the four central principles to getting the childcare expansion to work. 

This would, he added, include supporting children to develop their cognitive, social and behavioural skills, a focus on children from more deprived areas and “a highly skilled and diverse workforce working in physical environments—indoor and outdoor—that are designed to maximise children’s experience”.

However, the Scottish Government released figures which revealed an apparent £140m underspend by councils of early years funding from the Scottish Government to pay for the current policy of 600 free hours per year.

Because many councils only provide their free hours via the state school system, the timetable is fixed and therefore does not encourage parents to enter the job market. 

“What is the point of a flagship policy if taking advantage of it becomes a logistical nightmare for parents?” asked Conservative MSP Annie Wells.

Other opposition MSPs asked how the expansion will be paid for. Scottish Labour’s Daniel Johnson said: “Almost doubling the hours that are available will almost double the cost. Is the Government committing to spending—in revenue terms—an extra £300 million or maybe £400 million a year? The analysis this week does not spell that out.

“On staff, the Government said this week that it does not know how much it will cost to advertise for, train and employ the promised extra 20,000 staff.”

Teaching Union the EIS and charity Save the Children have said all nurseries should include a qualified teacher to maintain quality. Again, this would require significant investment. 

“It is a question of making sure that we get the right combination of qualifications and career pathways, so that people know that they will have an opportunity to develop in the profession,” said McDonald.

Of course, beginning education through childcare at three is already quite late when it comes to brain development. Research has shown the roots of the attainment gap lie in the moments before birth and the circumstances we are born into.

SCHOOL TIME

Schools then must be supported by other organisations to help close the attainment gap.

“We accept the premise that educational opportunities start from an early age, and as such, the role of schools is absolutely key in raising aspirations, and ensuring positive outcomes for everyone,” says Sandlan. 

“However, we also believe that this should not be something which is isolated to schools, working on their own, and instead, universities should play an active role in promoting their value and benefits – in partnership with schools.

“Not least at a time of ever tighter budgets, that collaboration makes sense for everyone involved.”

Indeed, collaboration between local authorities and individual schools is being encouraged by the Scottish Government to maximise the potential of school budgets. Universities will be interested in what roles they can play, with some collaborations such as widening-access initiatives at the universities of Glasgow and Dundee and the Children’s University, a project which has seen Queen Margaret University and the University of Strathclyde run extracurricular activities for school children. 

Funding to address the attainment gap has also been largely focused on schools.  

The Scottish Attainment Challenge, which was expanded to include secondary schools earlier this year, has been criticised for only focusing on nine local authorities – Clackmannanshire, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire.

Additional funding announced more recently has allowed schools from outside those authorities to apply. Recently 133 secondary schools with pupils living in areas of deprivation were awarded £11.5m for projects to address the attainment gap, such as specific literacy and numeracy programmes or outdoor activities to promote health and wellbeing. 

But councils remain unhappy at tight budgets and what is perceived as unfair distribution of the attainment fund. Furthermore, as pupils returned from summer holidays, 729 teaching posts remained vacant.

Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray told education secretary John Swinney: “There is no commitment to protect education budgets. The £150 million attainment funding for 2017-18 has to be set against the £500 million that has been taken from local authority budgets this year alone—with worse to follow, I presume. We could believe so much more in all the promises in the delivery plan if the Deputy First Minister would just commit to protecting education budgets.”

The answer may eventually come in the form of radical reform of the structure of public services, if Swinney’s comments to Holyrood here are to be believed. Reform of school governance will encourage collaboration and financial flexibility in schools, he says. 

This is likely to be resisted by local government and perhaps teaching unions.

UNIVERSITY

Also radical is the proposal by the CoWA to adjust university admission thresholds for pupils from more deprived areas. 

The recommendation forms part of a series of targets to drive up the numbers of deprived students over the next decade.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures show that 18-year-olds from Scotland’s more affluent communities are four times as likely to go to university as those from the most deprived.

Andrea Nolan, new convener of Universities Scotland, tells Holyrood all of Scotland’s university principals are “absolutely committed” to widening access. “We really want to make a difference,” she says. 

“You might ask why progress has not been quicker? Well, it’s hard, but I think with the commissioner’s report coming out with its emphasis on the holistic system, and meanwhile the cabinet secretary is focusing on attainment in schools, you feel everybody is pulling together.”

Part of that will include collaboration between universities, she says. “I think what the report gave us was a renewed impetus to work together and with colleges and schools to actually make a difference.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, universities have accepted the notion of contextualised admissions. 

“There is growing evidence from people who have used contextualised admissions, and there have been universities that have used them for a number of years, that grades achieved in some contexts are not necessarily a great indicator of the potential grades achieved in another context,” says Nolan. 

“I think the onus is on us to be very clear with people, with learners, with parents and schoolteachers, etc exactly what it means, how we’re going to apply it and to learn from each other what is well evidence-based.”

Qualification requirements are far higher for university than they used to be, she points out. “We have 30,000 applications every year, so we have used grades as what we think is a reasonable transparent way of admitting people but it’s caused us other problems and that’s what we’re going to try and address.”

Student support is another aspect to feature in the recommendations of the CoWA. While student fees is an SNP flagship policy, there is also recognition that support for students while at university needs to be “equalised”, Nicola Sturgeon has said. 

Vonnie Sandlan welcomes moves to review and reform the system. “If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn’t aspire to the system we have now,” she says.

“It leaves far too many students to fall through the gaps, creating disparities between levels, types and modes of education, and with little flexibility. Even worse, in the case of the overstretched and underfunded system in further education, it can see them receive no support at all. 

“A review would ensure we scrap the injustices of the current system, and provide security and parity for all students. Perhaps most importantly, it should be a review that allows us to stop thinking in binary terms, between FE and HE, starting from a fundamental position of the role of student support in widening access, retention, and, outcomes, regardless of where, what or how they study.”

LIFELONG LEARNING

That flexibility recognises those people who have already completed, or been failed by, formal education.

Sandlan says: “Recognising that the issue begins at birth doesn’t mean we should choose inaction now or pit early years against later years. To do so would be to write off a generation, right here and right now, who are equally deserving of our action.

“We should ensure that the entire education sector – primary, secondary, and tertiary – are at all times working towards the one common cause of raising attainment, access and opportunities. And indeed, it goes beyond schools and tertiary education. Because a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach must recognise and reflect the fact that there are those who have gone before who weren’t able to benefit from our current priorities and future ambitions.”

One organisation with a long tradition of lifelong learning is the Open University (OU). Designed by Scottish Labour politician Jennie Lee as a means to democratise higher education in 1965, the OU has retained its open admissions policy which means anyone can study in their own time. 

Susan Stewart, Director of The Open University in Scotland, said the organisation’s flexible part-time learning had already been successful in widening access to higher education in Scotland, “by making it possible for people with more complicated circumstances to fit study into their lives – whether they have a family to look after or work to juggle, it means that they don’t need to make a choice between their everyday lives and their desire to learn.”

For Stewart, learning should not be seen as a linear process. “People take different routes through learning, at different times in their lives. A flexible, lifelong approach to higher education means that they can think about university at the time that’s right for them. For many people, that time isn’t straight after school. We can’t widen access with a narrow focus on school leavers.”

And while the notion of ‘cradle-to-grave’ education may be seen as the language of social justice, enriching people’s spiritual and intellectual sense of fulfilment, Stewart argues it could also benefit the economy.

“Acquiring new knowledge and higher level skills enables people to get a new or improved job, or to do their existing job better,” she says.

“A consequence of an open and integrated economy is that change happens very quickly – new sectors and types of jobs emerge as old ones disappear. Access to lifelong learning means that employers, employees, and job-seekers can prepare for and adapt to that change. That can only be a good thing for individuals, communities and the wider Scottish economy.”

Of course, conversations about inequality do tend to come back round to money. 

“We understand that our work to ensure equality in education must extend well beyond the gates of our nurseries, schools, colleges and universities,” said Nicola Sturgeon, outlining her Programme for Government. “We want to ensure that every young person can fulfil their potential, because that is the only way in which Scotland can fulfil its potential.”

Will the forthcoming child poverty bill be adequate to tackle economic inequality, though?

“The idea that child poverty can be eradicated by legislating it away with the sweep of a draftsman’s pen shows just how impoverished is the Government’s thinking on child poverty,” suggested Scottish Conservative Adam Tomkins, while Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie said: “We need to go further than merely setting statutory targets. We have seen with fuel poverty targets that targets alone are not enough, especially in areas in which devolved and reserved competences interact and may come into conflict.”  

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