Blame schools for universities’ lack of poor kids

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By George Kerevan 
  
Michael Russell, the SNP education secretary, is a political bruiser in the old Denis Healey mould. By which I mean he is clever, creative and willing to take on vested interests and enjoy the political scrap. These days, Russell is also that indispensable requirement for any Cabinet – a safe pair of hands.

In 2009 he was passed the education portfolio, always a political time bomb as incumbents everywhere have to reconcile the demands of the teaching unions, the ideologues and, of course, parents. The worst thing any education minister can do is try to please everyone – that way lies both madness and a short career. Fortunately, Russell likes a fight, which means Scottish education has some leadership for a change.

Contrary to tabloid hysteria, Scotland does well in international school league tables. The respected PISA study puts Scots 15-year-olds in sixth place among the industrial OECD countries for reading literacy and equal fifth in maths. However, one can argue that Scotland is marking time in educational attainment while many small industrial nations are pouring effort and treasure into improving their ranking. It is also true that there is a hard core of young Scots who leave school without qualifications.

Russell has set about solving these problems with vigour. Unfortunately, one of his pet notions is wide of the mark. He believes that Scottish universities don’t admit enough students from poorer backgrounds and is threatening to pass legislation to widen access for those from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Nationalising university admission is a risky proposition. How justified is it? And is Russell addressing Scotland’s real educational problems? I’m not so sure.

First let’s grasp just how successful Scotland is with its higher education system – partly as a result of the free tuition policy pursued by the SNP government. Student numbers in Scotland are at an all-time peak. The participation rate in 2010-11 was an all-time high of 55.6 per cent compared to only 47 per cent in England. Nor has this expansion led to any noticeable dumbing down. Three Scottish universities – Edinburgh (21), Glasgow (54) and St Andrews (93) – make it into the prestigious QS global university rankings for 2012; on a par with the Netherlands and Canada and more than from Sweden, Denmark or Finland. A look at which subject areas have seen the largest increase in student numbers over the decade to 2010-11 indicates no Gadarene rush towards “soft” subjects. Student numbers were up 16 per cent in medical courses and 20 per cent up in science and engineering.

But are young people from poorer backgrounds being deliberately left out of this success story, as Russell claims? Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency do show that 26.6 per cent of full-time undergraduates studying in Scotland in 2011-12 came from the poorest homes, compared with 30.7 per cent across the UK. (Though please note these are relative figures and the absolute number of students from poorer backgrounds continues to rise.)

Certainly, middle-class children have social advantages when it comes to parental encouragement. On the other hand, there is absolutely no evidence of deliberate class bias in university selection – Scotland’s universities have always had an egalitarian bent. Since 2001, every higher education institution in Scotland has signed up to a commitment to improving social inclusion, including valuing non-academic achievement in the selection process. By and large, the older Scottish universities actually discriminate on the margins against students from independent schools.

The failure of working class children to take greater relative advantage of the mass expansion of university places from the 1990s onwards lies outside higher education altogether – at secondary level where many pupils still fail to gain the necessary entry qualifications or learn the skills for advanced study. Only 10.5 per cent of pupils from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland obtain the normal minimum entry requirements for university compared to 48 per cent from the least deprived 20 per cent. That’s your problem, Mike – not biased university selection committees.

The proof of this contention lies in the experience down south. Improvements in English working-class student participation rates result directly from the emphasis put after 1997 in boosting literacy levels in schools in deprived areas. Scottish students from poor backgrounds who do achieve university entry-level qualifications are more likely to go to university than their middle class compatriots. Between 37-40 per cent of all pupils from poorer areas who satisfy entry criteria go on to university compared to an equivalent figure of only 30-33 per cent of all pupils from the most advantaged areas. The lad and lassie o’pairts is still alive in Scotland – provided the local school does its job.

Russell should also pay heed to one unintended consequence of his emphasis on student numbers: the high drop-out rate. Scotland has the worst drop-out rate in the UK. In 2010-11, it was 9.4 per cent compared with 8.6 per cent for the UK and 8.4 per cent in England. The retention rate for students from the most deprived backgrounds is 7 per cent lower than those for students overall – something that needs to be addressed. The ballooning of student numbers in our universities is in stark contrast to the political injunction by all parties to lower class sizes in primary and secondary schools.

On Wednesday, in a speech at Glasgow University, Russell announced that underachieving schools in poorer localities will henceforth be “paired” with schools that have achieved better academic results (though the latter are also supposed to be in “deprived” areas). These new partnerships are aimed at helping schools “learn from each other and break the link between poverty and attainment”, according to Russell. In other words, it is a not-so-subtle form of benchmarking and competition, and nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps Bruiser Russell’s misplaced attack on our universities is merely a tactic to divert attention while he sneaks up on our underperforming schools through his “partnership” plan. I certainly hope so.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper