Scottish education: why don’t the sums add up?

Education policy researcher Gill Wyness asks how Scottish higher education participation rates are so high when inequality of school attainment is rife. This is from the Guardian…

…Scotland’s differing attitude towards higher education continues to the present day. The government’s decision to abolish tuition fees after devolution was intended to “restore Scotland’s centuries-old tradition of free education” and ensure that its high rates of university participation continued. And the domestic higher education sector does seem to be flourishing.

The higher education initial participation rate (which measures the proportion of 16-30 year olds in higher education) stood at 56% in Scotland in 2011, 7 percentage points higher than England’s 49%. But before breaking out the whisky, it is worth studying Scotland’s education figures in a bit more detail, an exercise we recently performed at LSE.

Scotland’s apparent historic prioritisation of education holds up when it comes to compulsory school education. Around 80% of young people in Scotland achieve five or more standard grades – roughly the same figure as GCSE attainment in England. But when it comes to the next level of education – Scottish Highers, essential for entrance to university – attainment of Scottish pupils is surprisingly low compared with England.

Only 37% of young people in Scotland achieved three or more Highers (enough to get into some but not all degree programmes at Scottish colleges and universities) by the end of sixth year in 2011. By way of rough comparison, 52% of English students got two A-levels. And when looking at the proportion of Scottish young people getting five Highers – enough for a chance to get into an elite institution, the proportion slips back to 26%.

How can Scotland’s higher education participation rate be so high when many of Scotland’s young people don’t appear to be achieving the results to get into degree programmes? The answer may lie in the Scottish executive’s definition of higher education, which includes one and two year higher national diploma (HND) and higher national certificate (HNC) courses as well as degrees. Statistics show that almost half of Scotland’s higher education students are actually studying for the former.

This may not be a problem, of course. Scotland’s education system is known for its flexibility and has a history of promoting shorter courses, which can be topped up later. However, research shows that individuals with fewer years of education gain lower wage returns on average. And perhaps more significantly , HNDs and HNCs may carry less cachet in job markets in England and overseas, making Scotland’s economy potentially more insular.

But a further and potentially more damning issue emerges around inequality of educational outcomes. Our research revealed startling levels of inequality in attainment between Scottish pupils from different socio-economic groups. As early as age seven, there are large differences in reading and maths attainment between children from rich and poor backgrounds.

These inequalities increase with age. At the age of 15, the richest quartile of pupils achieved 549 points on the well-recognised international PISA test in 2009, on a par with the average score in Hong Kong (which was placed third in the OECD for maths that year). The bottom quartile achieved only 456 points, on a par with Turkey, which was placed 44th.

Data published by the Guardian’s datablog reveals equally shocking statistics. In 2011 only 220 – that’s 2% – of the poorest fifth of Scottish pupils managed to achieve sufficient grades in their fifth year (three or more As at Higher) to get them into one of the best universities, versus 17% of the richest fifth. In my own home town of Dundee, only five pupils from the poorest quintile achieved three or more As.

Evidence from the Scottish Government’s new post-16 bill backs up this evidence. It reports that 11% of students attending university in 2010/11 came from the 20% most deprived areas. This bill aims to target this group and ensure they have “fair access” to education.

This seems like a laudable goal, and it’s good news that the inequality in our education system is being brought into the referendum debate. But the fact remains that Scotland’s long devolved education system has done little to tackle this shameful issue. Inequality is a deep-rooted problem which starts in youth, and an independent Scotland will have to focus its resources far beyond post-16 outcomes if it wants to get to grips with it.

Gill Wyness is a researcher in education policy at the London School of Economics and the liberal think tank CentreForum – follow it on Twitter @CentreForum

More at:  Scottish education: why don’t the sums add up?

What do you think Scotland is getting right in terms of education and where is it going wrong? Why, in particular, is equality of attainment so low? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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  1. John__Field

    MesmaUK SchoolsImprove Thanks, Louise. Usual neglect of social and educational inequalities in our system

    • MesmaUK

      John__Field SchoolsImprove Entirely personal note, best part of my education was in village school in Aberdeenshire. Incredible teaching.

  2. There is a further dimension to educational inequality that needs attention. It is true that the growth of higher education in colleges in Scotland did indeed help to widen participation. All the available evidence confirms that those who take HNCs/HNDs come from a less privileged background than the vast majority of degree students in Scotland’s universities. But this also means that those who are least advantaged are effectively ‘streamed’ into non-university institutions, making Scottish universities the most socially selective of all the UK nations. And social inequality is further reinforced by the outcomes: completion rates tend to be comparatively low (so far as we can tell from the official figures), and the qualifications are not as well rewarded. Outside Scotland, indeed, it can be difficult for an HND holder to persuade an employer that their qualification is really a higher education award. And although there is the possibility of entering a university from an HNC or HND with advanced standing, the numbers who do so are relatively small – mainly because admissions tutors in the most selective universities prefer to recruit conventional school-leavers.
    Taken together, these patterns have helped to entrench inequality – which is exactly why the current Scottish government concluded that legislation was needed.

  3. Wargamer204

    SchoolsImprove Parenting is on a decline, pols add pointless burdens to teachers (they want to be elected so they won’t need to work)

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