“For young students in full-time higher education in Scotland, the net effect of policy decisions over the decade to 2015-16 will be a resource transfer from low-income to high income households.”
So concludes Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s research paper for the University of Edinburgh on support for Scottish students in full-time Higher Education. This is to say, that the abolition of tuition fees in 2008 and the replacement of the grant structure with a new loan system, has disproportionately benefitted the wealthy. It is only richest households who make a net gain from the policy, and they also end up an additional £5,000 better off than the poorest as a result after a 4-year university course. This data led the FT’s John McDermott to conclude what cannot be ignored: “the SNP has let down Scotland’s poorest students”.
Benefitting most from the £600 million Holyrood splurges on Higher Education are the richest Scots, in households earning over £54,000 a year, while the poorest are offered lacklustre primary and secondary education and less-than a 2.5% chance of going to a good university.
It is clear, therefore, that when it comes to education, the SNP are the party of the rich.
This fact demands to be noticed, and thankfully it has been highlighted not only by McDermott, but also by Alex Massie in the Spectator and Chris Deerin in the Scottish Daily Mail. In short, the institutional disadvantage faced by Scotland’s poorest, and indeed those better off too, is crippling what was the best educated nation in Europe in the 18th Century.
Since tuition fees were scrapped in 2008, the share of poorest students applying to university has decreased from 8% to 7%. South of the border, however, (and in spite of the fee increase) more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than ever are applying to university, getting the grades they need, and then going off to study. Herein, free tuition is not benefitting the poor even in the simplest of terms, but instead subsidising those that can afford to pay. And, those few that do go in Scotland, are – as has been shown – worse off for the absence of tuition fees.
To investigate one rung down from university, one can see gulfs in achievement at Highers between not just the richest and the poorest in Scotland, but between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The supposed gold-standard of Scottish state education is the achievement of 5 passes at Highers, to which only 12% of state-educated children in Scotland attain. In disadvantaged areas, 12% is a far off dream for state schools. In Glasgow, only 8% of pupils achieved this standard in 2013, with 15 Glaswegian schools failing to reach 5%. This includes Drumchapel High School where only 1% of students achieved 5 Highers, and Govan High, where not a single pupil in S5 achieved even 3 Highers passes.
The SNP’s Utopian dream of free higher education is, at best, useless, and, at worst, a careless disregard for the most disadvantaged in Scotland.
Now, disadvantaged areas are often associated with poor educational performance – but this is not an immovable object, as both Deerin and Massie have pointed out in their writing, and as academies and free schools have proved in policymaking. Mossbourne Community Academy has only been open in Hackney since 2004, and nearly half of its pupils are either eligible for free school meals or are in care and 42% speak English as a second language. But last year, 99% of children at Mossbourne achieved 3 A-Level passes and 22% got AAB or better. Mossbourne, as with other academies and free schools in England, serves as proof that economic circumstance need not determine educational outcomes.
As Alex Massie wrote in the pamphlet ‘First Class’ that “some of the best state schools in Scotland are outperformed by academies in London in which more than half the intake qualify for free meals and the gap between the performance levels of schools such as Mossbourne and Scottish schools with comparable socio-economic demographics is so vast it should be considered a national disgrace”. He is right, especially when considering S4 performance in comparison to GCSEs. Achieving 5 passes at SCQF Level 5 is judged to be roughly equivalent to 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. At Jordanhill School in Glasgow, where only 3% of pupils qualify for free school meals, the percentage of S4 students meeting this standard was 84% in 2013. In contrast, at King Solomon in Marylebone (London), over half of students are on free school meals and 65% speak English as a second language, but 93% achieved the equivalent standard in their GCSEs. An inner-city English school with some of the poorest students in the country outperformed a Scottish school in an affluent area. At Scottish schools in areas comparable socio-economically to King Solomon, as few as 14% of children achieve this level.
The state of the Scottish education system may seem sorry, and yet any criticism of it seems only to rebuff the anti-austerity mantra of the SNP. It is interesting then, perhaps, to note the negative impacts of the SNP’s own austerity measures on Scottish education. The 2011-2012 SNP budget reduced councils’ General Resource Grant by 8%, which led to a 5% cut in councils’ spending on education between 2011 and 2013. The result? A reduction in teacher numbers totaling 4,000 at a time when literacy and numeracy rates are falling year on year and falling disproportionately among the disadvantaged.
Taking this all into account, Deerin concludes: “no one in relatively comfortable economic circumstances should choose a free university education for their children over early intervention in the lives of those kids who have least.”
Such a trade off is what is facing the Scottish education system. It makes the £600 million spend on free tuition a morally impossible position to take. All that is left for those who care about social justice and educational inequality is to pray for the day that the rocks melt with the sun and the callous gimmick scrapped.