Education and social mobility in Scotland

Alan Milburn

Alan Milburn

In a lecture in Edinburgh last week, Alan Milburn spoke about the ways in which education can break what he ‘the link between demography and destiny’. As Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Milburn’s views on social mobility are well known in the UK. Basically, he believes that there is barely any movement into or out of different socio-economic classes in Britain, and that this is reducing opportunities for all, as well as damaging the effective workings of our society and economy.

Some may be surprised that any such lecture was needed in Scotland, but they shouldn’t be. As Milburn said, ‘Almost half of senior Scottish judges were educated in private schools compared to just 5% of the population as a whole and the country’s top universities remain dominated by students from better-off backgrounds’. Elitism doesn’t stop at the border.

And this is reflected in our higher education system, with social selection being as marked in Scotland’s universities as in England’s or Wales’s. Milburn also noted the challenges facing colleges in promoting social mobility – though here I would add that we still know virtually nothing systematic about the social and economic effects of Scotland’s distinctive system of short-cycle higher education, which is largely provided in colleges – arguably at the expense of other activities, including vocational training and part time education.

What was more surprising, to me at least, was how low down the pecking order the issue of social mobility is for Scotland’s policy-makers. The Scottish Government has been praised for moving towards an outcomes-based approach to policy monitoring, but the quality of its outcome indicators leaves a lot to be desired.

As Milburn put it, when it comes to child poverty, ‘Under the framework we will know about the proportion of children with low wellbeing scores, who are not eating fruit and vegetables, or playing sport, or who find it easy to talk to their mother – but there is nothing about early childhood development, school readiness, university access or any measure of how poor children do on educational attainment’.

So one starting point for action may well be to look much more systematically at what we know about education and social mobility, particularly where the education is publicly funded. And I would say to Mr Milburn that as well as schools, colleges and universities, we need to think about how social mobility is affected, for better or worse, by adult learning.