Cracking the class ceiling: where next for Scotland?

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From the chair’s foreword

The Commission on Widening Access has just published its final report. You can read a copy here. Chaired by Ruth Silver, a highly respected former college principal who has considerable experience in adult and further education, the Commission listed 34 recommendations, which it describes as adding up to “a system wide plan to achieve equal access within a generation”.

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Dame Ruth Silver

Overall, I’d say that the Commission’s recommendations are as ambitious as this overall aim suggests. It focuses particularly on the massive socio-economic inequalities that characterise higher education participation in Scotland (I’m assuming I don’t need to dwell on the inequalities in other countries). It starts by calling on the Scottish Government to appoint a Commissioner for Fair Access, whose remit will among other things include responsibility for a ‘more substantial evidence base’ than exists at present.

This sounds to me as though the Commission thinks that OFFA (the Office for Fair Access) has on the whole worked well as an advocate for promoting wider access in England, though for tactical reasons this may be something to mutter quietly north of the border. However, the proposed Scottish Commissioner would have greater powers to work with schools and other pre-16 providers than OFFA, allowing a sharper strategic focus and helping avoid suplication.

The Commission also tackles one of the great challenges in ensuring equity in Scottish higher education: the problem of articulation. In its interim report, the Commission praised the expansion of higher education provision in colleges as a sunstantial contribution to wider access. The problem comes when students try to transfer from a college to university: the Commission estimate that 84% of transfers involved only five universities, with the most selective universities admitting few students and recognising less credit.

This is a problem of long standing, and it is a significant block on social mobility. I was delighted to see a strongly-worded recommendation, urging the Scottish Funding Council to “seek more demanding articulation targets from those universities that have not traditionally been significant players”.

It also makes a number of recommendations about admissions criteria and procedures that will be widely welcomed by advocates of wider access, but will be less popular among academics and managers in the more selective universities. In a move that will provoke horror from some senior managers, the Commission proposes that the SFC should make more use of existing regulatory powers to drive wider access, and urges the Scottish Government to publish data on fair access.

The Commission also recognised that the stratified nature of Scottish higher education has consequences for graduate destinations. Essentially, those who enter the most selective forms of higher education are far the most likely to enter elite professions; those who complete short cyle higher education in a non-university context are the least likely. The report also notes that the least advantaged students are also less likely, on average, to complete their qualification.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Commission was unable to consider inequalities in outcomes for graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds in any depth. Its final recommendation invites the new Commissioner to “consider what futher work is required to support equal outcomes after study for those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with a care experience”.

My initial reaction, then, is that the Commission has done a pretty decent job. I have some reservations about key gaps – for example, the lack of explicit attention to ethnicity and gender. The remit – as you can see above – was narrowly focussed on children’s life chances, with no acknowledgement of second chance learners. But on the whole, I think Ruth Silver and her colleagues have delivered an important and challenging agenda for equity and mobility in Scotland, in a report that should be of interest way beyond our borders.

What will happen next is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government. Angela Constance, the minister responsible for education and lifelong learning, has broadly welcomed the report (while patting herself and her Government on the back, both for their past achievments, and for appointing the Commission in the first place). Her official statement concluded with the following sentence:

I am very grateful to Dame Ruth Silver and the Commissioners for the considerable time, effort and engagement they have put into producing this ’Blueprint for Fairness’. Their recommendations are bold and thoughtful and fit well with ongoing work around closing the attainment gap and developing the young workforce.

This reads to me as though adult learning still has no part to play in the Scottish Government’s strategy for wider access, which is disappointing, if not very surprising. But the Scottish Government has already faced down the more conservative-minded leaders in the higher education sector in demanding reforms to governance, so I am hopeful that they will go at least some way to tackling the social class inequalities and injustice that this report has highlighted. And if you want to monitor developments, you could do much worse than follow the well-informed and analytical blog of Lucy Hunter Blackburn, here.

 

 

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Sneering at adult learners – why do we let them get away with it?


Adult learning is in crisis across the UK. While demand appears to be as high as ever, and the wider public case is as strong as ever, all four governments are busily cutting direct and indirect funding for provision. And when pressed to justify the cuts, it seems that they simply can’t help themselves from deriding adult learners.

Here’s a case from this morning’s newspapers. Asked about a collapse in part-time information technology courses, the minister responsible said

there has been a deprioritisation in the range of computing courses that are about things such as how to work a mouse and how to organise your calendar at Christmas.

Leave aside that wonderful word ‘deprioritisation’, and reflect for a moment on the idea that adult courses in IT are about no more than organising your Christmas calendar. Just take five seconds to think about why ‘organising your Christmas calendar’ might help to engage some hesitant learners – and then spend another five seconds thinking about who such a course might appeal to.

I’m sure you’re ahead of me, but here’s one example. A study by Age UK found that whilst 13 per cent of the adult population in the UK have never used the Internet, the over-65s comprise over 75 per cent of this excluded group – almost 5 million people. Then add to that the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of learning for older adults.

It’s easy to show that these are silly comments, throw-away remarks that are designed to belittle adult learners and those who support them. But enough. What is important is that sneering at adult learners is so commonplace.

Alan Johnson, when Labour’s education secretary, justified cuts in 2006 by saying that we needed ‘more plumbing, less pilates; subsidised precision engineering, not over-subsidised flower arranging’. John Denham, then Labour’s minister for higher education, defended his government’s 2008 cuts by describing adult education as little more than ‘holiday Spanish’ (only among the Brits would learning a foreign language be seen as frippery). The Coalition’s skills minister Matthew Hancock, also justifying cuts in 2014, jeered at ‘qualifications in coaching angling, aerial balloon displays and self-tanning’.

This discourse of derision has a long history in our field. Alan Tuckett used to recall his days organising an adult centre in Brighton, when a local Tory councillor tried to dismiss its courses as ‘tap-dancing on the rates’. Our early days at Northern College – where working class people came to study – heard cries of ‘the Kremlin on the hill’. And needless to say, similar jibes faced the men and women who created our adult education institutions.

So what can we do about it? To start off, we can benefit from building a different relationship with policy makers, based on dialogue and reason. And that might mean that we in turn start to treat policy makers as people who are trying to get something done, in conditions that they understand better than we do. Speaking truth to power is an easy slogan, but we need to creat platforms for exchange rather than just shouting from our studies.

This doesn’t mean accepting insults that are designed to dismiss us before we even get in the room. In the short term, we need to rebut each and every small-minded jibe. We might even indulge in the occasional cheap shot ourselves – for example, I cant help pointing out that our dismissive Scottish minister was educated at public expense for four years in one of Scotland’s ancient universities.

In the longer term, we need to make a concerted effort to explain the benefits of adult learning, and put policy-makers in situations where they engage directly with adult learners. We have a small mountain of robust evidence on the economic, social and health benefits of adult learning; let’s get it in front of the widest possible audience. And let’s sit policy makers down with learners who can explain exactly why learning how to manage a calendar on a lap top might be an important first step back.