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Can it be done?

Sarah Morrison, Manager of SFC-funded LIFT OFF, finds grounds for optimism amongst the challenges of fairer access to university.

The First Minister could not have been any clearer in 2014 when she spoke of that child born today in one of our most deprived communities.

Her ambition for that child is that it will have the same chance of going to university as a peer born into one of Scotland’s least deprived communities. It’s a noble ambition, steeped in fairness and equality. The big question is; can it be done?

That child is doing what children do best; growing up at an alarming rate and according to research evidence, things aren’t looking great. It is likely that it will already fallen behind its more advantaged peers in terms of vocabulary and problem solving. Teenagers in their community who are leaving school now are four times less likely to go to university than a young person from the 20% least disadvantaged background. 

So where’s the good news?

The publication of ‘A Blueprint for Fairness’, the final report of the Commission on Widening Access (COWA), and Sir Peter Scott’s subsequent appointment as Scotland’s Commissioner for Fair Access has given the sector a new energy. New groups abound while others are revitalised; all looking at ways to implement the recommendations. The opportunity – and it is just that – is being grabbed with both hands with willingness and enthusiasm. The target, tough as it is, has provided a solid platform around which we can unite and work on delivering a more comprehensive, connected and cohesive offer to those young people in Scotland who most in need of our expertise. 

Directly linked to this is the emerging theme of greater recognition of the role of access practitioners. While there are many local and some national networks for strategists and policy-makers in access work, similar opportunities for those working directly with learners have been sparse. Developing an inclusive national community of practice can only benefit learners; providing a safe space for sharing information and ideas, exchanging best practice, expanding networks and enhancing CPD. Watch this space.

As recognised in the COWA report, the issues surrounding fair access are extremely complex, and the notion of a ‘silver bullet’ to resolve them in a stroke is naïve. Engaging expertise from providers of education at all levels is a big step towards developing a shared understanding and a common language for those in schools, colleges and universities. This was a key theme from Scotland’s Fair Access Conference held in Perth on the 20th June.

Limited space to write on such a complex issue inevitably leads to huge tranches of important discussion being left out. There is no room to talk about the context of Scotland’s secondary education system, the specific issues around part-time learners, mature students, retention, articulation, subject-specific gender gaps or working with young carers and care-experienced students.

However, the question was ‘can it be done’? Provided the growing momentum and ongoing commitment and enthusiasm from practitioners across the sector are maintained, the answer from this unashamed optimist is … I hope so!

Sarah Morrison, Manager of LIFT OFF - 28 Jun 2017