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SFC’s Dr Bernadette Sanderson explains why Scotland’s new National Schools Programme will be a timely and positive step towards more equality in tertiary education.

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Like the will to work for climate change and economic recovery, a nation’s ambition to become more equal, and therefore more prosperous, is one of the great hallmarks of a progressive society.

Scotland’s determination to foster greater equality of access to tertiary education is a major feature of the Scottish Funding Council’s recent Review of tertiary education and research, which set out a bold aim to make a significant step-change towards greater equality for Scotland’s young people at the senior phase of their education.

In line with the Review, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is combining and re-shaping its existing, successful school programmes, the Schools for Higher Education Programme, and Access to the High Demand Professions, to provide the foundation of a new National Schools Programme. The combined strength and power of these activities will harness the best expertise, professional capability and geographical coverage needed to enhance fairer access to Scotland’s colleges and universities.

This step-change is a further development of the work in recent times to enhance greater access to education and subsequent life opportunities for young people and adult learners. SFC‘s direct investment in school provision and access programmes now dates back more than twenty years. During this time, a consistent commitment has been made to fund provision to make tertiary education accessible to students from all backgrounds. In addition to this, clearer pathways have been enabled for students making the transition from school to university, and school to college (and often from there to university, via articulation pathways), all of which have required the sectors to blend more in terms of enabling student journeys, so they have more successful outcomes.

In 2014, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, set out the ambition that ‘a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university as a child born in one of our least deprived communities’. Two years later, the publication of the work of the Commission on Widening Access, A Blueprint for Fairness: Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access set out 34 recommendations for change, citing that a system-wide effort was needed, and that it was ‘time to rebalance the focus from the perceived deficit in the individual to what more the system can do to support disadvantaged learners to succeed.’

This was a very welcome starting-point for those of us who have worked in this area for a long time, and have made it our professional mission to enable more access for individuals. We often had great frustrations with systems and deeply-rooted cultures that required individuals to do more (to compensate for their perceived deficit, or simple inability to access a required qualification because it did not exist in their school or community).

Scotland’s tertiary institutions responded with a revolutionary approach; a much-welcomed system of contextual admissions, which accounts for factors at the point of admission that provide robust evidence of disadvantage. However, much more work remains to be done in this space, including a greater recognition of the levels set out in Scotland’s Credit and Qualifications Framework.

Another important development has been the launch of a Scottish Framework for Fair Access in 2019, consisting of:

  1. A toolkit to assess the effectiveness of existing interventions to promote fair access.
  2. The establishment of Scotland’s Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP).

Combined, both these resources will support access practitioners to test the validity of their programmes and practices for greater efficacy, using the Toolkit, and to deepen their professional knowledge through further training and development, via the SCAPP network. Ultimately, this support is intended to enable active practitioners in this professional area to maximise their outcomes, and deliver more fair access to education for young people and adult learners.

The SFC Review was published on the same day as the OECD report Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence: Into the Future, with its reflection on the coherence of curriculum and assessment, and also school leadership on curriculum and where school inspection functions should best reside. This, combined with the evolution of Developing the Young Workforce in Scotland, has the potential to create an even stronger forward map for young people in deciding their futures and choices.

For many pupils and students within Scotland’s education system, COVID-19 has meant an unsettled experience of national exams and tests, and the disruption of their lives both at home and at school. Home education experiences during national lockdowns have clearly not been equally good for all. Reflecting on this particular impact of the pandemic, it is clear that we owe our young people no less than the very best we can do, to support their educational futures.

In the same way as the COP26 conference demonstrated it will be young people who have the most to lose if climate discussions do not change things, we can also say that it will be young people who will suffer the most if we do not invest more effort, capacity and innovation into increasing access to Scotland’s colleges and universities. Scotland’s National Schools Programme will be a positive and determined step towards this, and an important part of the larger work in bringing colleges and universities together in new ways and providing more people with more routes into learning and skills.

Testimonials and statements

Students, volunteers and tutors
put their experience of SFC’s successful school programmes into their own words.