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Interns Maya Zealey and Manuela Vergel joined SFC in our policy team this summer and undertook research into the role of SFC in tackling child poverty.

Tackling child poverty is one of the Scottish Government’s highest priorities. The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 established in statute the government’s targets to tackling the issue of one in four Scottish children living in poverty. The First Minister has described reducing poverty as the ‘driving mission’ of his government.

The role of education in this mission is important. While schools of course play an essential role, attending college or university can provide a pathway out of poverty and into well-paid and fulfilling work. The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) funds and administers two programmes which widen access to further and higher education – the National Schools Programme (NSP) and Scotland’s Wider Access Programme (SWAP).

The NSP aims to build a more consistent Scotland-wide offer that provides a bridge between school and the higher education system, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or communities. In AY 2022-23 the NSP supported around 50,000 Senior Phase pupils to access a range of activities including impartial advice and guidance, a visit to a campus, a recognised HE skills or top-up type course and specialist support about how to access high-demand professions.

SWAP provides a pathway to further and higher education for adults with no or few qualifications, through one-year full-time access courses at college. Of those who completed a SWAP course in 2021-22, most had no parental experience of higher education (81%), just over half were parents themselves (55%) and one third (33%) lived in the most deprived areas of Scotland. In the same year, 78% of those who completed a SWAP course went on to university, with another 18% progressing to study a Higher National Certificate.

The education and skills gained by parents who complete SWAP courses can lead to new careers and better pay, with obvious material benefits for their children. As seen in these videos produced by Focus West (a regional branch of the NSP) and SWAP, parents undertaking higher education also know that they can guide and support their children to make informed choices about college and university because of their first-hand experience. This may help to influence future generations and encourage greater numbers of younger people to consider further study as an option for themselves, and to make the best choices on subject, institution and pattern of study if they do.

In AY 2022-23, SFC provided colleges with £135m of student support funding. This provides bursaries to FE college students to help keep students in education past their school leaving date. An award can include allowances that cover a student’s maintenance, travel and study costs. Colleges can also use bursary funds to help students who have additional support needs or have an adult dependant cover costs. A separate bursary is available for care-experienced FE students. SFC also administers funding for digital inclusion, and education maintenance grants for young people from low-income households (to name just a few). By directly financially supporting these disadvantaged students, SFC works to ensure that vulnerable students can still engage fully with what they are studying, alleviating some financial pressure.

An essential group in need of support to help end child poverty are parents. A lack of flexible and affordable childcare is a primary barrier to parents accessing education and training that could provide a route out of poverty for themselves and their families. SFC directly aids FE student parents with the cost of childcare through discretionary childcare funds at college, and lone parent grants of up to £1215 a year.

SFC has worked with a wide range of stakeholders to support the Scottish Government’s flagship commitment to double the entitlement to funded Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) to all 3-5 year olds in Scotland. For example, SFC administered the Men in Early Years Challenge Fund, a pilot which ran courses specifically targeted at supporting men interested in working in ELC. The commitment to ELC was furthered recently in the Programme for Government 2023/24 with the intention to expand ELC to include families of 2 year olds, and a pilot to increase access to childcare from nine-months old to the end of primary school in six local authority areas.

SFC works at a range of levels on the complex challenge that is child poverty. Widening access efforts are targeting parents and disadvantaged young people, with tailored support for each group. Individual students are supported with their childcare costs, whilst working on national policy changes to government funded childcare. In a tough financial environment, SFC continues to prioritise this work, in recognition of its importance as a national goal.

Maya Zealey and Manuela Vergel – 13 Dec 2023