'Accidental bias’ mars HE equal access ambitions in Scotland

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
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A lack of information for parents about the subjects that universities prefer is leading to an ‘accidental cultural bias’ against poorer students, it is claimed. Sam Phipps reports

Secondary schools need to give clearer information about subject choices if more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are to go to university, according to a leading Scottish educationalist.

Too many young people miss out on higher education because schools and parents lack information about the qualifications favoured in admissions criteria, said Professor Cristina Iannelli of Edinburgh University’s School of Education.

The result is an “almost accidental cultural bias” that limits the life chances of those from poorer backgrounds and catchment areas.

Breaking down social barriers to higher education, as well as closing the attainment gap at secondary level, is among the SNP government’s stated priorities. It established a Commission on Widening Access, which will report in the spring.

Dame Ruth Silver, who chairs the commission, told a conference organised by Prof Iannelli in Edinburgh that it was wrong to assume the aspirations of young people and their parents from disadvantaged backgrounds were necessarily lower.

“The real issue is knowing how to achieve these aspirations and understanding the system. Our engagement work also highlights that people often know how to ‘work’ the UCAS system to increase their chances of success,” Dame Ruth said.

The present socio-economic inequality in higher education is “unfair, unsustainable and detrimental for Scotland”, she added, and equal access is compatible with academic excellence.

Prof Iannelli, who has made comparative studies of different countries including Ireland and Germany, said social inequalities in access to higher education were not necessarily more marked in Scotland but emerged in different ways.

“In Scotland, the role played by subject choice is too big – and early choices are really driving final choices. There is a strong link between what you take at S3/S4 and your exams in S5/S6. Often there is no way of going back to study, say, sciences because the curriculum is built in such a way that it is progressive – you can’t catch up.

“Also, I haven’t come across another country in Europe where maths and English can be dropped so easily in the last two years of secondary,” Prof Iannelli said. Elsewhere, pupils tend to study them even if they do not take an exam.
English, maths, sciences, languages, history and geography are among the most highly valued by Russell Group universities, yet some schools – and parents – underplay their importance.

The flexibility of Curriculum for Excellence, though an admirable ideal, could be having some unintended negative consequences, Prof Iannelli suggested. “If it leads to more inequalities because some people are more informed than others then clearly you have a problem.

“It depends how it is managed – teachers must talk to parents about these choices so that children are informed through the family rather than just the school.”

Eileen Prior of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) agrees that subject options and specialisations tend to start at too young an age.

“Plenty of research has shown that family is one of the key influences in pupils’ decisions but unless parents have first-hand experience of what is at stake, it is hard to pass on useful information.”

Skills Development Scotland (SDS) has recognised that the transition from primary to secondary is a crucial time to start looking at these different potential pathways so that it is not left to S4, Ms Prior said.

Prof Iannelli cited the success of the Schools for Higher Education Programme (SHEP), run by 19 schools in the south east of Scotland with traditionally low progression rates to colleges and university.

SHEP offers targeted pupils from S3 to S6 support in terms of considering, and preparing for, higher education, including school-based workshops and college and university campus-based activities and conferences. Student volunteers are closely involved.

“We found the retention rate of SHEP students at higher education is no different from other schools, which is an encouraging sign of what can be achieved,” she said.

Scottish universities vary widely in terms of distribution of entrants from different socio-economic groups, based on the Scottish Index of Multiple deprivation (SIMD). In 2013/14 the percentage of entrants from the poorest fifth of backgrounds (SIMD20) ranged from 4.3 to 24.4 per cent. In only two institutions was this group of students not under-represented.
Family finances also affect which subjects secondary pupils decide to pursue. “Young people from more deprived areas will tend to select subjects where no extra costs are attached in terms of materials or trips,” Ms Prior said.

Scottish universities are not the only ones in the UK under pressure to widen access. Oxford and Cambridge need to raise the intake of state school pupils by a quarter and a fifth respectively to meet their benchmarks for disadvantaged pupils, according to Westminster’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

In its annual report, published in December, it showed that state-educated pupils still take up only about 60 per cent of Oxbridge places despite a six percentage point rise between 2003/04 and 2013/14. The Commission detailed the performance of individual colleges.

The true picture at Oxbridge is likely to be much bleaker for the most disadvantaged, educationalists say, because the state sector includes grammars as well as schools in wealthy catchments.

Prof Iannelli said social inequalities in education could not be separated from wide income disparities present in many countries, including the UK and US.

“We cannot expect schools and universities to tackle this problem in isolation when inequality is much more entrenched in society. It is very difficult for someone to overcome all those disadvantages just by going to school.”

She welcomed the Scottish government’s determination to gather more evidence. More detailed and coherent monitoring of individuals’ attainment throughout school and higher education and into the labour market is needed, she argues. Standardised assessment at primary, which is being proposed in Scotland but has faced criticism from teaching unions, would help to this end, Prof Iannelli said.

Overall, many Scottish universities are already highly active in tackling the access problem, with the likes of outreach schemes for schools in deprived areas, university summer schools and contextualised admissions. “The problem is the size of these initiatives. If we look at the data we do not see a big rise in the number of pupils from lower social backgrounds getting in to these universities. Instead, most of the expansion in the tertiary sector has happened through colleges,” Prof Iannelli said.

Liz Smith, education spokesperson of the Scottish Conservatives, said the government needed to ensure more schools in deprived areas offer a wider provision of subjects, including Advanced Highers. “At the same time, you don’t want this to be at the expense of good-quality vocational learning, which suits plenty of people too.”

Asked what she would most like to see from the Commission when it reports in the next few months, Prof Iannelli replied: “I hope we see a wider approach, not just what universities can do. There is no doubt that targeting more policies at an early stage to reduce the gap – so it doesn’t accumulate over years – would be very worthwhile.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance journalist.

Further information

For more on the work of Prof Iannelli, visit http://aqmen.ac.uk/research/education


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