Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Edinburgh & Cardiff University's online course, Scotland and Wales Vote 2016: Understanding the Devolved Elections. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds OK. So Lindsay, we know that education is one of the areas the Scottish Parliament has had almost full control over since devolution. Has it tended to pursue a different agenda from the rest of the UK? Yes. There has gradually emerged, since 1999, a quite distinctive Scottish educational policy reaction, right across the political spectrum, actually, addressing all parties now, in fact. It’s been gradual, except in one very prominent area. The most prominent and probably the best known is the fact that students from Scotland attending Scottish universities are not charged fees. The university education, in other words, is free at the point of use for Scottish students at Scottish universities. And that was very high profile.

Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds It was a controversial decision that even set the Labour Party in Scotland against the Labour government at that time, the government of Tony Blair, back in the early part of the past decade. And since the early 2000s, as a result, Scottish students haven’t paid fees. There’ve been variations in how that’s been done, but essentially that has been a consensus until this election. That’s the most high profile, but in a sense it’s not the most fundamental. The most fundamental was probably the change to the curriculum of primary schools and secondary schools. In Scotland, a new curriculum was introduced called Curriculum for Excellence.

Skip to 1 minute and 17 seconds Again, it was a cross-party consensus that emerged from round about the year 2004 onward and became fully part of the school system from 2010 onwards. Although it’s called a curriculum, it’s really more a matter of how teachers teach, how they relate to children, than the content of what they teach. Basically in Scotland now, there’s much more of what’s often called child-centred education. The whole point is that the teacher is expected to follow the interest of the child. The child is expected to discover things for themselves. The teacher is thought of as a facilitator, as giving access to knowledge rather than telling children what to do.

Skip to 1 minute and 52 seconds And there is, in principle anyway, much less central prescription of what is to be learned. There’s not a list of books, for example, not a list of topics, even, in science, but rather a set of challenges to explore, especially in primary schools. For example, science wouldn’t be a list of biological facts, it would be going out into the environment and exploring what the animals and the plants and the insects and so on are that the children can discover and then building the principles on the basis of that. That’s the theory, anyway, in Scotland.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 seconds And that’s the opposite direction, actually, from the way the curriculum has gone in England, especially since the Conservative coalition with the Liberals came to power in England in 2010 and they have gone much more towards what’s traditionally thought of as being a teacher-centred curriculum, very much associated with the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, a more traditional curriculum in which the teacher is the focus, where the content is prescribed from the centre and in which there’s much less scope for local variation in response to individual children’s needs. And do we have the evidence, Lindsay, about how well this different approach to education in Scotland has worked since devolution?

Skip to 2 minutes and 54 seconds Well, the evidence is that Scotland has rather stagnated in terms of the attainment that children have. Of course, it’s very difficult to be absolutely certain, but the best evidence is when we look at international comparative studies – international, that is, not just across Scotland and England, but right across the developed world, the most famous of which is a thing called PISA, which is the Programme for International Student Assessment, run by the OECD. And it covers all the major developed countries in the world. Now, until the 1990s, Scotland was actually quite well above average internationally in these studies and England was right about average.

Skip to 3 minutes and 25 seconds And then, because the fact that England was only average produced quite a lot of controversy in the 1990s, when the Blair government came to power in 1997, they introduced a programme of change. They introduced, for example, what was called the Literacy Hour and the Numeracy Hour for primary schoolchildren in which there was a greater concentration on children learning to read effectively by mid-primary school years and also learning to count. And the evidence was then that the attainment of children in primary school in England moved ahead quite rapidly. Now, that was controversial, but nevertheless no such change happened in Scotland.

Skip to 3 minutes and 59 seconds And the evidence in Scotland, according to these international studies, was that attainment stagnated and even to an extent fell back so that Scotland is now around about the average of the developed countries. England is also around about the average. It’s consolidated that position since these improvements from the early Tony Blair years. And so Scotland and England are now very, very similar. Now, Scotland is not disastrously performing, it’s still slightly above average, it’s still quite good. But it’s certainly fallen back internationally from the position it was in 20 to 30 years ago.

Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds And we know that there have been some problems with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, but is this the broad direction in which the political parties in Scotland seem to be pushing in terms of into the future? Curriculum for Excellence has been controversial, mainly in respect of implementation. The main criticism from the non-governing parties, the non-SNP parties, has been that they claim there’s been a lack of funding for the implementation. The implementation of such programme is going to be expensive.

Skip to 4 minutes and 54 seconds If you place the emphasis on teachers inventing the curriculum for themselves and teachers creating materials – books, resources, websites, etc – for the children to follow the children’s needs and interests, then that’s going to be more expensive because teachers have to have access to the kinds of resources that would be required to do that. And teachers also have to have time, so it’s not just resources to create, for example, websites. It’s also above all, actually is teacher time to get out of the classroom and prepare these new kinds of things. So, probably, it is the case that the critics have a point to make.

Skip to 5 minutes and 24 seconds If you want to make such a very decentralised curriculum work, you probably do need more resources that have been put there up to date. But, nevertheless, the SNP, the government’s response has been that, in due course, that’s been working out and it probably is. If you read long enough, even if there’s a lack of resources, teachers will find the time to create the resources and probably will settle down, as it appears to be settling down at the present time.

Skip to 5 minutes and 45 seconds And because of that, because there was no disagreement amongst the political parties in Scotland on the content of the curriculum or on the principles of a child-centred curriculum – not even the Conservatives seriously dissented from that in Scotland – because there is such an agreement over the fundamentals. Then once the question of resources had been resolved through the gradual process of time, then the controversy over the curriculum has gone away.

Skip to 6 minutes and 8 seconds There really now isn’t very much controversy in the political sphere about the school curriculum in Scotland, which is quite a contrast to England, where there’s still controversy around the kind of traditional curriculum that Michael Gove as Conservative Education Minister tried to put in place from 2010 until just before the general election in 2015. And one of the big themes in education policy around this election has been this idea of the attainment gap. Could you say something about the attainment gap and how political parties are – The attainment gap is the point that first of all was introduced into the debate by Nicola Sturgeon when she became First Minister in the latter part of 2014.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds The attainment gap is the average difference between the attainment of children living in socially advantaged circumstances and those living in socially disadvantaged circumstances. And she has made it a very prominent part of her educational campaigning. She has said that she wants to be judged not just on reducing the attainment gap, but she says, on her capacity to end the attainment gap completely so that the average attainment, presumably, of children in different social groups would be the same in five years’ time, at the end of the next Scottish Parliament’s session. And the other parties have followed suit. So they could hardly deny this because it was clearly responding to a concern.

Skip to 7 minutes and 21 seconds So the Labour Party certainly followed that, so has the Conservative Party, and all the parties on that same kind of principle. Part of the problem, of course, with targeting the attainment gap in the way that Nicola Sturgeon has done is that there isn’t a country in the developed world in which there isn’t an attainment gap. Even the highly egalitarian system of Sweden, for example, there is an attainment gap. And actually one of the most egalitarian systems in the world in that respect is actually the USA, because the US has always placed enormous emphasis, in fact, on education, as opposed to direct provision of public welfare. There is an attainment gap in the USA, as well.

Skip to 7 minutes and 54 seconds So there is always an attainment gap in relation to social circumstances. And one of the reasons for that is intrinsic to education itself. If you educate parents well, then they will pass on the benefit of that education to their children. So every time you have a successful education system, you’re creating inequality for the next generation. So between every generation, you recreate the attainment gap. And so you’ve got to recompensate for the attainment gap that you have created in the previous generation. The only way that wouldn’t be the case in an education system would be if everyone had exactly the same attainment.

Skip to 8 minutes and 30 seconds And, of course, that’s extremely unlikely because inequality of attainment is not just due to social circumstances, it’s also due to natural endowment and it’s due to things that are to do with good parenting that is itself not necessarily correlated with social circumstances. So an attainment gap is one of the consequences of the fact that some parents are better parents than others. And that’s something that it seems to me has not been faced up to in the present to date. One philosopher of education at Oxford University, Adam Swift,

Skip to 9 minutes and 0 seconds has put it very succinctly in this way: if you want to eradicate the attainment gap completely, you would have to outlaw parents reading at bedtime to their children, because of course reading to children at bedtime produces better literacy, produces more inquiring children who do better in school. And that’s simply a sign of a good parent producing a benefit for a child. Now, of course you can then give advice. You can help children whose parents don’t read to them at bedtime. You can advise parents on the importance of reading to children at bedtime.

Skip to 9 minutes and 31 seconds When children don’t get read to at bedtime, you can give them other ways of getting access to people reading stories to them, informally, perhaps at the end of the school day or on Saturday mornings or something like that. There’s lots of things that policy can do, but it’s extremely unlikely that policy will ever be able to be as intimate in its engagement with children as a caring parent reading to them at bedtime. That sums up the real challenge that Nicola Sturgeon has set herself. And, finally, on the higher education, do we have any evidence about how well the Scottish Government’s policy of not having tuition fees has achieved its aims?

Skip to 10 minutes and 4 seconds On the face of it, not charging for higher education ought to make access to higher education more equitable. It ought to encourage people from disadvantaged backgrounds to come in because they wouldn’t be having to pay fees. And on the face of it, and in principal, that would be the case. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. The main problem, of course, is that nobody anywhere in the UK now is charged fees upfront. You pay your fees after you’ve graduated in a way that can best be described as a time-limited graduate tax.

Skip to 10 minutes and 31 seconds So, basically, you don’t pay anything at all in the beginning in England, for example, and then you pay it back as a supplement to income tax only if you reach a certain threshold of earnings, in the early 20,000s of pounds per year. And if you haven’t paid it off after 30 years, then the debt is simply written off. So that’s one of the reasons why, even where fees are at quite high levels, as in England, they don’t seem – the evidence is that they don’t seem to have discouraged access. And that’s partly because we know from lots of research that young people are very strategic. They know the lifelong benefit of getting a university degree.

Skip to 11 minutes and 6 seconds They know that it is an investment that is worth making. And if, basically, the state is willing to lend them money to make that investment, which is what happens in England, then it’s an investment that’s worth taking, even if it means that in effect, they’re paying 29% income tax when they graduate instead of 20%, as they would be paying if they don’t go to university at all. Now, that’s something which has not been taken on board, I think, in the debate in Scotland. It’s simply taken as axiomatically the case that if you don’t charge fees, you’ve got a fairer education system.

Skip to 11 minutes and 38 seconds Whereas in contrast, in England, it actually shows that by an appropriate combination of charging fees but then paying for them through loans that are repaid after graduation, is actually a way of redistributing resources, creating more money for the system, some of which, incidentally, is put back in the form of bursaries – non-repayable bursaries, not loans, but bursaries or grants – put that back into the system to give extra encouragement to children of poor families to go to university. Actually, a major issues for students is not the payment of fees in England, it’s the living costs. So if you create some non-repayment grants for students, that actually has a positive effect of encouraging participation.

Skip to 12 minutes and 11 seconds There’s also been some controversy about college places in Scotland. Could you talk about that? Yeah. Further education colleges in Scotland, which are like local technical colleges, a wee bit like community colleges in North America, they play two very important roles in Scottish education. One role has been quite strongly encouraged, another role has, indeed, been deprived of funding by the SNP government. The role that’s encouraged is as an alternative route into higher education. A much larger proportion of people in Scotland who go to higher education don’t go to universities than in England, they go to two-year or one-year programmes of diplomas and certificates of higher education in the further education colleges. Now, these colleges are very good at widening access.

Skip to 12 minutes and 52 seconds They get a lot higher proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds than most of the older universities get – far, far higher, in fact. And so the FE colleges, the further education colleges, are a very strong element of widening access in the Scottish system. The problem, however, in terms then of judging the Scottish universities’ capacity to widen access compared to universities in England, is that many students who would be at a university in England don’t go to university in Scotland, instead they go to a higher education course in a further education college. So the headline figures of working class or poor children going to university in Scotland can appear to be very embarrassing.

Skip to 13 minutes and 29 seconds So many of the non-government parties – the Conservative Party and the Labour Party – have both said in this election that a working class student has only one half the chance of getting into university as their counterpart in England. Now, strictly that is true. It is, indeed, the case that what the statistics show that the reason is that that student is more likely to go to a further education college or a local college, whereas in England, that opportunity simply wouldn’t exist. So that complicates the whole comparison between Scotland and England.

Skip to 13 minutes and 58 seconds One of the big challenges for the next period, then, is to encourage students who have gone to do a year-long or a two-year-long course at a college to transfer at the end of that and do a full degree programme at a university. The Scottish Government set up a commission on widening access, which reported in February. The results of that report were quite widely agreed by many different parties and I think that’s probably likely to be the main focus of higher education policy over the next five years, whatever happens in the election next month. The other role for the further educational colleges, however, has got nothing directly to do with higher education.

Skip to 14 minutes and 31 seconds It’s got to do with technical training, or vocational education, as it’s sometimes called. Britain in general is not very good at that, compared to, for example, Germany, or even compared to the United States. And there’s been a feeling for some time, since the 1980s, that we need to do more to provide a better quality of training for young workers. Now, the Scottish Government has decided to reduce the number of places in further education colleges for slightly older students. They’ve concentrated much more on a young group, partly because many of them are going into higher education through their further education colleges.

Skip to 15 minutes and 7 seconds So, as a result, the number of part-time training places at the further education colleges has been quite significantly reduced in the last seven years, since the SNP came to power. And that is a point of great controversy, partly for economic reasons. It can reasonably be said that if you don’t have any training places, you’re not equipping the Scottish workforce with the updated skills needed in a new and more competitive world economy. It also can be criticised on grounds of opportunity.

Skip to 15 minutes and 35 seconds If you accept that not everyone is going to go to higher education, some people are just going to get lower-level technical skills, then if you deprive them of the chances of getting these skills in a part-time way when they’re in the workforce by cutting places at college, then you’re going to reduce opportunities for people to build upon maybe quite low levels of school leaving qualifications that they might have had in their teens. The SNP would presumably reply to that by saying that partly they’ve been forced into these cuts by the current austerity position from the UK government.

Skip to 16 minutes and 5 seconds But if they were not just making a party political point, they might say that it is better to get people into higher education, and therefore create more places at that age group, people in their late teens, early 20s, and to take therefore some places away from part-time study later on. Day releases, it used to be called – people who have got part-time courses at the same time as working.

Skip to 16 minutes and 25 seconds It is a legitimate and interesting debate, but I suspect because of the extent of criticism that the SNP government has faced over those college places that it’s likely in the next Parliament, if they’re still in power, that we’ll see some investment again in these part-time vocational training places and further education colleges.


Education policy has been fully under the control of the Scottish Parliament since 1999. What have been the education policies of successive Scottish Governments? What challenges will the new Scottish Government face? Alan Convery and Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at the University of Edinburgh, discuss Scotland’s record and the possibilities going forward.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Scotland and Wales Vote 2016: Understanding the Devolved Elections

The University of Edinburgh