First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, set up the Commission on Widening Access to University education in 2014. It has now reported.
Its headline recommendation – from around 34 – is that Scottish Universities should hold back places [with less demanding entry criteria] for applicants from Scotland’s most deprived areas, with a target of 20% of available places going to candidates from 20% of Scotland’s most deprived areas by 2030.
No one would dispute the importance of closing the attainment gap between the well off and the poor – a matter which, to date, the Scottish Government has signally failed to do.
However, only the perpetually spin-focused SNP would seek to massage that gap into submission by guaranteeing university access, rather than by improving learning and performance to underpin access by right of merit.
Already, the failure of the risible ‘curriculum for excellence’ is seeing a high percentage of pupils leave for university with less than acceptably competent literacy and numeracy.
Many Scottish universities have, some years ago, found that they have no choice but to introduce remedial classes in these foundation skills for incoming first year students who aren’t up to snuff.
And the Scottish Government has set an unhelpful example in this matter by appointing, of all things, an Education Secretary – the well astray Angela Constance. Ms Constance’s grammar has has been known to fall at the first fence in public utterances; and she speaks as if she is reading very carefully from an autocue whose text has been written for the intellectually challenged..
There is only one honest route to closing the attainment gap in access to university for applicants from deprived areas.
That is to drive up the standards of specific attainment to be achieved in teaching and learning in Scotland’s secondary schools.
The well off send their children to private schools where the emphasis is on skills development, breadth and depth of learning and challenge in attainment.
The attainment gap is the distance to that level of competence by the end of secondary education which state schools are not even aiming to close.
If Scotland’s state education was good enough, the attainment gap in university access would reduce sharply. This is the type of ambition we had once hoped and expected to see from the SNP in government – but they quickly sold out to the expediency of prioritising appearance over reality.
All governments do this, of course – but the SNP promised a difference in values that has simply not materialised.
And what sort of criteria would universities deploy to allocate the withheld places between a surfeit of applicants from deprived areas?
Once the objective criteria of relative merit in achievement is discounted, would places have to be allocated on the greater degree of deprivation suffered by some applicants over others from the same areas of deprivation?