Breaking the link between demography and destiny in Scotland

The Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on Scotland breaking the link between demography and destiny

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn

It is part of Britain’s DNA that everyone should have a fair chance in life. Yet too often demography is destiny in our country. Being born poor often leads to a lifetime of poverty. Poor schools ease people into poor jobs. Disadvantage and advantage cascade down the generations. Over decades we have become a wealthier society but we have struggled to become a fairer one. Today I want to explore what schools, colleges and universities can do to help solve that conundrum and the key role they can play in unlocking more social mobility in Scotland.

Last month the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty published our second annual State of the Nation report. Our central conclusion was that Britain is on the brink of becoming a permanently divided nation and that the next UK Government and the current Scottish government will have to adopt radical new approaches if poverty is to be beaten and mobility improved. We came to that conclusion because while the economy has bounced back strongly, record numbers of people are in work and promising school and welfare reforms are underway, the economic recovery is not being matched by a social recovery. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing ever wider.

The gulf in prosperity between London and the rest and the young and the old is widening. The labour market has performed very well in terms of creating jobs but has not succeeded in recoupling earnings growth with economic growth. The cost of living crisis may be easing but endemic levels of low pay mean that millions of families are worse off today than they were before the recession. The housing market may be seeing supply slowly growing but house prices are straining the link between effort and reward that is core to social mobility, home ownership rates among young adults have halved in just 20 years and more poor children are living in an expensive insecure private rented sector. We share the view of those experts who predict that 2020 will mark not the eradication of child poverty but the end of the first decade since records began in which absolute child poverty increased. Already, Scotland has lost its place as the country with the lowest child poverty levels in the UK. Between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the proportion of Scottish children in relative poverty rose from 15 per cent (150,000 children) to 19 per cent (180,000), whereas in the United Kingdom as a whole it was flat at around 17 per cent.

Lack of progress at the bottom is mirrored by lack of movement at the top. The Commission’s recent study of 4,000 people in Britain’s leading professions showed that Britain is still deeply elitist. When over 60% of senior military officers, 50% of Whitehall senior mandarins, 40% of senior journalists, 30% of Cabinet Ministers and 20% of Shadow Cabinet Ministers all come from private schools – compared to 7% of the population – it is hard to avoid Sir John Major’s conclusion that there remains a closed shop at the top of British society. Nor is Scotland exempt from such elitism. Almost half of senior Scottish judges were educated in private schools compared to just 5% of the population as a whole and the country’s top universities remain dominated by students from better-off backgrounds.

If these trends continue there is a very real risk that today’s generation of young people – from low income families especially – will simply not have the same opportunities to progress as their parents’ generation. If we do not act, 2020 will mark a watershed between an era when rising living standards were shared by all and a future in which rising living standards by-pass too many in our society. If that comes to pass social mobility, having flatlined in the latter part of the last century, would go into reverse in the first part of this century.

The writing is on the wall – for Scotland and the rest of the UK. The question facing our country is whether we will choose to ignore it or to address it. I find it striking that while in England social mobility is part of today’s political lexicon – and all political parties proclaim it as the holy grail of public policy – in Scotland the concept is largely absent. There is, of course, a real and welcome focus on the impact that poverty has on children’s lives and what is needed to help people off the bottom of society. But there seems to far less focus on helping youngsters, regardless of background, move up or get into the top. Policies like free university tuition fees may even have lulled policy-makers to believe that Scotland has the problem cracked. There is a risk that Scotland sleepwalks into a social mobility crisis unless urgent action is taken. In our view, action is needed at every level from cradle to career if Scotland is to break the link between demography and destiny. That will require the whole of Scotland - government, local councils, local communities, employers and educators – to be mobilised behind shared new approaches to defuse the ticking social mobility time-bomb.

Of course there is no single lever that on its own can make a nation more socially mobile. No single organisation can make it happen either. All sorts of things make a difference. Individual aspirations as much as parenting styles. Family networks as well as careers services. Career development opportunities alongside university admission procedures. But the global evidence suggests the key is employability and education. Social mobility speeded up in the 1950s thanks to a big change in the labour market. The shift from a manufacturing to a services economy drove demand for new skills and opened up new opportunities for professional and white-collar employment. More room at the top enabled millions of women and men to step up as a consequence. Social mobility has slowed down in the decades since primarily because of another big change in the labour market: the move to a globalized knowledge-based economy. Since the 1970s technological change has been skills-biased. People with higher skills have seen large increases in productivity and pay while those with low skills have experienced reduced demand for labour and lower average earnings. Today we have a segregated labour market. Those with skills and qualifications enjoy greater job security, higher levels of prosperity and better prospects of social advance. Those without skills find it hard to escape a world of constant insecurity, endemic low pay and little prospect of social progress. Bridging this divide is the key to healing social division in our country. As our economy becomes ever more reliant on higher levels of skill, education will become ever more the key that unlocks social mobility in future. Study after study has come to the same conclusion. Time spend in education - including the vital early years - is the most important determinant of future social status and success in schools is the most important factor determining mobility.

As a Commission we have assessed the global evidence – as well as that from our own shores – to determine what early years services and schools and colleges and universities can do to improve the prospects of Scotland become a society that is more open and more fair. Across the whole the UK, our education system is characterised by world-beating centres of excellence, at every level from primary schools to higher education institutions. In the last 15 years school results have risen dramatically, more students than ever before now go on to university and there has been a new focus on improving the early years of children’s lives. There has been some progress too in narrowing the education gap between poorer children and their better-off classmates. Those leading and working in our education institutions deserve huge thanks for what has been achieved. But there is a very long way to go. Far too many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds still leave school without good qualifications and the gap between poorer children and others remains unacceptably high.

So what should be done? The starting point is that universal and affordable early years services should become part of the mainstream of Scotland’s education system. The OECD evidence shows that child poverty is lowest and social mobility is highest where parents can rely on universal, quality and affordable childcare and early learning services. It is welcome that in the last decade, early years services have risen up the political agenda in all parts of Britain. Scotland has set an example to the rest of Britain through its commitment to make this nation ‘the best place to bring up a child in the world”. It will require transformative change to bring that noble vision to life. It will also require time not least because of the fiscal constraints we all face. But early years services have to be a priority for investment and the Commission will be looking to every country in the UK to develop a long-term plan to make childcare and early years services as universal as they are in those Scandinavian countries which enjoy far higher levels of social mobility and far lower levels of child poverty than we do. We will be looking for evidence too that early years policy and practice is being guided by a new ambition: to ensure poorer children are doing as well as better-off children by the time they start school. We hope that the Scottish government will develop a new measure of whether children are school-ready and ensure that all children are school-ready by 2025 at the latest.

For school-age children, it must become a national priority for the attainment of disadvantaged children to rise and the attainment gap between them and their better-off peers to close. Although attainment has increased over the last decade in Scotland, the Commission on School Reform concluded that repeated efforts over 50 years have failed to make significant improvements in the exam results of poorer kids. Even in the last five years the figures have remained stubbornly immoveable. Children in the most deprived areas of Scotland are only about half as likely to be performing ‘very well’ in the last year of primary school and twice as likely to not attain the expected level in the second year of secondary school. Youngsters from the most deprived parts of Scotland are half as likely to get five good Highers than their better-off peers. In 2011 (the latest available data) just 220 pupils from the poorest households across the whole of Scotland received three A’s at Higher. In Dundee only 5 of the poorest students received good Highers and in Glasgow only 58 did. In both cities almost one in five young people leave school only to join the dole queue. In my view that is not just a social injustice. It is a moral outrage and it must change if social progress is to be made. For many decades it was widely accepted by governments and publics alike that – when it came to learning - deprivation was destiny. Better off children would naturally excel. Poorer children would naturally fall behind. We now have extensive evidence – international and domestic – that such social determinism is wrong. Countries as different as Canada, Poland and Singapore have demonstrated a great track record in raising the attainment level of their poorest children. In the UK, progress has been most startling in London where pupils who are entitled to free school meals – roughly the poorest sixth in society – now have attainment at the age of 16 which is 50 per cent higher than free school meal students elsewhere in England. London used to have amongst the worst state schools in the country. Today they are among the best. Some have said this is all down to the ethnic mix in London schools. Our research suggest that only 20% of the so-called London effect is explained by that factor. Most of it is down to earlier improvements that took place in primary school and to London schools finding ways of pulling together to drive sustained improvements in results. Policy-makers from around the world are now descending on the city to understand how it was achieved. Of course, Scotland has its own brilliant success stories and a justifiable pride in your education system. The Scottish government has instituted important reforms such as Curriculum for Excellence, the School Improvement Partnership Programme and Raising Attainment for All in an attempt to narrow the education attainment gap. So this is not a question of a case of simply having to copy what has happened in London, where the system is of course different from here. But there are lessons that can be learned between different models.

The most important lessons seem to be these. Government and schools can help by ensuring that pupils enter the labour market with good character skills as well as academic ones. The means schools focussing on the quality of extra-curricular activity, character development and careers guidance as well as exam results. Government and local councils can help by doing more to get the best teachers to teach in the most challenging schools. In England we have proposed better pay for teachers who move to such schools. Government and local councils can also help by getting schools to collaborate with each other and with local employers, colleges and universities to help raise aspirations and attainment levels amongst students. They can do more to publish data about school performance so that parents as well as teachers know which schools are doing well and which less well. And much more needs to be done to monitor the progress that youngsters are making while in school. Currently, there are no Scotland-wide measures of pupil progress until children are 15 years old – too late to guarantee that the education system is adequately equipping poor children with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The Commission believes the limitations of Scotland’s collection and use of data and analysis on children from disadvantaged backgrounds urgently need to be addressed if serious progress is to be made in closing the attainment gap.

The Scottish government has developed an outcomes framework to monitor progress against its child poverty strategy. Overall, it is impressive and addresses some of the Commission’s previous concerns but only one of the 33 indicators it contains tells us anything about student results. Under the framework we will know about the proportion of children with low wellbeing scores, who are not eating fruit and vegetables, or playing sport, or who find it easy to talk to their mother – but there is nothing about early childhood development, school readiness, university access or any measure of how poor children do on educational attainment. This failure to focus on educational attainment as the key to unlocking long-term social mobility urgently needs to be corrected.

In England we have proposed that, just as previous governments have set targets to raise the bar in schools, the next government should set new targets to narrow the attainment gap. We want it to aim to eradicate illiteracy and innumeracy by 2025 in primary school age children and aim to halve the attainment gap between children entitled to free school meals and their peers in secondary school. We urge the Scottish government to consider a similar approach because we believe that such targets can focus efforts and deliver results.

What happens in schools will determine whether Scotland becomes more socially mobile or not. But further education colleges and universities also have a key role to play. They are the crucial bridge between school and work. In the most mobile societies students are helped to make the transition to employment, via higher education for the most academically able and via vocational education for those wanting to develop their technical skills. In Britain by contrast we have a low priority accorded to vocational education and unequal access to higher education.

In Scotland, colleges are based within some of the poorest communities and do the important job of equipping over 130,000 young people with the skills that will allow them to make a full contribution in the labour market. Many colleges do a great job but there is much more than they can do. This year Sir Ian Wood presented colleges with a challenging mission to focus on employment outcomes and supporting local economic development, something which I strongly endorse. The Wood Commission underlined colleges’ vital contribution by setting a stretching target that by 2020 the average youth unemployment rate is that of the 5 best performing European countries.

Today, youth unemployment levels in Scotland are close to 19%, more than double that of the average working age population. As Sir Ian Wood has rightly said, that means almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. Colleges can help change that by working more closely with employers to give students the skills that are needed to compete in the labour market. In Scotland today, only 29% of employers recruit young people from education and only 13% of employers take on apprentices. Only one quarter of employers offer work experiences and overall fewer employers are employing young people today than they were in the past. The Commission agrees with Sir Ian Wood that by 2020 there should be an additional 5,000 modern apprentices which are high quality. We would also like to see colleges working with schools and employers to make high quality work experience the norm not the exception.

Scotland also has a proud tradition of higher education. Your top universities are global success stories. And the uniquely Scottish collaboration between colleges and universities – in the form of articulation – is one of the best ways I’ve seen of overcoming the divide that is all too pervasive in other countries between further and higher education. That bridge is a great foundation for helping many more youngsters from less well-off backgrounds make the journey into higher education. Who gets in to university and how they get on once they have left will, as our economy becomes ever more knowledge-based, be more important in determining whether Scotland’s sluggish rates of social mobility can be improved. In 2013 only 13% of young school-leavers in Scotland eligible for free school meals got into university compared to over half – 57% - of young people living in the most advantaged areas. The ‘ancient’ universities in Scotland are as socially divided as Russell Group institutions in England - only 19% of entrants come from working-class backgrounds, 25% come from private schools and there are 500 “missing students” from state schools who get the grades but do not get the places there. While comparisons with England are difficult due to the different structure of the higher education system, with further education colleges playing a bigger role in Scotland, it is striking that access to university appears to be as polarised in Scotland as it is in England even in the absence of fees. In such circumstances it is disappointing that grants for the poorest students have been cut. We have recommended that the Scottish Government reviews its student support provision and seeks to ensure access funding supports effective interventions which boost participation.

Over the next few years as they expand their student numbers there is a real opportunity to ensure fairer access to Scottish universities. The Scottish Government has made access a key priority outcome in its institutional outcome agreements and has committed 1,750 additional places dedicated to widening access. This is welcome and I encourage institutions to ensure that they take steps to fill these places. The duty the Scottish government has placed on universities to establish widening access agreements as a condition of a grant for funding is an important and welcome step. At least £30 million is invested in widening access activities. We hope that universities do more to ensure that rising funding for access activity is increasingly geared to building long-term strategic partnerships with schools because that seems to produce more social mobility bang for the buck. We also hope that all Scottish universities – including the ancient institutions – will make more transparent use of contextual admissions processes to ensure that places go to a wider range of students with high potential from low-income backgrounds. There are many things that drive social mobility and that can make Britain fairer. Today I haven’t spoken about the role played by parents or communities. Or what employers and professions can do to open their doors to the widest pool of talent. I have focused instead on early years, schools, colleges and universities. I have done so because the global evidence suggests that what happens there in the next decade will determine whether the promise that exists to make Scotland a fair and open society can be realised. That is why the top social and economic priority for the whole of the UK must remain education, education, education.

There are many things that are going right in our schools, colleges and universities. But we have to be honest about what is wrong. In my view we should no longer tolerate an education system that produces a cohort of youngsters who simply lack the skills to compete in the modern labour market. The changing nature of the British economy demands that every child must be given better opportunities to learn and choose careers. It will be impossible to make progress in improving social mobility and tackling child poverty until the educational attainment gap between less well-off and better-off children is closed. At the current rate of progress it will be decades before the attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their peers will be closed. That is simply not good enough. Our future success in a globally competitive economy relies on using all of our country’s talent not just some of it. We will not create a mobile society unless we create more of a level playing field of opportunity. That has to be core business for all of us. For businesses and councils as much as for colleges and schools. It is has to be core business for government too.

Published 14 November 2014