Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Levelling the playing field – Sarah Atkin


For many young Scots, the University Open Day season is now in full swing.  It’s a time when, to the objective observer, the wealth of opportunities out there for the gifted, able and appropriately high achieving is literally jaw dropping.  For this observer, the experience has crystallised a great deal.

First, subject choices matter.  To paraphrase Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, all Highers are equal but some are more equal than others.  Get the combination right and so much more will be available to you.  So, the bright pupil capable of A grades but lacking a science or modern language at even National 5 level will have erected barriers even before the fingers hit the keyboard for the personal statement or UCAS form.

Second, grades matter.  A decent showing of A’s will give you a wider choice than B’s, and so on.  Again, fairly obvious but it’s not until you begin to look at what’s out there that this becomes so stark.

Third, despite the ‘senior phase’ rhetoric it’s likely that 5 Highers in one sitting is going to give you the edge at most top institutions in what is an increasingly competitive scramble for places.

More Scots-educated state school pupils need to gain entry to our top Universities – from all backgrounds.   It matters for the talented pupils who miss out, but it also matters because those who attend our elite Universities are more likely to become the country’s future leaders in most areas of endeavour.  Elite Universities should not be citadels of social privilege.

With this in mind should we look at the culture and educational philosophy driving the state school system before Universities lower entry rates to secure entry to more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds?

First, who is best served by the culture of ‘pupil choice’ that dominates the state system? Plainly not bright pupils from backgrounds lacking the ‘cultural capital’ or nous of how the system really operates.  It’s a perverse form of egalitarianism.  Likewise, narrowing to just 6 subjects so early in a school career disadvantages the vast majority.  To limit opportunity in this way flies in the face of social justice and economic common sense.  The old system guaranteed a decent academic ‘core’ with practical or personal interest subjects added to the mix.  A broader spread of attainment at National 5 level – over 2 years – allows for wiser choices at Higher, greater flexibility to pick up subjects later on and more time to embed learning and grow confidence.  This would serve all our young people far better than what we now have.  It’s time to admit this and allow schools the freedom to change back.

Second, there’s plainly merit in encouraging pupils to self-motivate and take responsibility for their learning.  However, if this is an embedded culture then what it’s actually saying is pupils determine the next stage of their life.  A utopian ideal.  We’re talking about teenagers.  A hugely complex and messy phase of life.  The cream rarely rises to the top without help. Even the best will require more than a ‘nudge’ to get them where they need to be.  Those without support or educational ambition at home require a whole lot more.  All require guidance and support.

With resources directed towards supporting greater numbers of pupils right across the ability spectrum within school – placing Support for Learning and Guidance at the epicentre of school life rather than an adjunct to it – then I believe more with potential could access top Universities as well as everybody being ‘lifted’.   A few one-to-one sessions can move any pupil up a grade or level (ask any parent who pays for tutoring or PSA working in a school.)  Likewise, an informal conversation with a pupil about their dreams, ambitions and what they need to get there can literally change their view of themselves.  Somebody giving a damn does make a difference.

Finally, I do wonder whether enough young people from state schools generally see themselves as good enough for our elite institutions.  Are these ‘places for us’?  Is our school culture one of ‘how do you see yourself’ instead of ‘how far can you go?’  I attended an Open Day at UCL (University College London) a couple of weeks ago.  Subsequent to the presentation, I privately asked this question of one of the Programme Directors.  He said it’s a source of perennial professional frustration that so many state school pupils – from all backgrounds – simply don’t see themselves fitting into a global top 10 University like UCL despite having the necessary academic profile.  If that’s true down there then it’s likely as true up here.  We have to do better.  Let’s look at our school system as it applies to all pupils and level the playing field by raising attainment and expectations rather than lowering entry requirements.

Sarah Atkin

Sarah Atkin is a member of the Commission on School Reform and a Labour Party Member.