By Joan Forbes and Elspeth McCartney

Inequalities of access to higher education: The role of policy and ‘powerful soft practices’ for more equal childhoods and university chances in Scotland   

This comment article addresses the recent speech to Scottish educationists by the Minister for Education in the Scottish Government, Angela Constance MSP, at the Robert Owen Centre, University of Glasgow (SG 2015a).  The article emerges from review and discussion in a Scottish Universities Insight Institute Equalities 2015 funded knowledge exchange programme (Sime, Forbes et al 2014; Forbes et al. 2015; Sime, Forbes & Lerpiniere 2015).  The SUII KE project: Children and young people’s experiences and views of poverty and inequalities: Policy and practice implications investigates children’s experienced inequalities in participation in school education and the effects of early deprivation and disadvantage in ‘unequal childhoods’ for post-school opportunities, notably including for university entrance (Lareau 2011).

Since the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in 1998, the distinctiveness of Scottish education policy from those of the other UK countries – and particularly differentiated from recent school education policy in England, has continued as an important signifier of national identity and priorities (Devine 2000).

The current Scottish Government First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, has emphasised that education is a priority for her government (SG 2015a, 2015b).  Accordingly, the current Scottish Government Education Minister, Angela Constance MSP, recently gave a national keynote address at the Robert Owen Centre, University of Glasgow, delineating the multiple inequalities experienced by a large number of Young Scots, notably including the over 220,000 children who live in poverty and setting out her priority to close the attainment gap for children in poverty (SG 2015a).

This article reviews the ways in which Scottish Government policy may effect particular schooling ‘pipelines’ for students’ post-school destinations, including university entrance.  Reviewing the Education Secretary’s recent key speech text (SF 2015a) we use a ‘capitals’ resources frame to locate pupil attainment equity policy and its enactments in a particular national, political, economic, social, and cultural context (Bourdieu 1986).  Policy applies here both to policy texts and to the broader discourses and practices involved in policy production and enactment processes (Lingard 2013; Forbes & McCartney 2010).

The particular stocks of knowledge, practices and dispositions, which government aspires to strategically distinguish the processes of reproduction of Scotland’s young are here isolated and distinguished.  As regards the Bourdieusian concept of ‘reproduction’ (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977): reproduction is about how, over time and intensity, through systematic processes of inculcation handed down across generations individuals learn particular schemes of understanding to understand and act in their particular social positions.  Such experienced and learned particularites, practices and stimuli, of one’s upbringing shape one’s  ‘feel for the rules of the game’ in a given field or institution, such as that of the university and the process of university access. In and through our upbringing, including the schooling practices, actions and discourses, to which we are exposed we are socialized in particular ways about particular things, we acquire particular tastes. We therefore inherit the dispositions to seeing university as a ‘natural’ next step, or conversely feeling that it is ‘not for the likes of me’ (quotation marks for emphasis and not direct quotation) (Bourdieu 2004; Bourdieu & Passeron 1977).

Two questions framed this initial analysis:

  1. i) What are the most distinctive elements of the new Scottish agenda to overcome social and educational disadvantage and strengthen pathways to university for all? And
  2. ii) What forms of reproduction are effected in/through the new Government policy proposals?

A new Scottish agenda on educational access and participation

The recent key Government statement by Education Secretary Angela Constance (SG 2015a) synthesises the issues of high levels of child poverty in the country and the aspiration for poor children to succeed at school.  Thereby, the ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011) of the illusion of opportunity for all will be addressed in a potentially transformational programme of change.  This new agenda focuses on evidence to underpin approaches that will effectively narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor and allow every child to achieve to the highest level towards university entrance.  The government aim is that all children, including those living in conditions of poverty and disadvantage ‘have an equal chance at success in further and higher education. … Fundamental [is the Scottish] Government’s enduring commitment to free university tuition. [And that] every child should have the opportunity to go to university based on their ability to learn, not on their parents’ capacity to pay’ (SG 2015a).

The policy proposals: the Government’s political positions and drivers

i) Government explicitly recognises ‘the power university can have to transform lives providing exposure to new ideas and experiences and enabling students to develop the knowledge and skills to succeed in their chosen careers’. The government ‘are determined that no one should be excluded from this opportunity [of university] by circumstances’ and so ‘have established the Commission on Widening Access to help secure [the] goal that a child born today in one of the most deprived communities should, by the time they leave school, have the same chance of going to university as any other child’ (SG 2015a).

ii) Government is influential in providing particular resource arrangements that ‘change culture’ to effect pathways to university for all and principally for poor children. New arrangements for more intensive processes of ‘concerted cultivation’ of poor students that bring together home, school and governance efforts from early years to University entrance are proposed (Lareau 2011). For government, cultivation encompasses (re)production of formal curriculum cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986) with a national emphasis on literacy and numeracy for all, particularly in closing the ‘attainment gap’ for children in low income households and in disadvantaged areas; and moving girls and young women into careers in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) ensuring that no young person’s aspirations are limited by gender stereotyping’ (SG 2015a).

iii) The governing habitus, passions, commitments, and drivers include a programme of ‘raising attainment for all’ (SG 2014a) which sets out associated consistent improvement practices for local education authorities, schools and teachers to manage their own local improvements and associated central government accountability and reporting duties.  The government programme to ‘close the gap’ (SG 2014b), to reduce the link between deprivation and poor educational attainment in Scotland explicitly mandate that each education authority and school ‘own its attainment gap and take action’, and concomitantly mandate a personalised approach to the attainment of each child, based on ‘much richer improvement and performance information’ (SG 2015a).

This initial analysis is intended to surface the particular configuration of capitals (habitus), including social capital relations, whereby the Scottish Government now aspires to advantage all pupils, including in and through their earliest learning and home and parenting practices, with forms of reproduction that ensure a less leaky pipeline into higher education.

Evident in Secretary Constance’s recent ministerial address to invited representatives of the Scottish education community, the Scottish ‘closing the gap’ programme emphasises in particular the pathways to higher education that extend back into parenting skills in homes, early years learning, and basic literacy and numeracy (SG 2015a).  The proposed agenda evidences government commitment to the efficacy of student, particularly disadvantaged students’, early learning of knowledge and skills, ensuring these students’ future attainment in high status academic subjects for university entrance.  And the agenda foregrounds the informal, non-school, processes of production that operate in a wide-ranging agenda of learning opportunities and supports.

This reading reveals the government aspiration that different compositions of capitals be reproduced through school and governance emphases focused on the particular set of characteristic practices and learning and teaching relationships put in place and offered to all in extended school and out of school preparation for university.  Thus, the new governing programme on ‘closing the gap’ seeks to make transparent and more equitable the desired forms of capitals, knowledge and skills and the forms of transmission processes in Scotland’s schools.  Mandating such new processes of education reproduction the government aim is to convert families’ lack of economic capital (poverty) into desired forms of prestigious cultural and social capital, notably in the form of improved academic attainment, whereby inequity of access to university will be diminished and successful higher education participation, and a full passport to future opportunity as an outcome of successful graduation achieved.

A number of issues remain unstated in this agenda. For universities and society, there is the persistent question of how to fund student places; and the concomitant issues of the need for more places requiring the expansion of the higher education sector and the related questions of university selection criteria and how these may take account of student background.

There remains a continued strong link between families’ stocks of economic capital (wealth) and children’s broader acquisition of societally successful forms of cultural and other capitals.  Research has found that such high stocks of multiple capitals resources foster further success and an even more ‘full passport to future opportunity’ for their holders (SG 2015a) than that provided by solely academic achievement.  To be comfortable in the university young people born into conditions of poverty in deprived homes and communities must be inculcated not only in the cognitive ways of the university, but also its symbolic resources, cultural and social ways: in Bourdieu’s words:

A scientist is a scientific field made flesh, an agent whose cognitive structures are homologous with the structure of the field and, as a consequence, constantly adjusted to the expectations inscribed in the field (Bourdieu 2004: 41).

The ‘rules and regularities’ of the field of science, the university, that determine the scientist’s behaviour are perceived and understood by the scientist because their history has endowed them with the dispositions and capacities to perceive the rules that structure their academic field – because they have inculcated those self-same rules and regularities, the values and rules of scientific method of thought permeate their own modes of thinking and presentation.

Young people whose enculturation over their lifetime time has gifted them with ‘naturally’ embodying, because intensively transmitted to them day-to-day in and through their home, school, and community practices, passions and commitments, the intellectual dispositions, practices and socio-cultural ideals of the university are unquestionably significantly advantaged over those young people who have not inherited such resources and socio-cultural conditions.  So we would argue, government policy and practice drivers towards equity for poor and disadvantaged young Scots must attend not only to academic attainment but, critically, to find ways to endow all young Scots with the, often elided and understated, ‘soft practices’ and relations characteristic of the upbringing of more advantaged young people.  Such practices and relations include particular ‘soft’ and ‘natural’ forms of inter-personal communication, teamwork, confidence, networking and so forth.  These ‘soft practices’ underpinned by relationships of trust, confidence and respect in pupil-teacher interactions, productive of the kinds of ‘connected-protagonist agency’, what we have termed agentic ‘assured optimism’, that well equip young people for access to university – and to ‘top’ universities – and, thereafter, successful participation in higher education (Forbes & Lingard 2013, 2015).

If children are not to become well, or at least better, educated, but thereafter remain relatively poor in their lives beyond the gates of school and university then education structural arrangements and forms are needed that aim to entirely dissociate families’ lack of economic capital (poverty) from their lack of acquisition of cultural capital in the form not only of academic qualifications, but of the associated ‘soft practices’ that make them feel at home in the field, and institutions, of higher education (ibid. 2013, 2015).  Starting life in conditions of poverty, disadvantaged by lack of cultural and societal resources, should not be allowed to societally disadvantage over the life course or into the next generation.

Attendantly, the effects for the whole school population of an overall raising of attainment agenda must be borne in mind.  Closing the gap in an overall raising of attainment should result in more young people qualified to access university, not just children living in absolute or relative poverty.  In seeming to accept and be acting on the premise that ‘Poverty is not an aspect of the poor.  It is a relationship between the poor and others in society’ (Khan 2015: 60), a skewing of schooling arrangements towards poor children must remain fully cognizant of the effects of these new arrangements on the link between background and identities and educational attainment on other social class fractions in society, such as girls and women.

Viewing curriculum, co-curriculum, community and home knowledge and practices as cultural capital, this initial analysis has highlighted some potential effects of Scotland’s new education priorities and aspirations.  A key message has been that intergenerational exclusion from higher education derived from poverty, that is, cultural, social and economic inequity, may need to be yet more broadly tackled societally than hitherto.  Accordingly, to better guarantee more equitable upbringings for all young Scots, teachers and all other relevant child sector practitioners must apprehend the powerful positive effects of naturalising ‘soft practices’ for children’s schooling attainment and broader life achievements (Forbes & Lingard 2015).  Through relevant adults in their lives actively appropriating and consistently concertedly cultivating (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977; Lareau 2011) what we have characterised as ‘powerful soft practices’, more children will, we suggest, be better endowed for education and for life beyond the school gates – thereby realizing more equal childhoods that socially and educationally well equip and so advantage.


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