Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here; indeed, I have been longing to come before the committee and open up this swiftly written, slightly dense but, I think, very crucial report. We had 10 months to do it, and my colleagues were incredibly industrious and supportive.
If it is okay, I want to start by telling you what we found at the end of our investigations that led us to make our recommendations. We literally scurried around the whole of Scotland; people were generous and hospitable on the visits that all or some of us made, and others came to see us from far-flung parts of Scotland to give us their thoughts about and experience of access. Our conclusion—and this is a headline conclusion, but I am happy to go into it in more detail if it suits—is that Scotland actually knows how to do this very well; however, things are at a difficult developmental stage.
The work that we came across was inspiring in some cases, innovative in many institutions and based on dedication. My own personal and professional standpoint is that access work is, like physics and other things, a specialism in its own right. Pedagogy and staff development are important, and the portability of the experience via credentials is crucial.
At the moment, the state of this work is exciting in some parts, very frail in some and stale in others. I can say that, because I went on every visit and saw everyone. It is all heavily dependent on inspired individuals who really believe in the cause of access; it is institutionally based, which means that practice in one institution, which might be terrific, is very different from practice down the road; practice is sometimes duplicated; and sometimes the portability between neighbouring institutions is not quite right. On the whole, the deficit is placed on the individual learner instead of on institutional behaviours, but the good news is that there is a decade of terrific professional practice in access work and there are layers of good professionals who just need to be pulled together into an overall framework.
That is the state of what we looked at. I should remind the committee that we decided to have an appreciative inquiry, and part of our remit was to see what worked and what good practice could be taken further.
I am sorry that we wrote you such a long report—we just did not have the time to write you a short one. It really is as simple as that. I am glad to be here today to open up the report a bit with the help of my colleagues, who have already been introduced. I think that the timing is terrific, given that we are ready to move forward with the report with the appointment of Professor Scott.
I want to trail back a bit to the origins of the commission, which can be found in a statement by the First Minister. She said that she wanted us to
“determine ... that a child born today”
in difficult circumstances will have equal access to university as a child born in better circumstances. The use of the verb “determine” was inspiring and very cohesive for the commission.
That gave us a good lifespan. We worked with an imagined horizon of 2030, and the time was chunked into three five-year plans. The development stages were different. The first stage was about gathering together good practice and shaking it about to see what was good enough, what was not good enough and what needed to be removed. We then moved forward according to the agenda that we set out in our 34 recommendations.
Twelve good people joined me around the table, and the first thing that we did was induct one another. It was very important to work with the civil servants to get the kind of commission that I thought was needed to give a 360-degree look at access—not just access to education but access onwards to economic life. We also wanted to reflect employer views and so on, and we were able to find 12 people who were there in their own independent, professional right but who also represented the subsystems of the work on access—schools, universities, skills development and so on, the care community, the students and the staff.
In our induction phase, we worked on the philosophy of the commission. I will say it, because it is really important. There were many accusations in the press about social engineering and so on, but our philosophy is simple: work on access to education is about fairness and a belief in academic excellence for all as a social and economic good for the nation. Our five working principles were that our work would be systemic, appreciative, analytic, evidence based and collaborative.
With the remit of the commission having been established, the commission members inducted and representing something systemic, and a philosophy and organising principles agreed, we launched a call for evidence over the summer and commissioned research from the universities on a pro bono basis to look at what was going on in access in Scotland. We established a working process and met monthly. There were themed meetings, we had many visitors come to talk to us from the different subsystems, such as students and care specialists, and we made many visits, including to some very cold parts of Scotland on wet evenings when we had to wait for trains at stations. All of us were also available to talk at events, and I was heartened by the number of invitations that we got from membership bodies and representative bodies including trade unions and the professional unions.
I asked one thing of the commission members: that each of them steward an interest on the agenda. We had people working on different parts of it—for example, we looked at the Scottish index of multiple deprivation with joint working parties, at admissions and so on—and there was always a steward available to talk to and to explain things to colleagues. Indeed, the induction was our own members telling us what was going on.
We set up a number of specialist groups, which I will say more about, for the sake of the commissioner. The idea was always that we would have specialist groups to advise us, whose members would not be commission members but be people in the field from a mix of sectors. We wanted to leave scaffolding for the future, so that, when the commissioner is appointed, there will be groups that have explored the themes and the working papers will exist, although they have not been published in hard copy. We wanted a dowry of something to pass on in a spirit of generativity. There would also be the interim and final reports and then the handover.
The stance that we took as we did the work was simple: inequality is damaging, unsustainable and unfair, and it is time that it stopped. The work process took 10 months, and our organising principles were that the commissioners would be independent, specialist and linked backwards from our table into their own areas of work and institutions. As I said, we tried to create the system around the table. We had arguments and were unable to resolve some of them—for some of them, that will take a while and the timescale was very short indeed—but, as the chair, I tried to prevent those arguments from becoming personal and to keep them as issues between the subsystems, staying curious the whole time.
As I have said, we were delighted that in Scotland you have terrific professionals and practice on some groundbreaking systems. The systems that are here, I have not seen the like of anywhere. However, they are within institutions and, modest as institutions are, they do not get talked about much elsewhere. That has to stop.
More than anything else, there is sincerity of intent. The problem is that the systems are not all the same and not all connected. Some of them need refreshing.
The conclusion was that, as innovative as things are in Scotland, they are idiosyncratic. That needs to change. There is a focus on the individual’s deficit and the territory of institutions. There were cities where I saw three summer schools. It could have been wonderful, and they could have had young people meeting people who were different from them. It is unsystemic. It is an easy move from institution to systemic in planning terms, although of course it takes time.
There is a lack of portability in the system. I also think that our data is poor to inadequate. It is very hard to use because of the way it is organised, and that is a big issue that needs to be picked up soon.
Scotland also has untapped gifts. I am thinking of the Open University, where deputy headteachers were able to find units on philosophy for students from very difficult areas. They would present those to universities and get the credit for them. There is some smashing defiance in your institutions.
The strategic shift that Scotland needs to make is clear to me. It is from individual passions to institutional change. It is from institutions to a system in which they work together, with place as the focus of that. People working together and institutions working together are better at getting lots of bang for bucks.
I know that our report has a lot of recommendations, and I have explained why. They can be put into three very helpful categories. We talked about the leadership of the system change, including political leadership. We said that access is about learning—not about funding or cutting deals but about how you manage teaching, learning and assessment in institutions, so that they actually show the people for the talents they have. It is also about finding the places of leverage.
There were 34 recommendations. Not all of them are equal, in my view, but there are eight foundation recommendations, and I will say what they are. Recommendation 1 is on a commissioner for fair access and the leadership for the change; that has been taken care of.
Recommendation 2 is about the framework for fair access. If this is not about learning—if it is not about what is being taught and assessed and is portable—it is not going to work. Learning needs to be looked at and pruned and supported. Recommendation 3 is about funding being congruent with the framework for fair access. In time, we should not support work that is not leading anywhere for the learners.
Recommendation 11 is that there should be access thresholds that are ambitious and separate, because learners present from very different routes and have had very different opportunities. We are clear about that. We are very aware of the disputes on the issue but, nevertheless, the view of the commission was that they should go forward. The thresholds and contextual admissions are important, and that is why they need to be known, published and acted on.
We were delighted with the instant response from Government on a few of the recommendations, but particularly on the one on people with a care experience. The non-refundable bursary for care-experienced learners is crucial as well.
The targets need to be worked out in line with the development sense of the five-year plan.
All the other 26 recommendations have three intentions: to strengthen the work that needs to be done, to support the work that needs to be done, and to stretch the findings into all the institutions that are involved in access.
I know that we are going to talk about priorities going forward; I will leave that for my colleagues to contribute on. I hope that what I have said opens up for you some of our thinking during the 10 months—some of our ways of working and the things that we believed in. I am very happy to open up and take questions, along with my colleagues.