On Thursday (30/5/19) Lib Dem leadership candidate Jo Swinson commented that unequal access to university was due to a lack of investment in early intervention and lack of aspiration from young people, who don’t think that university is for them. She cited a town in her constituency where she claimed 80% of young people went to university compared to only 4% in Govan.
Most of the resulting furore surrounded the numbers she used. Factually, the most recent figures showed that 23.68% of children leaving Govan High School went into higher education and 13.16% went directly to university. So she was wrong.
But numbers aren’t really at the heart of this. What I think many people found disturbing was the suggestion that young people in Govan lack aspiration. They don’t. Nor do they lack ability. But they do face poverty-related barriers young people from more affluent backgrounds simply don’t face and probably don’t even understand.
If this was the point Jo Swinson was actually trying to make she was preaching to the converted.
Everyone involved in education in Glasgow is acutely aware of this and there is a universal understanding of the need to invest early to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap and everything that flows from it.
It is not just in education that the principle of early intervention applies. It has been 8 years since the publication of the Christie Commission report, with its emphasis on early intervention and reducing failure demand. This approach informs the work of local authorities across Scotland, very much so in Glasgow.
But it is perhaps with regard to our children and young people that the need for this approach is most acute. Glasgow’s shocking level of drug deaths, mainly among an older cohort of drug users, is a daily reminder of what can happen if young people are left with no hope. There is an absolute determination not to expose another generation to that risk.
We are at the moment in the midst of a further expansion of early years education – starting in areas of highest deprivation – and in Glasgow vulnerable children have received free nursery education from the age of 2 onwards for many years.
Glasgow has pioneered nurture education to support children coming from homes where this is lacking. And now Pupil Equity Funding is enabling further extremely targeted support to help individual children and families most in need. This builds on existing community-based provision to support vulnerable children and families from pre-birth onwards and a range of health services with a particular focus on families in poverty.
So the implication that Glasgow might not understand the importance of early intervention is simply not based in fact. It reflects a historical position, for sure, but it does not reflect the status quo and hasn’t reflected it for many years.
A recent Education Scotland report on Glasgow found a very strong council-wide vision focused on reducing the impact of poverty on children, families and communities. “Exceptional progress” has been made in reducing the impact of poverty on attainment and achievement.
Glasgow’s attainment, achievement, attendance and positive destination figures are the highest they have ever been – our schools are constantly raising the bar. This is against a backdrop of increasing child poverty.
It’s not just about education. A focus on helping struggling families is strongly led by health and care services, with a drive to keep vulnerable children out of the care system where possible through intensive family support, family group conferencing and expanded kinship care.
And for those children who do enter the care system there is intensive ongoing work in partnership with education to keep more children in local Glasgow schools and to ensure they have as much stability and support as possible to enable continued learning and achievement.
There is much more work to be done but I can assure people that Glasgow is absolutely committed to getting it right for every child. And our work to support children and families is backed up by Scottish Government support, from investment in health visitors to funding to expand early years education and to raise attainment, to new benefits for low income families.
Work to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap is crucial as child poverty continues to rise.
Glasgow experiences poverty on a scale that is simply unthinkable in constituencies like the one Jo Swinson represents. 38,000 children live in poverty – that is 34% of our children. Almost half of them live in working households, emphasising that being in work is no guarantee against poverty. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that this number will rise to 50,000 or 42% by 2021.
Jo Swinson and her party bear a large part of the responsibility for this by their action in supporting the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms.
Ongoing welfare cuts combined with the roll-out of Universal Credit and the prevalence of in-work poverty are the main reasons so many Glasgow children face growing up in deprivation. The next time Jo Swinson comments on the life chances of children in Govan she may wish to reflect on her role in enabling that.
The Council, Health Board and our statutory and third sector partners, with the support of the Scottish Government, are working hard to reduce the impact, as well as to reduce inequality by creating inclusive economic growth. An overview of the scale of this work is set out in Glasgow’s Child Poverty Action Plan.
But none of us wish to spend our days looking at ways to mitigate the impact of poverty on the lives of children and families without really being able to tackle the root causes.
To end poverty we need to tackle what causes it – low wages, economic exclusion, insecure employment conditions and the wanton destruction of the social security safety net.
At present the powers to do that rest mainly in Westminster’s hands. If – as I hope – those powers are transferred to Scotland it won’t be easy to make the changes we need to see. Indeed, it will be incredibly challenging. There is no magic wand.
But it’s far better to face the challenge of ending poverty than to face a future where we do our best to mitigate the impact but have very limited powers to affect the causes. In Glasgow we see the strongest potential for independence to deliver genuinely transformative change for all of our people. Future generations will thank us if we rise to that challenge.