Why family norms result in inequity and inequality for children

What constitutes a family these days?  We know from our own acquaintance, that they come in all shapes, sizes and combinations.  Limiting this post’s interest to the demographics of child-full ones, the 2012 Scottish Household survey finds that 12% of children live in small families, 6% in large ones and 5% in lone parent households.

Given that there are myriad combinations of adults/children in families, how is it that policymakers and providers of goods and services persist in assuming a norm of couples with two children?  And does it matter?

Well, yes on a host of levels.

This week, there will be one last heave to remove pernicious charges from the new child maintenance collection scheme.  The regulations which will introduce a 4% fee on collection reach the House of Lords on Tuesday and anachronistic though they are, I have blogged previously on  my admiration for the Lords and Ladies on this issue when they batted down the original welfare reform proposals.  They represent the last great hope of preventing a calumny on children who already often live in the poorest households in the land.

Gingerbread is running an excellent campaign to “stop the CSA charges” – please do take a moment to sign the petition – and has produced a great graphic to explain what is happening.

If you cannot agree a sum with your partner, you can ask the UK Government to work out what should be paid.  That service will cost the parent with care an upfront fee of £20 – significantly better than the £100 originally proposed but still an upfront charge on the person with the children.

Then if you cannot get the sum calculated paid voluntarily, you can ask the Child Maintenance Service (which used to be the Child Support Agency) to collect it for you.  They will do so but deduct 4% of what is collected as their fee.  They won’t add on the 4% collection fee to what they are collecting from the absent parent but from the parent receiving the maintenance, meaning that children will effectively lose out.

All new cases since November 2013 have been dealt with under this regime but the Lords will also consider regulations to transition existing cases – some stretching back all the way to 1993 – onto the new rules.  The process will involve ending all existing liability and inviting those who cannot make voluntary arrangements to make new applications for maintenance calculation under the new rules.  Given that many of the cases that ended up at the Child Support Agency did so because parents could not agree on maintenance, you can see how this might work out.  The UK Government is alive to the potential for disaster for some families and will transition the toughest cases, those subject to enforcement action of some sort, last.

But the old sums agreed will be swept away and presumably, if the new amount is less than currently paid, tough. Children will go without. Again.

So, potentially less maintenance, an upfront fee for the privilege of having this calculated and a possible 4% deduction to collect it all and some of the country’s most vulnerable children, in terms of their income levels, are going to be hardest hit. It amounts to discrimination against children in particular circumstances that they didn’t ask for. 

It’s not just government which is intent on treating children living in single adult households differently.  For years, lone parent families have been subject to unfair treatment in fees and charges for services compared to couple ones, and not just by the private sector.

Take the National Museums of Scotland membership scheme. The old and new National Museums are wonderful places, oases for parents on rain-soaked Sundays and miserable weekends.  The fact that entry is free ensures they are high on holidaymakers’ must see list and the membership scheme is a great way of creating a supporter base and generating income, while working out at great value for those who like to take in all the special exhibitions.  Unless you are a child, for there is no special membership rate for children.

There is an “individual” rate of £35 annually, which reduces to £28 for students or £23 per person for a joint membership.  Then there is the family membership for two adults and up to two children, with under 5s going free, which works out at a bargain £14.50 per person in the family.  But what about lone parents?  If you are a lone parent with one child you can either opt for the joint membership of £46 per year or the family at £57 (which presumably would allow you to take a pal and a child’s pal at times).  Clearly the family option works out better value if you are a lone parent with two children but what to do if you have three?  And what if you are a couple with more than the norm of two children?  If you buy a family ticket, what do you do about the spare child?

Whichever way you slice it, children in non-norm family situations are worse off.  And in effect, that means poorer families, for they are more likely to constitute lone parent and large family households.  The National Museums are not alone in this inequitable treatment of poor children and families.  Visit any leisure centre, cinema, holiday broker or visitor attraction and you will find, largely, that family prices are predicated on the supposed norm of two adults, two children.  Some have improved their practice in recent times – many holidays offering child go free discounts now apply to a single adult as to two adults – and those whose practice is poor are guilty of thoughtlessness rather than deliberate attempts to discriminate.

But discriminate they do and what it means is that children, often from poorer backgrounds, do not enjoy equal access to a host of activities which are exciting, enabling and educational.  Throw this into the big picture of a wide and widening educational gap and then it really starts to matter.

While Scotland had the second highest acceptance rate of university places last year in the UK, it has the lowest level of applications from young people from disadvantaged areas (see figure 53 in the linked report).  While there has been significant improvement in the numbers in Scotland applying to university from the most disadvantaged areas, the current rate of around 15% is less than the proportion applying from similar areas in, not just England but also Northern Ireland and Wales.

When the universities are encouraged to do more, they reply that they alone cannot fix the problem and that the issue is one of attainment which needs to be addressed further down the education chain.  Clearly, schools have a key role to play in this, but so do other parts of our society. And if children are being made to be poor or poorer by dint of UK government policy and then being priced out of the market of valuable cultural and educational opportunities by providers failing to take account of the complexity, and indeed, flexibility of family situations in 21st Century Scotland, then it is clear to see that we have a big problem.

The solution is not to address each issue, sector and policy in turn but to commit to taking a child-centred approach to all policy-making and service provision.  And the way to do that is to protect all children from discrimination and to put the  best interests of children at the heart of everything we do: incorporating articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law would remove at a sweep the concept of family norms, which as well as resulting in unequal treatment, also reinforces unnecessary and unfair cultural stigmatising of children whose family status is not the norm.

Such an approach is a pre-requisite for a transformational shift in our attitudes to and treatment of children.  It would enable us to start creating a more equitable future for Scotland’s children.  All of them, but most particularly the ones who currently have the least.

‘F’ for Scottish universities on fairness

This eyrie has personal experience of the ability of Scottish universities to maintain the equality gap.

Apparently, older students from lone parent families who would be among a handful of individuals in three generations of both sides of their family and who achieved the grade by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and financing their way through college, are not wanted.  Not even if they also hold down a full-time job and whose job in a flagship institution in the Edinburgh hospitality sector earns them employee of the month status.

Indeed, the universities didn’t even wait to see if they had achieved the grade before rejecting them.  As they did with 146 out of the 150 college students on the same course.  Funnily enough, they did manage to find places for the two overseas students in their esteemed learning establishments.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.   Nothing like having your suspicion that your share of tax is working to keep the classes immobile and the gap between the most and the least advantaged young people in the country intact, confirmed.

NUS Scotland’s research paints a woeful picture of the state of inequality in Scottish higher education. Under 13% of students at Scottish universities come from the most disadvantaged communities:  for students under 21, the figure is even lower, at 9.1%.  This average masks an even more uncomfortable truth:  that snobbery and elitism appears to be alive and well in our higher education system.

Three of the ancient universities – Edinburgh, St Andrews, Aberdeen – account for just over 4% of the total number of students from the lowest income communities;  it’s only when you add in Glasgow that you get close to the dismal average of 13%.  The old universities fare much better, accounting for 40% of the total.  But make no mistake, if you live and go to school in some of the poorest parts in Scotland, your chances of getting to university are slim.

Universities Scotland is casting around for blame.  “To deliver significant change in universities, you first need to tackle the root of the problem, which is the large gap in attainment according to deprivation in schools, as recent reports have confirmed.” said the umbrella body’s director, in a new take on the old excuse of a big boy done it and ran away.

But actually, many such schools in such communities have improved attainment levels in recent years.  And in any event, universities have supposedly been working to close the inequality gap since the dawn of devolution.

In 2001, university principals signed up to an action plan to improve access to higher education for inclusion, with backing from the then Scottish Executive.  Wendy Alexander was the Minister for Lifelong Learning and established a fund of £18 million over three years to help widen access.

In 2006, Universities Scotland established a social inclusion advisory group to “provide advice on formulation of social inclusion and equality policy”.  At a meeting in March 2006, this group, under the chairmanship of Sir Muir Russell, the principal at Glasgow university, considered how to establish a multi-agency approach to widening participation and recommended more systematic use of the community development approach.

Yet, despite government investment and despite the attention of the finest minds in the tertiary sector, little progress has been made.

A baseline report on Higher Education in Scotland published in 2003 – though it’s hard to tell given that the publication has no date on it, tsk – suggested that the target of increasing participation from under-represented groups by 10% by 2003 was well on the way to being met.

In 2001, 8.5% of students at the ancient universities came from the most deprived backgrounds, with 11.1% and 14.8% of the populations at the old and new universities respectively being from such groups.  Overall, 13.3% of the total student population came from deprived communities.

While these figures seem awfully familiar, caution should be applied in directly comparing the data from 2001 with that sought out by NUS Scotland, for different methodologies for calculating deprivation are used.  But it is hard to escape the observation that in ten years, we have made no progress in increasing access to higher education for young people with the most disadvantage; indeed, it seems to have regressed slightly.

Which is some indictment on all those years of record investment in higher education, all those action plans, special funds and focused attention.

It is also worth noting that this stasis in the socio-economic make-up of our student population has also come at a time when attempts to change the funding mechanisms were tried and changed.   The graduation tax introduced by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive was short-lived and Scotland has more recently rejected tuition fees.  Moreover, maintenance grants have been re-introduced for the poorest students.  Yet, none of it seems to be working.

Free tuition has been a key political battleground and has regularly been touted as equitable, yet that remains to be seen.

Will the policy result in an influx of students from the poorest pairts, or will it simply continue to maintain the gap, enabling those from the wealthiest communities in Scotland and young people from private education (who still make up a disproportionately high cohort in our universities) to gain at others’ expense?  Indeed, given that overall numbers at university are falling, there is a risk that the gap widens in the next few years.

My perspective might be coloured by personal experience but facts are chiels that winna’ ding.  Our higher education sector has been practising elitism for decades and no matter what is tried, the fact remains that if you go to school in one of the poorest communities in Scotland, your chances of getting to university are slim.

Our universities, particularly the oldest and supposedly best performing, are failing in their responsibility to tackle the significant inequalities in Scottish society.   And worse, have only lame excuses to offer to explain their failure.

A fudge on university funding that could result in electoral sludge

It’s a complex one, this higher education funding debate.  Mike Russell, Education Secretary, hopes to resolve it with his Green Paper on “Building a Smarter Future” setting out options to create a sustainable Scottish solution for the future of higher education.  Yet, the title is a misnomer:  we cannot have a purely Scottish solution because of the impact of the changes in England.  

There is a sensible blogpost to be written on the efficacy or otherwise of some of the longterm options but this ain’t it.   With the electoral clock ticking and all eyes on the Holyrood prize, there are votes to be won and lost.  The last thing the SNP Government needs is a dubstep revolution on its doorstep.  The anger uniting current and future students down south has been a beguiling sight.   Seeing the door of opportunity and prosperity slammed in their faces, instead of shrugging and sloping off, young people have decided to get angry.  And behind every angry young thing, are the serried ranks of fuming parents and grandparents.  Whose votes really do count.

So suggesting a graduate contribution as a “last resort” may well be principled politics but it is also pragmatic.  The position and ultimately, the Green Paper are a fudge which do little to address the immediate funding quandary.

State funding support for higher education in the next and subsequent years is on a downward spiral.  Yet, the aspiration is to continue providing the same level of access to approximately 50% of young people leaving our schools.   The prospect of tuition fee refugees from England adds potency to the cocktail.  Already, we are told, they will face higher fees to study in Scotland, yet that may still prove a more attractive financial option than attending a university south of the border.  An easy option for our universities would be to increase the number of fee paying English students at the expense of Scottish ones.   Whether it wants to or not, the SNP Government will have to apply a quota to the numbers allowed into Scottish universities.  This may result in more visceral accusations across the media of anti-English bias, and it is certainly no base for a mature discussion about our relationship with our closest neighbour.  The SNP tries hard to avoid ending up in this territory, for obvious reasons, but this time, it may have no choice, if it is to avoid electoral sludge in May. 

Already, it has tied its colours to the mast of “free” higher education, creating a supposed clear dividing line between the SNP and Labour.  I know that the principles behind such a policy are keenly felt by the SNP, from the leadership down.  But, returning to a familiar theme for the burd, these ain’t normal times and universality is probably something we can no longer afford.  In any event, it’s a joke. 

The current system has not worked to increase access for young people from poorer backgrounds.  We still have a two tier system where the old universities are seen as somehow more credible than the new ones.   University entrance is dominated by the tiny private school system in Scotland, followed closely by the “best performing” schools in areas like East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh.  In fact, it’s probably harder these days for young people like me to get to and stay in university, and emerge out the other side with a decent degree and some options on the career front.  The argument that Scotland gains from the financial contribution graduates make is pants.  Of my circle of friends at university, only a handful of us currently live, work and pay tax in Scotland. 

Keeping higher education “free” for all simply perpetuates inequality in our society.  But it should be free, for some, and possibly the majority.  There are some very rich families in Scotland whose children benefit disproportionately from the taxes paid by much poorer ones.   One way to help bridge the funding gap would be to create an incremental fee system based on the ability to pay.  The idea of means testing children according to their parental income is not one the burd is entirely comfortable with.  But when we do it for school meals, for access to leisure services and for families with disabled children requiring adaptations to their house so they can provide adequate care for their child, then it is clear we are not operating with a consistent approach on this anyway.  Is the answer to an anomaly to widen and exacerbate it?  Probably not.  But it’s that extraordinary financial times thing again.

Am I arguing for fees or a graduate contribution?  There might be other ways of creating an income related system that takes the money from the parent and not the child, but that would require tax raising powers not currently in the equation.  So, yes I probably am.  And the burd is astonished to find herself in such a place.

Education is a right not a privilege.  But this will ring increasingly hollow if Scottish students are denied the chance to better themselves, because cash strapped universities opt for the cash cow of fee paying entrants from England.  In any event, the Scottish system has only extended the right to certain sections of our population.  If we are to create a more equitable and socially just economy and society then radical change is required.

And here’s a thought – ratcheting up the fees for those who can afford to pay in order to create wider, free access further down the income pole need not only be made available for Scots.  The biggest losers from the English measures – no matter what they say or how they package it – will be poor young people from the worst areas and the lowest performing schools.  A truly compassionate Scotland might consider offering them free access.  Now that would be a tuition fee refugee policy worth pursuing.