It has become the defining mission of Scotland’s education system.
But closing the attainment gap – the difference in achievement and learning outcomes between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better off peers – is proving a stubborn challenge.
An Audit Scotland report published earlier this year warned disparities remained “wide” and had been exacerbated by Covid-19.
Efforts continue at all levels to reduce inequalities and increase opportunity, with much of the most daring work happening in our university and college sectors.
A number of institutions were honoured in the 2019 Herald Higher Education Awards for widening access to courses that would previously have been out of reach for many learners from poorer communities.
And although the pandemic has forced the same organisations to absorb unprecedented change and disruption, they are determined their work in this vital area will not be thrown off course.
Glasgow University, winner of the widening access prize in 2019 for a scheme that allows successful participants to progress to year one in medicine, is celebrating significant progress.
“I’m happy to say the Glasgow Medical School Access Programme (GAP) has continued to go from strength to strength,” said Dr Neil Croll.
“Like all University of Glasgow undergraduate teaching, the course has pivoted online, with students participating from home. We have supported our students as required: laptop loans, broadband access from home, finance, emotional and counselling support as required to help them cope through the pandemic and lockdowns.
“Numbers on GAP have increased year on year, despite Covid, and the success rates have remained high.”
Dr Croll, Glasgow’s head of widening participation, added: “We hope to be able to engage with learners in school and on the university campus as early as possible during the 2021-22 academic year, but will emerge from Covid with strengthened provision, which will more effectively combine online and in-person engagement to better prepare learners from disadvantaged and deprived backgrounds for the transition to college and university.”
Another institution recognised in our 2019 awards is the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), which was a finalist in the widening access category thanks to the success of its Dumfries House Arts Hub.
Like fellow education institutions across Scotland, it was thrown into upheaval by Covid as key programmes were moved online.
RCS bosses also stressed that the practical nature of its courses meant huge challenges existed around engaging and supporting students who experience barriers to learning.
However, help from the Scottish Funding Council allowed it to loan devices to undergraduates, while additional money made possible the purchase of 12 laptops as well as dongles and data packages for those struggling to access technology.
The RCS also bought kit including microphones, speakers and grips for holding devices steady during one to one lessons.
Fair access manager Jesse Paul said: “We cannot ignore the disadvantage experienced by learners from underrepresented groups, including those from more socially deprived backgrounds or those who are care experienced/estranged.
“This relates to digital poverty, suitable home learning environments, digital fatigue and increased mental health issues. Our students and their families and caregivers have come forward to ask for our support and, in response, we have created an online learning environment that is stimulating and meaningful, allowing students to flourish as much as possible. We’re proud of the achievements and determination of our students to keep focused and progressing.”
The Open University in Scotland (OU), another 2019 finalist, has been similarly tenacious in boosting access to nursing courses across Grampian. It said the scheme was continuing to grow and had been rolled out more widely to other NHS health boards and the care home sector.
Welcoming the progress, Liz Sturley, staff tutor for nursing, said: “The OU in Scotland nursing programme provides a tailored opportunity to a group of people who may never have been able to study towards being a registered nurse or have the confidence to go for an academic qualification.
“Students have the flexibility to study their nursing degree at the same time as retaining the security of their role a health care support worker. Our programme makes background no barrier to a career as a nurse.”
To submit a nomination visit www.newsquestscotlandevents.com/events/ heawards.