An overview of today’s new commentary articles: poverty, educational attainment and Covid-19

Today we publish two new articles and an accompanying podcast as part of the June 2020 Fraser or Allander Economic Commentary looking at issues for some of the most disadvantaged households in Scotland. The Scottish Government sees poverty and the poverty related education attainment as important issues that need to be tackled. This is not just for the benefit of those directly affected, but for the benefit of society and indeed the productive capacity of our economy. Few would disagree that these issues should be key priorities. The Coronavirus pandemic and consequent economic fallout have made these issues even more critical.

A prelude to ‘building back better’

These issues are complex and won’t be turned around overnight, but they are solvable. So how far has Scotland come in making progress? Our first article out today looks at this issue in relation to poverty and income inequality. Despite these issues being core goals of the Scottish Government since the move to an outcomes-based approach in 2007 with the National Performance Framework it has yet to demonstrate an appreciable difference in outcomes related to poverty or income inequality when compared against the UK. Whilst there are many reasons why this is the case, not least the fact that many powers related to tackling poverty remain reserved to Westminster, it remains the case that Scotland has set itself the challenge of making a difference on these outcomes, and indeed now has legislation that requires it to make substantial progress on tackling child poverty. There is a valid question to be asked over why more has not been achieved since 2007, and if we don’t find the answers to these questions, it will be difficult to make an evidence-based assessment of how to build the fairer economy post-Covid that is now being talked about under the ‘build back better’ banner. To understand some of the possible reasons why, we recommend reading the piece Caroline Gardner, retiring Auditor General, has written for this month’s commentary, but only by careful analysis of what has and hasn’t worked over the past ten years would we be able to fully understand the lessons to be learnt that will allow delivery of something different over the next ten years.

The Economics of Parenting and the impact of Covid 19

Our second article looks at another key pillar of Scottish Government ambitions: the poverty related attainment gap. With the clue in the name, the Scottish Government knows that tackling the drivers of poverty is critical to closing the attainment gap. Yet, the focus of flagship policies, such as the attainment challenge fund, has a far greater focus on what happens inside the school gates and less emphasis on the financial situation at home. Whilst some may argue that other parts of government are focused on just that, as our first article highlights, progress is difficult to ascertain. We look at the literature on the importance of the development of socio-emotional skills in improving attainment and job prospects later in life, and the evidence around how living in a low-income household, and particularly when this is coupled with living in a relatively more deprived neighbourhood, can limit development of these skills – despite equal care and effort of parents. The emergence of Covid-19, and the closure of schools, has meant that the home environment has become even more important and should put into focus the need to ensure that education policy and poverty policy are tied together meaningfully and in a mutually reinforcing way, rather than viewed as policy areas to be tackled separately, albeit with acknowledged linkages.

The importance of action and evaluation

The key challenge for tackling poverty and related harms remains how to deliver successfully. There is no absence of political desire to see change, but words in a framework, such as the National Performance Framework or even the legislation set out in Child Poverty (Scotland) Act, are not enough. Unless ruthless prioritisation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation take centre stage, we risk making no progress. This would be to the detriment not just of educational attainment, but the long-run health of our population, our public finances, our labour force and our economy, and also the wellbeing of our population.

Listen to the podcast on Poverty, Educational Attainment and Covid-19.


The Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) is a leading economy research institute based in the Department of Economics at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.