Education - Achieving Excellence and Equity: National Improvement Framework and improvement plan 2023

Sets out the vision and priorities for Scottish education that have been agreed across the system, and the national improvement activity that needs to be undertaken to help deliver those key priorities.

Delivering improvement

The primary purpose of the National Improvement Framework since January 2016 has been to bring together an enhanced range of information and data at all levels of the system, to drive improvement for children and young people in early learning and childcare settings, schools, and colleges across the whole of Scotland. The Scottish Attainment Challenge has also become a rich source of information about good practice in schools, and how high‑quality teaching and learning delivers equitable outcomes for children and young people most impacted by poverty.

The disruption to schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had less impact this year on the collection of the data that informs the NIF than it had in previous years. However, the routine programme of early learning and childcare (ELC) and school inspections remained paused, in order to enable schools and establishments to focus on recovery. During 2021-22, HM Inspectors engaged with over 400 schools and settings. This engagement took three main forms:

1. A programme of progress visits to 107 schools and ELC settings across 28 local authorities which had been identified prior to the pandemic as requiring further time and support to make improvements. HM Inspectors explored the impact of the pandemic on the work of the school and the progress of learners. HM Inspectors also evaluated the progress made in addressing the recommendations for improvement from the original inspection. Evidence was gathered through virtual meetings and in-school visits. HM Inspectors invited local authority representatives to work collaboratively with them in each school and ELC setting to carry out these visits.

2. Four national thematic inspections were undertaken by HM Inspectors, focused on COVID-19 recovery, as part of Scottish Government's Education Recovery: Key Actions and Next Steps. These national thematic inspections explored the approaches taken to support health and wellbeing, local approaches taken to support improvement and recover,; features of effective practice in outdoor learning, and responsive, supportive and resilient communities. HM Inspectors gathered evidence through visits to a selection of 148 schools, settings and services.

3. HM Inspectors undertook a programme of 148 recovery visits between March and July 2022. Schools and ELC settings self-nominated to take part in this programme of visits. The aim of the recovery visits was to learn from schools about their own current priorities as they responded to the impact of the current pandemic, what was working well, and the challenges education practitioners faced. The visits were tailored to the needs of each school or setting and included both online meetings and face-to-face activities. HM Inspectors also explored arrangements in place to promote safeguarding and child protection.

Local improvement planning

At national level, the NIF and Improvement Plan summarises the key evidence and identifies new improvement activity that the Scottish Government and Education Scotland will be taking forward or supporting. While it is a national plan, the activity it contains has been informed by local and school level priorities drawn from the regional improvement plans produced by the Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) as well as the local authority 2022/23 improvement plans.

Prior to the disruption caused by COVID-19, the Scottish Government had initiated a review of the role and functions of the RICs. This was paused as a result of the pandemic, and resumed in summer 2021. Schools had been through significant periods of change, stress and restrictions, and the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have a major impact on schools at the time of fieldwork.

The overall aim of the review was to secure an independent analysis of the development and early impact of the RICs, focusing on themes around governance, collaboration, engagement with schools, planning, evaluation, use of data and support for RICs. The final report on the RIC review was published on 16 December 2021.

The review found that there has been real progress since RICs were established. There is evidence that the RICs are having an impact on developing the skills of school staff, delivery of lessons, skills and consistency around assessment and moderation, leadership and improvement planning skills, collaboration between local authorities, and online learning opportunities for pupils. There is now a high level of confidence in RICs, in terms of their governance, structures and plans, and they have become established within the education system. The review also found that, while the pandemic had placed intense pressure on schools, most found that they were able to collaborate, share, learn and develop skills through their RICs. The RICs helped many schools to look outwards and learn from what others were doing, with a focus on outcomes for children and young people.

The latest RIC improvement plans continue to take account of the ongoing challenges resulting from COVID-19 and have a strong focus on health and wellbeing, equity, curriculum development, early years, and on closing the poverty related attainment gap. Current RIC plans also focus on areas such as supporting learning leadership, research, and collaborative networks in addition to improving attainment literacy and numeracy, and on the digital and virtual learning skills that came into their own while school buildings were closed.

There continues to be a high uptake on professional learning to improve practice leading to better outcomes for children and young people. RICs have taken cognisance of the recommendations in the national reports, including the OECD Report and Muir Report, to ensure alignment for future priorities. Almost all RICs have carried out consultations to ensure the priorities remain focused and relevant to meet the needs of stakeholders.

In reviewing progress across all six RICs, it is still evident that the model of regional collaboration continues to mature and to be consolidated. The latest plans demonstrate the increased participation from practitioners on career-long professional learning (CLPL). Such approaches have brought a consistency in approach and methodology across local authorities within RICs. Smaller local authorities within RICs report that this access to CLPL has been invaluable given the very small size of their central teams. Across the six RICs there has been stronger emphasis on the use of benchmarking as well as evidence of impact and improved collaboration. The partnerships between the RICs and Education Scotland have also been strengthened, through the consolidation of established joint working arrangements, increased consultation on areas of priority and joint delivery of workstreams.

In line with statutory guidance on improvement planning, local authority and school improvement plans should inform and reflect the NIF priorities and ensure a clear line of sight between local and national expectations, with further improvement priorities at school level based on local needs and self-evaluation.

The regional and local authority plans, informed by the school improvement plans, identified a number of common themes, which are picked up below under the relevant NIF priority. The targeting and implementation of local improvement activity is key to the delivery of the NIF vision and priorities. Unfortunately, not all local authorities produced and submitted their improvement plans on time to Scottish Government in 2022. The Scottish Government will be working with Education Scotland and our partners in local government to ensure that the improvement planning process adds value at all levels in order to support positive outcomes for children and young people. The summary below is based on the 27 local authority plans which had been submitted at the time of writing.

Summary of local improvement plans

Placing the human rights and needs of every child and young person at the centre of education

All local authorities highlighted areas in their plans which demonstrated a commitment to placing the human rights and needs of every child and young person at the centre of education. The majority made specific reference to developing youth voice and engagement strategies, policy development, partnership working and providing professional learning in order to raise awareness and support staff development in this area. A few local authorities also reported that quality improvement processes were being revised in order to evaluate progress towards implementation of UNCRC. These reflect that the underlying principles of Learning for Sustainability are being embedded in local authority improvement plans.

Local authority examples relating to the NIF drivers of improvement include:

  • Undertaking a review of service wide policies to ensure UNCRC principles are considered. (School and ELC leadership)
  • Ensuring all staff have access to appropriate resources and professional learning associated with UNCRC. (Teacher and practitioner professionalism)

Improvement in children and young people's health and wellbeing

Almost all local authorities highlighted that their work in relation to health and wellbeing would continue to be a key priority. Most local authorities made specific reference to embedding policy frameworks and providing improvement support in areas such as mental health, counselling services, nurture, attendance, inclusion, and curriculum development. The majority referenced work with partners to provide targeted health and wellbeing activities that meet the individual needs of children and young people. The majority of local authorities also indicated that the Health and Wellbeing Census and other data will be used to inform improvement planning priorities.

Local authority examples relating to the NIF drivers of improvement include:

  • Developing a parental engagement strategy in partnership with CLD, including a nurture / support group for parents of very young children. (Parent and carer involvement and engagement)
  • Supporting Early Years establishments to identify and implement evidence-based emotional literacy programmes. (Curriculum and assessment)

Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people

Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children was indicated as a priority for all local authorities. All local authorities indicated a range of planned interventions, some of which included the use of Scottish Attainment Challenge (PEF, SEF, CECYP) funding to support improvement through evidence-based interventions to improve attainment and achievement of all learners, and reduce the attainment gap between the most and least deprived. Almost all local authorities highlighted areas for development at a local authority level, for example: the creation of local authority strategy/policy, development of stretch aims, PEF support for schools and partnership work to evaluate impact of interventions aimed at closing the attainment gap. The majority of local authorities highlighted ways in which they will use data to provide a strategic overview of attainment allowing for effective, targeted interventions.

Local authority examples relating to the NIF drivers of improvement include:

  • Working closely across services and third sector partners to reduce the cost of the school day and mitigate the impact of child poverty. (School and ELC improvement)
  • Improving arrangements for tracking and monitoring attainment and achievement of targeted groups to be able to demonstrate impact of targeted interventions. (Performance information)

Improvement in skills and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people

All local authorities have planned to support improvement in skills and sustained, positive school-leaver destinations for all young people. Almost all local authorities indicated that they would continue to develop their approach to partnership working to ensure that learners have access to an extended range of learning pathways. Making links with Skills Development Scotland, business and further education providers as well as an increased focus on skills and vocational based learning were included in plans. The majority of local authorities included reference to building digital capacity in order to maximise the number and range of opportunities available to young people. All local authorities plan to support improvement in employability skills and sustained positive destinations for all young people through curriculum design and development. In addition, almost all local authorities specified further targeted support and transition planning for vulnerable groups including care experienced children and young people and those with ASN. A few local authorities also identified further development of the DYW agenda in ELC and primary sectors.

Local authority examples relating to the NIF drivers of improvement include:

  • Working collaboratively with partner agencies to ensure that all Care Experienced Children and Young People are supported into positive destinations through the effective delivery of key targets outlined in the Corporate Parenting Plan. (School and ELC leadership)
  • Improving vocational educational provision in schools and developing strong partnerships with employers and agencies who can contribute to the development of young people's skills and prospects. (Curriculum and assessment)

Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy

All local authorities have planned to support improvements in attainment, particularly in relation to literacy and numeracy. Most local authorities described approaches for working with practitioners to further develop actions within this priority, such as to support the delivery of targeted interventions or implementation of raising attainment strategies. The majority of local authorities included reference to supporting the development of Teacher Professional Judgement through local authority moderation networks and activities and systems for tracking and monitoring. Some local authorities also outlined approaches to engage with parents or to develop opportunities for family learning in order to support improvements in literacy and numeracy. In a few local authorities specific focus was mentioned in relation to the use of digital technology, outdoor learning, interdisciplinary learning, learning for sustainability and effective use of support staff.

Local authority examples relating to the NIF drivers of improvement include:

  • Implement reading strategy to promote the importance of reading with families. (Parent and carer involvement and engagement)
  • Promoting progressive interdisciplinary outdoor learning experiences with a focus on sustainable development goals. (Curriculum and assessment)

Understanding and addressing variation in performance across the system

The 2016/17 Programme for Government said 'It is the defining mission of this Government to close the poverty-related attainment gap. We intend to make significant progress within the lifetime of this Parliament and substantially eliminate the gap over the course of the next decade.' Despite the positive progress made in the first five years of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, COVID-19 has had a negative impact on the attainment gap, not just in Scotland but all over the world. The cost of living crisis is also likely to have a more severe impact in communities which are already disadvantaged, so it remains crucial to have a continued focus on closing that gap.

Central to achieving this aim will be a rigorous and systematic approach to addressing, but also understanding, variation in performance across the system. The Audit Scotland report Improving outcomes for young people through school education found a large variation in trends in outcomes across a range of indicators across local authority areas, with evidence of decreasing performance on some indicators in certain local authorities.

However, it is important to recognise that not all variation is bad – indeed flexibility is embedded within the ethos of CfE. The Scottish Government, along with our local government partners and Education Scotland also published a joint agreement in 2018 which set out a shared ambition of empowerment and collaboration to improve outcomes for our children and young people. In a genuinely empowered, school and practitioner-led system, it is important that decisions that shape the education of children and young people are made in classrooms, schools, and establishments, by those working with learners, their parents, and communities. This flexible approach will inevitably result in variation in how education (and other) services are delivered, in order to meet the diverse needs of each local community.

Since the Audit Scotland report was published, the Scottish Government has been working with Education Scotland, COSLA and ADES to develop a joint approach to improving educational outcomes and experiences for children and young people. As part of a collaborative response, our organisations have been working in partnership with schools and local authorities, to gain a better understanding of the different approaches to educational improvement in each local authority, and the impact these can have on the outcomes young people achieve.

These discussions have clearly demonstrated the importance of taking full account of the context of individual schools and local authorities when making comparisons between them. In order to make meaningful comparisons and support improvement at the local level, the Scottish Government provides two key tools that allow schools and local authorities to compare the performance of a local authority or school to that of a comparator made up of other pupils who have similar key demographic (and other) characteristics to the pupils in the local authority or school of interest:

  • Insight, senior phase benchmarking tool (uses a virtual comparator)
  • Broad General Education (BGE) Tool (uses a comparator score)

Neither of these tools is publicly available. They were developed for teachers, schools and local authorities to use in order to help them interrogate their own data, and to use the data to inform improvements and ultimately improve outcomes for their learners. Individual local authorities have also developed their own tools for tracking and monitoring learner progress and reporting local performance.

However, some comparator information included from these tools is made publicly available through the School Information Dashboards, which also provide background and demographic information about individual settings and local authorities to help put their data in context.

We recognise that there needs to be a more consistent and coherent approach to tackling any unwanted variation in performance. These tools help us to take into account the fact that there are a number of societal and socio-economic factors which influence attainment, many of which begin outside the school gates and can impact significantly on learning and achievement. That is why we need to take a whole-system approach, and work across government and beyond to tackle child poverty, supporting more parents into work, expanding free early learning and childcare to 1 and 2-year-olds, building a system of school-age childcare which will be provided free to those on lowest incomes, as well as the ongoing work in response to the Morgan Report on Additional Support for Learning, and the commitments within the Promise that relate to education.

We also need to take a wider perspective and better account of the varied learner journeys, and how and where our schools and local authorities provide added value for learners over their educational journey from 2 to 18. The outcome of the national discussion on Scottish education, and the Hayward review of qualifications and assessment will help inform the way we evidence the achievements of all learners across the four capacities within CfE which, in turn, will enable a more rounded and comprehensive focus on learner progress.

There will be a focus on what more can be done to provide challenge where improvement activity is not having the desired impact on outcomes for learners, and to support meaningful improvement at all levels. In addition to the existing Collaborative Improvement work (delivered in partnership with ADES), Education Scotland will support improvement, working with local authorities, through a programme of intensive, targeted and universal support to schools and local authorities depending on what works best for each local context:

  • Universal support will be available to all local authorities and schools.
  • Targeted support will be provided to local authorities and schools with the most need. This may be those with the highest levels of poverty or others depending on the data and contextual analysis.
  • Intensive support will be provided to local authorities and schools where, after taking into account the local context, little or no progress is being made to improving outcomes for children and young people affected by poverty.

Over the course of 2022-23 Education Scotland will work in partnership with ADES and COSLA to further develop and embed this approach. This will include developing an agreed methodology for determining how improvement will be measured, taking into account local demographics as utilised by the Insight benchmarking tool, as well as national and local data, evidence and intelligence. This will enable the improvement support provided by Education Scotland to be truly collaborative and focused on accelerating progress and achieving agreed outcomes. This work will be taken forward in accordance with the Scottish Attainment Challenge: Framework for Recovery and Accelerating Progress.

In addition, all local authorities are developing ambitious stretch aims for progress, taking account of their local circumstances and the challenges we've faced as a result of the pandemic and the ongoing cost of living crisis. These local stretch aims are a key element of the ambitious new approach for the Scottish Attainment Challenge programme, which includes record investment of £1bn over this Parliament.

Local stretch aims will help drive a focus on outcomes for children and young people and tell us each local authority's ambitions for progress - supported and challenged by Education Scotland - and inform a national picture of those aims.

Inclusion, wellbeing, and equality

Scotland's 'needs-led' and rights-based educational system is designed to be an inclusive one for all children and young people in Scottish schools and ELC settings. Children's rights and entitlements are fundamental to Scotland's approach to inclusive education, supported by the legislative framework and key policy drivers. These include Curriculum for Excellence, the Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) approach, the Equality Act and Additional Support for Learning legislation, and the Professional Standards for Scotland's Teachers. These are underpinned by a set of values aligned to social justice and commitment to inclusive education.

We are committed to improving the health and well-being of our children and young people. Wellbeing, alongside literacy and numeracy, is the responsibility of all within CfE and is one of the eight curricular areas. Its substantial importance is reflected in its position at the centre of the curriculum and at the heart of children's learning.

Learning in health and wellbeing is designed to ensure that children and young people develop the knowledge and understanding, skills, capabilities and attributes which they need for mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing. Health and wellbeing is organised into six areas: mental, emotional, social and physical wellbeing; planning for choices and changes; physical education, physical activity and sport; food and health; substance misuse; and relationships, sexual health and parenthood. This broad approach to health and wellbeing ensures that children and young people have the opportunity to gain a better understanding of matters which will affect them, and their lives, now and in the future.

We have a range of actions in place to support children and young people's mental and physical health and wellbeing. These include continued support for anti-bullying approaches, support for schools in embedding approaches to mental health and wellbeing, the provision of counselling through schools, and work ongoing to enhance Personal and Social Education and Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education. We have continued our support for the provision of free school meals and clothing grant and maintained support for nutritional standards which ensure that children and young people access healthy and nutritious food whilst at school or within ELC, helping them to build healthy eating habits. We will continue to focus on health and wellbeing through the National Improvement Framework and Scottish Attainment Challenge, as is reflected in the development and publication of local stretch aims.

Scotland is set to become the first country in the UK to directly incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law. We already use the UNCRC as a framework to ensure that we consider children's rights whenever we take decisions, and to help provide every child with a good start in life and a safe, healthy and happy childhood.

Learning for sustainability

All learners have an entitlement to Learning for Sustainability (LfS), a cross-curricular approach that weaves together distinct but closely related themes of sustainable development education, climate education, global citizenship, children's rights and outdoor learning. Providing every learner with their entitlement to LfS is key to ensure they gain the knowledge, skills, values and attributes needed for life in the 21st Century, an understanding of their environment, culture and heritage, their role in the local, national and global community, the importance of connection and care to the natural world and the significance of their choices, now and in the future, to live in a sustainable way.

Children and young people have repeatedly asked us to put LfS at the centre of their learning experiences, calling for a greater emphasis on climate education, biodiversity and youth participation. This is clearly articulated in Professor Ken Muir's Report, Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Future Vision for Scottish Education, where Professor Muir highlighted that the current generation of learners sees climate change and social justice as key drivers influencing the future of our education system.

The Scottish Government has been working with children, young people and their educators to strengthen the LfS Action Plan, ensuring their views are taken forward and that LfS is better embedded across the curriculum. Scottish Government is also working with Education Scotland to develop the LfS Professional Learning Directory, where educators will be able to access training and resources that will support them to embed LfS better in their practice.



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