This report presents key findings from the fifth survey of headteachers of schools in receipt of Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF) support, covering the 2019/20 academic year including the period of school building closures from March to June 2020. The survey was issued to all schools in receipt of Challenge Authority (CA) or Schools Programme (SP) funding, and 50% of those in receipt of only Pupil Equity Funding (PEF).
Of headteachers who responded to the survey:
A large majority (90%) have seen improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap - and 88% expect further improvement over the next few years.
Around a third (34%) expect their progress to be sustainable beyond funding, and most (58%) felt that the focus on equity would be sustainable.
The great majority (95%) felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap.
Headteachers were most likely to have seen progress where there has been a change of ethos, improved understanding of barriers for pupils and families, strong use of data, and engagement with families/communities.
Most schools (75%) have seen new circumstances or needs emerge since school building closures. Additional flexibility in ASF funding has been used by 57% to develop approaches and establish new collaborations.
Headteachers felt they had autonomy to plan for their school’s needs (95%), and that PEF provided additional resource to support their school (89%).
Despite adapting approaches to remote learning, schools saw a lack of in-person contact as a key challenge for pupil engagement during school building closures. Supporting pupil/family wellbeing in the face of increasing support needs was also a significant challenge for some schools.
Engagement with pupils and families underpinned the response to school building closures for many schools. Pupil/family engagement also supported other aspects of schools’ response including a focus on pupil/family wellbeing, maintaining a shared ethos, and supporting remote learning.
Factors such as communication with pupils/families, understanding of pupil/family needs, and a shared ethos emerged as particularly important during school building closures, but responses suggest that these will continue to inform schools’ work to close the poverty-related attainment gap.
A total of 420 responses were received, equating to a 27% response rate. This is lower than the response achieved to the 2019 survey, although it should be noted that fieldwork took place in early 2021 during a period of school building closures and associated pressure on school resources. Nevertheless, the volume of responses is sufficient to produce robust results, and survey data has been weighted to minimise the impact of any response bias.
Findings, based on headteachers who responded to the survey, are summarised below in relation to the main survey themes in turn.
ASF and supported approaches
A great majority of headteachers (98%) felt they understood the challenges faced by pupils affected by poverty. A large majority (84%) felt that the approach to achieving equity was embedded within their school.
Most schools (75%) have seen new circumstances or needs emerge since school building closures. These most commonly relate to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on income and employment, on pupil/parent health and wellbeing, and on the ability of pupils to engage with remote learning.
A large majority of schools (85%) had developed their approaches to closing the poverty-related attainment gap from the previous year. In addition, 46% developed their approach further during school building closures and 57% made use of additional flexibility in use of ASF funds introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, school building closures involved multiple changes to their approach. These typically related to supporting pupils and families to adapt to remote learning (including provision of digital resources), supporting families’ mental health and wellbeing, and responding to increasing numbers affected by poverty.
A large majority of schools (85%) had engaged with families and communities as part of their approach to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and most (81%) had further developed their engagement approach during school building closures. This typically focused on more use of ‘outreach’ communication with families such as regular ‘check in’ and improving understanding of circumstances and needs.
Use of data and evaluation
A large majority of headteachers were positive about their use of data and evidence in developing approaches (84%) and measuring impact (82%). Most were also positive about use of evidence to measure impact (76%) and measuring progress (78%). However, there has been a decline since 2019 in headteachers’ rating of their use of data to develop approaches, and measure impact.
A large majority (90%) of headteachers have seen improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap as a result of ASF-supported approaches (12-point increase since 2017). A similar number (88%) expected to see further improvement in closing the gap over the next few years, although this represents a 10-point reduction since 2019.
The great majority (95%) felt that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap (61% had seen a ‘significant impact’). Secondary schools and those with middle to higher PEF allocations were most likely to feel that their progress had been significantly affected.
Analysis indicates that headteachers are most likely to have seen progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap where there has been changes of culture or ethos (such as embedding approaches to ensuring equity or improved collaborative working), improved understanding of barriers faced by pupils and families, strong skills and knowledge in use of data and evidence, and engagement with families and communities.
Nearly two thirds (63%) of headteachers expected progress to date and/or the focus on equity to be sustainable beyond funding. Headteachers were more positive about sustainability of focus than of progress to date; 34% expected progress to be sustainable, and 58% expected the focus on equity to be sustainable (the latter a 17-point increase since 2019). Those who expected progress to be sustainable pointed to staff skills and capacity developed through ASF-supported approaches as being sustainable beyond funding, even if the approaches themselves do not continue in their current form.
Nearly two thirds (65%) of headteachers had seen an increase in collaborative working up to March 2020 as a result of ASF support. Nearly half (46%) had seen a further increase in collaborative working during school building closures. Headteachers also reported new collaborations having emerged during school building closures, most commonly with third sector and public sector agencies.
Pupil Equity Funding
The majority (76%) of headteachers felt there was sufficient support in place to develop and implement their school plan for PEF, a 20-point increase since 2017.
The great majority (94%) of headteachers felt they had the autonomy to develop PEF plans that responded to local context and needs. Views were also highly positive on whether PEF had provided additional resources to help schools address the poverty-related attainment gap (89% felt this had been the case).
Learning from school building closures
A lack of face-to-face pupil contact was the most commonly cited challenge for schools during school building closures. Despite adapting their approach to remote learning, some saw a lack of in-person contact as a continuing barrier to engagement – in terms of delivering the curriculum and maintaining targeted interventions and pastoral care. Supporting pupil and family wellbeing was also highlighted as a challenge, with some schools having struggled to respond to increasing mental health needs in particular. This included reference to teachers being required to respond to an increasing volume of support requests while access to specialist support services was limited during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Approaches to maintain communication and build relationships with pupils and families underpinned the response to these challenges for a number of schools. This was mentioned by nearly half of respondents, with some noting that they had dedicated considerable resources to maintaining regular communication with pupils and families. Responses indicate that this focus on engagement also supported other aspects of schools’ response to school building closures, by facilitating support to pupil and family wellbeing, and maintaining a shared ethos across the school community. Schools also highlighted the important role played by school staff as their approaches to closing the poverty-related attainment gap developed during school building closures. This included particular reference to the commitment of staff in the context of what was for some a significant change in role as more pupils and families turned to schools for information and support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A number of key themes emerged across the survey which appear to have an important bearing on respondents’ work to close the poverty-related attainment gap. For example, those most likely to report improvement:
- had embedded approaches to equity across the school community;
- understand challenges faced by pupils/parents affected by poverty;
- felt staff data skills have developed through effective use of ASF;
- have seen more collaborative working; and
- felt they are effective in measuring progress and impact.
Several wider themes also appear to have influenced experience of the ASF, and how schools responded to the challenges of COVID-19:
- maintaining communication with pupils and families;
- better understanding of challenges affecting pupils and families including an increasing focus on wellbeing and mental health; and
- ensuring a shared ethos across the school community.
While these themes were highlighted in the unique context of COVID-19, responses indicate that they will continue to inform work to achieve equity.