9. Concluding remarks
9.1. This report has presented findings from the fifth survey of headteachers of schools in receipt of support from the Attainment Scotland Fund (ASF). The ASF supports the Scottish Attainment Challenge focus on improving literacy, numeracy, health and well-being of children adversely affected by poverty, and incorporates a number of specific strands to support schools to close the poverty-related gap in attainment and wellbeing.
9.2. The reduction in response rate to the fifth survey of headteachers (from 47% in 2019 to 27% in 2020) was in the context of survey fieldwork being undertaken during an unprecedented period of school building closures and associated pressure on schools. It is important to note that despite this reduction in response rate, the volume of responses is sufficient to produce robust results, and survey weighting has minimised the impact of any response bias.
9.3. Findings continue to demonstrate positive impacts being delivered with ASF support. Moreover, development of the survey evidence base over time shows a number of positive trends. For example, the 90% of respondents that have seen improvement in closing the poverty-related gap in literacy, numeracy or health and wellbeing represents a 12-point improvement since 2017. A large majority of respondents (88%) also expect further improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap in the next five years.
9.4. However, survey findings also make clear that schools have faced unique challenges during 2019/20. This is reflected in the 95% of headteachers indicating that COVID-19 and school building closures had at least some impact on their progress in closing the poverty-related attainment gap – and 61% had seen a ‘significant impact’. This appeared to be linked to the challenges faced by schools during the period of school building closures, including a lack of face-to-face contact with pupils, challenges supporting pupil and family wellbeing (particularly for increasing numbers affected by poverty), and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on pupils’ and families’ mental health.
9.5. There has also been a 10-point reduction in the proportion of respondents who expect to see further improvement in closing the poverty-related attainment gap in the next few years (88%, down from 98% in 2019), and a minority (34%) feel the improvement they have made to date will be sustainable beyond funding. Views were more positive on sustaining the focus on equity in their school, but there remained concerns regarding potential loss of staff resources post-funding, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has already had an adverse impact on the poverty-related attainment gap.
9.6. A number of key themes emerged across survey findings, which appear to have a particularly important bearing on schools’ experience of closing the poverty-related attainment gap, and have been reflected in their response to the challenges associated with COVID-19.
9.7. These themes include specific factors that appear linked to progress achieved to date in closing the poverty-related attainment gap. Survey findings indicate that the headteachers most likely to report improvement were those:
- who had embedded approaches to ensuring equity across the school community;
- who feel that they understand the challenges faced by pupils and parents affected by poverty;
- who feel that ASF has helped to develop staff data and evidence skills;
- who have seen an increase in collaborative working; and
- who feel they are effective in measuring progress and impact of approaches.
9.8. A number of wider themes were also evident, which had emerged in the specific context of school building closures, and which appear to influence schools’ experience of ASF and their work to close the poverty-related attainment gap. These included the importance of:
- maintaining communication with pupils and families (improving understanding of family circumstances and needs, tailoring the school approach accordingly, and signposting to other supports);
- better understanding of the challenges affecting pupils and families including an increasing focus on wellbeing and mental health (reflecting increasing numbers of families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and requiring support, and the positive impact of improved family wellbeing for pupil engagement); and
- ensuring a shared ethos and values across the school community (supported by effective communication with pupils and families, and demonstrated by the commitment of school staff in responding to the significant challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic).
9.9. These themes were highlighted by headteachers in the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic and school building closures. However, survey responses indicate that they will continue to inform work to close the poverty-related attainment gap, with written comments providing examples of schools already planning recovery from COVID-19.
9.10. Headteachers also highlighted the particular importance of ongoing communication and engagement with families. This included suggestions that this engagement facilitates other aspects of schools’ response to school building closures, such as securing a better understanding of barriers affecting pupils and families (and tailoring approaches accordingly) and maintaining a shared culture and ethos. Written responses suggest that communication and engagement will continue to be a crucial element for schools.
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