Attainment Scotland Fund Evaluation - Headteacher Survey: 2020 report

The Attainment Scotland Fund Evaluation: Headteacher Survey – Full Report 2020 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.

8. Learning points from school building closures

8.1. The final section of the survey included two open questions inviting headteachers to comment on their experience of school building closures, in terms of the main challenges they had faced, and how they had responded to these.

8.2. Around 300 respondents provided comment on what they felt had been the main challenges to their work in closing the poverty-related attainment gap as a result of COVID-19 and school building closures. The main points raised by respondents are summarised below.

Table 14: Main challenges as a result of COVID=19 and school building closures (n=297)
Theme % of comments
Lack of face-to-face contact, difficulties engaging pupils and families, especially the most vulnerable 62%
Pupil/family wellbeing and safety, mental health (including difficulty responding to the increasing volume of need) 23%
Difficulty adjusting to remote learning, adapting approaches to provide quality of support 20%
Digital connectivity and literacy – for pupils, families, staff 17%
Staffing skills and capacity, including recruitment 12%
Challenges for parents/families supporting remote learning 10%
Access to external support services 8%
Impact of poverty and deprivation (food, fuel, clothing, space to work, etc) 6%
Limited staff collaboration, difficulty delivering skills development and training 5%
Measuring impact and attainment 4%
Accessing resources, procurement 4%
Staff morale, wellbeing and mental health, risk assessments 4%
Adjusting to ad hoc self-isolation of pupils, anxiety about allowing pupils to return 2%

8.3. The lack of face-to-face contact was the challenge most commonly cited by respondents. While schools referred to having adapted their approach in light of school building closures, some suggested that a lack of in-person contact had been a continuing barrier to engagement with pupils and families. This was highlighted as a challenge in terms of delivering the curriculum, but also in maintaining targeted interventions and pastoral care.

Access to our children and not having them in school has been a challenge. The ability to resource and deliver the curriculum to our children with targeted support was a challenge. The therapeutic work we do on a daily basis could not be done in the same way as normal. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

The main challenges have been continuing interventions based on face-to-face interactions. Engagement in this online can be varied and it is difficult to insist when families have such different home circumstances. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.4. Some headteachers also felt that there were limitations to the extent to which approaches can be adapted to overcome the lack of face-to-face pupil contact. For some pupils, it was felt that the quiet and safety of the school environment is crucial to their learning and wellbeing.

Many children need school as a quiet, safe place and the motivation of a teacher. (PEF-only school in rural area)

8.5. The lack of face-to-face contact was seen as a particular issue for the most vulnerable pupils, and the families most significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some noted the impact of poverty on pupil engagement and suggested that the poverty-related attainment gap is likely to have widened for some pupils despite the best efforts of schools.

It is far easier to work with identified pupils and ensure that they are learning when in school and face-to-face. Some of our poverty-affected families struggled to sustain engagement. For some, the gap will have widened despite all efforts made to maintain regular contact during school building closure. (PEF-only school in small town)

8.6. Headteachers also suggested that a lack of face-to-face contact was a challenge in terms of identifying and meeting parents’ needs. These respondents noted the difficulty of maintaining meaningful engagement with parents by remote means.

Many parents are experiencing real difficulty – it is a delicate balance between asking for parental support and adding to an already difficult situation. We rely on regular face-to-face meetings and home visits to support vulnerable families to engage. A phone call is too easy to ignore and passing this on to social work colleagues feels (for the families) like an escalation. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.7. Supporting pupil and family wellbeing was also highlighted as a challenge by a substantial number of schools. This included reference to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of pupils and families, with some schools having struggled to respond to the increased volume of mental health needs. This included some reporting difficulties accessing specialist support services during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Apart from the teaching and learning aspect, it is also difficult for children who rely on the emotional and social support they have in school (and perhaps do not have at home). Our children were also affected by limited access to Educational Psychologists and Speech and Language services. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.8. Some schools also referred to concerns for the safety of pupils required to spend extended periods in the home environment, and the challenges in providing the full range of support required by some pupils.

With the children being at home it is very difficult to continue to support them - socially, emotionally and physically. (Challenge Authority school in small town)

8.9. In addition to challenges for pupil engagement in learning, the lack of face-to-face contact was also seen as limiting the ability of schools to provide necessary support to families. Some suggested that there are limits to the role of technology in supporting families, and that video calls, for example, are no substitute for in-person engagement.

Physically being able to support families who are really struggling. TEAMS has helped to engage with pupils, but it is not the same as being at school. (Challenge Authority school in rural area)

8.10. Written comments also highlighted the central importance of teachers in providing support to pupils and families during school building closures. This included reference to a broad range of supports being provided, with some suggesting that teachers have been required to take on the role of specialist support providers in response to an increasing volume of support needs.

Teachers assumed the role of social worker during school building closures: dealing with domestic violence, financial poverty, delivering food and essentials to pupils and families, offering pastoral support to parents. (PEF-only school in urban area)

8.11. Other challenges referenced by respondents included difficulties adapting approaches to remote learning, digital connectivity limiting engagement with remote learning, and pressure on staffing skills and capacity. The main points raised by respondents are summarised below.

8.12. Around a third of respondents provided comment in relation to how they had responded to the challenges of COVID-19 and school building closures, and in particular any creative solutions they wished to share. The main points raised by respondents are summarised below.

Table 15: Creative responses to the challenges of COVID-19 and school building closures (n=134)
Theme % of comments
Maintaining communication, building relationships, pastoral care to pupils/families – including use of specific tools/resources 40%
Specific approaches and tools focused on wellbeing, nurture (including addressing the impact of deprivation) 23%
Ensuring a shared ethos and commitment across the school community 16%
Digital services and resources for learning 16%
Staff commitment, collaborative working, etc. 16%
Printed resources etc. for learning 13%
Targeting/engaging with specific groups, most vulnerable pupils/families 12%
Work with external services including community groups to provide additional support 7%
Staff skills development 6%
Tracking and feedback on attainment, progress 5%

8.13. Approaches to maintain communication and build relationships with pupils and families were the most commonly mentioned by these respondents. Some noted that they had dedicated significant resources to maintaining regular communication with pupils and families, including use of new technologies and tools to do so.

We have worked hard to maintain good communication with families. We provided resources to support families with digital learning, and check-in with families all the time during school building closure - it is so important that families do not feel isolated and have someone to talk to throughout these challenging times. Parents have appreciated the supports we can offer, and referral to other agencies. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.14. In addition to supporting remote learning, some also referred to the importance of ongoing communication in terms of providing the pastoral care required by the most vulnerable pupils and families. Some suggested that the positive relationships developed with families through regular communication had helped to develop the trust required to address wider support needs.

Regular pastoral calls to families and their children have really helped keep the connection between home and school. Showing empathy for families’ circumstances has built trust and confidence. (PEF-only school in urban area)

During school building closures we have tried to be a support to all families. We have had an expectation of schoolwork but have made it clear that it is not to the detriment to the emotional health and well-being to everyone in the household. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.15. Some respondents also suggested that the focus on building communication and relationships with families supported their wider school ethos. This included examples of headteachers indicating that they had emerged from school building closures with a strengthened school ethos and sense of community.

I feel our school community has come through this situation with our vision for transformation strengthened. Our collaboration and commitment to good learning is heightened and staff are focused on improving the learning experiences. We have worked to support our families and there is an increased sense of community and trust. The partners who work directly with pupils provide support for families and the impact can be seen in the learners. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.16. Respondents also referred to a range of approaches and tools with a focus on pupil and family wellbeing. Specific approaches identified as having been effective included shared reading, family quizzes and other activities, and regular challenge activities. Some also noted the value of these approaches in fostering a sense of community amongst families, for example through sharing of photographs and experiences.

Staff members read bedtime stories – this was welcomed. We had family quizzes on Facebook, and weekly challenges which involved families and the local community. We have a parents webpage allowing parents to share photos of different activities. (PEF-only school in small town)

8.17. Schools also reflected on the effectiveness of ‘champions’ and ‘ambassadors’. This included in terms of building capacity within schools to respond to mental health and wellbeing needs, and as identified contacts for pupils and families.

We have placed a significant focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our pupils. This included the appointment of a PT Wellbeing to champion both targeted and universal support for pupils. During periods of self-isolation pupils have been invited to virtual lunches and workouts with peers. Staff Wellbeing ambassadors have been trained and are active in the school as additional support for pupils. (Schools Programme school in small town)

8.18. Some schools indicated that their response to pupil and family wellbeing had involved a specific focus on supporting families experiencing deprivation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have sought to help families be more resilient. Our job has been to really target and support those who need the help to support themselves and their children. (PEF-only school in urban area)

8.19. A number of headteachers expressed a view that regular communication with families, and improved understanding of families’ circumstances and needs, had been of fundamental importance to their overall approach to pupil engagement. These schools highlighted the extent to which improved communication had been an effective means of identifying support needs, enabling schools to engage more effectively with pupils.

Setting up a gardening club for parents and their children gave our families the opportunity to continue to be involved in the life of the school. It has also had a positive impact on their mental health and well-being; being outdoors, a sense of community and feeling that they were making a valuable contribution to the school. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

I feel the focus on wellbeing was the best thing we did during the school building closure. This has been by far the biggest input into our recovery of learning levels and attainment so far. Focusing on families first as we can’t learn if we don’t feel safe and supported. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.20. Comments also highlighted a broad range of other approaches to the challenges of COVID-19 and school building closures. These included a particular focus on use of digital services and resources to support remote learning, including development of staff skills and capacity.

I am very proud of my teachers’ efforts during school building closures. A teacher with advanced ICT skills was able to share this to enhance skills across all staff. We were able to take advantage of regular training opportunities which would not normally be possible. This meant we were in a very good place to deal with the second lockdown and provide what we can for our families. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.21. The approaches noted above in relation to maintaining communication with pupils were also seen as crucial in building a sense of belonging across the school community, even as school buildings remained closed. Schools also referred to associated benefits for pupil attendance and engagement.

Our focus on positive relationships enabled a sense of belonging to continue even though remotely. Our work in relation to attendance and engagement has given us scope to upscale thinking to best respond to our young people’s and family needs. (PEF-only school in urban area)

8.22. The strengthening of school communities was also highlighted in relation to the continuing development of a positive school ethos. Several headteachers referred to their school’s shared ethos and values as vital elements in maintaining effective working relationships with pupils and families.

The school`s nurturing ethos and collegiate approach have stood us in good stead to tackle COVID-related challenges. Families have a good level of trust in the school and our approaches have been well received. (Challenge Authority school in urban area)

8.23. The importance of staff input was highlighted across multiple aspects of schools’ response to the challenges of COVID-19, and is also evident in the extent to which schools have used ASF support to increase staff skills and capacity. Written comments also reflected on the commitment and determination shown by teaching and support staff in responding to new challenges, and the extent to which schools’ success has relied on staff ‘going above and beyond’. This included in relation to working collaboratively to develop effective approaches, and taking the time required to engage meaningfully with pupils and families.

Staff commitment and determination stand out. Staff going above and beyond to engage with families, showing empathy and understanding. Staff taking time to problem solve, support, listen to and respond to the needs of our school community. As a school we have more of a focus on the mental health of staff, pupils and families. We hope this will help build our own resilience in dealing with recent challenges and support the resilience of our whole school community. (Challenge Authority school in small town)



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